Female Nonprofit Activists Learn to Influence Legislation First-Hand - Women's Foundation California

Michelle Gienow, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 8, 2014—Since the Women’s Policy Institute was started 11 years ago, its nearly 300 fellows have helped shape 50 new measures that were considered by the California legislature—20 of which were passed and signed into law. In 2013 alone, Gov. Jerry Brown approved three bills that the institute’s fellows had worked on, including the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which guarantees overtime pay to caregivers and housekeepers.

The institute was started in 2002 as an offshoot of the Women’s Foundation of California, a way to give the activists it supported hands-on training in shaping legislative policy by working on live bills in Sacramento, the state’s capital.

“Our grass-roots leaders already understood the needs and challenges of their constituents, but there was a gap in how to then create actual systemic change,” says Nikole Collins-Puri, director of programs at the foundation.

Sierra Harris, assistant director of Access Women’s Health Justice, an organization in Oakland, Calif., that seeks to protect reproductive rights, was a fellow two years ago. Though the bill Ms. Harris worked on, which would have repealed California’s cap on the number of children for which a family can receive welfare assistance, ultimately died in committee, she calls the learning process “transformational.”

Ms. Harris says that the fellowship was valuable professionally as well. “I learned skills of coalition building and communication, how to have difficult but productive conversations with people of very, very different mind-sets from my own,” she says. “These are skills I can bring to any organization, anywhere.”

This year, the Women’s Policy Institute will offer two new fellowship programs, each accommodating 35 new fellows. The current fellowship is supported by grants from the Walter S. Johnson and Blue Shield foundations and supplemented by individual donors.

Of the new programs, which are expected to cost about $300,000 each annually, the California Endowment is underwriting one and the Women’s foundation is raising money for the second.

The expansion program supported by the California Endowment will resemble the institute’s state legislative training, this time at the county level. The program was created after the Institute’s leaders realized one gap in their efforts—that state legislation is most often put in place at the county level, “a very different milieu requiring a very specific skill set, so we need local policy experts who can teach to this,” says Ms. Collins-Puri.

The other new program will bring back fellowship alumnae for a second year to focus specifically on budget advocacy. Passing legislation is merely a first step; the new policy then needs to move through the budget process, which allocates how it is actually paid for and carried out.

“We had been teaching this as part of the normal fellowship but simply weren’t able to touch deeply enough on such a critical issue,” says Ms. Collins- Puri, noting that effective budget advocacy is essential to the success of any policy or program.

Ms. Harris is returning for a second fellowship in the new budget-advocacy program. “This is really not easy work. It is challenging and takes a strong commitment, and I’ve learned the hard way that it does not work overnight,” she says. “But I’ve also learned that it’s how real change happens—and that I love it!”

See the scan of the original print article.

This work is powered by you.

The feminist future we are building together in California is going to be built by all of us sharing our time, our money, and our skills.  Please consider contributing today.

Together We Are Unstoppable.

Sign up here to join our mailing list and receive updates about our programs, partnerships, and more!