Partners (Number 2, 2008)

Spotlight on the District

South Florida: Miami Advocates Find Opportunity in Risk

The Human Services Coalition (HSC), was born in 1995 in response to welfare reform initiatives that were gaining momentum in Congress. While welfare reform promised to deliver job training, placement, work supports and educational access in an era of low unemployment, advocates worried that dismantling the social safety net system would leave low-income families with inadequate access to basic services.

Risk, however, was paired with a corresponding opportunity. HSC's founders believed the promise of welfare reform could only be realized through a combination of service and advocacy. They envisioned an organization that would not only connect people to economic support programs and financial counseling, but also create avenues for active engagement in democratic civic life. The goal was to encourage those directly affected by the programs to work along with other concerned citizens.

After several years piloting new approaches, HSC developed two innovative and effective programs: the Prosperity Campaign and Civic Life Academy. Both address the need to provide economic opportunity as well as a means to participate in policymaking.

A third program, Imagine Miami, is emerging to create opportunities for "civic networking." The HSC program bears the working title Center for Social Innovation and is designed to develop sustainable social enterprises to address community and civic concerns.

The Prosperity Campaign links low- and moderate-income households with income supports (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit) and other services that bolster income. In addition, it invites clients to become engaged in community and civic life.

HSC found that activating and sustaining civic involvement calls for a variety of approaches to meet individual needs, interests and preferences. The Civic Life Academy answers this need by providing multiple pathways for individuals to get involved in their own advocacy and sustain this involvement.

Participants in the Civic Life Academy move from basic to more advanced skills as they engage in positive actions that help sustain their involvement in the program. Individuals seeking prosperity services are encouraged to tell their stories as a vehicle for personal expression, validation and empowerment. Many of these powerful "stories of truth and hope" are featured on websites and other media and are offered as public testimony to policy makers.

Those involved in the Academy then join leadership programs such as the Neighborhood Leadership Program, Parent Leadership Training Institute and Public Allies, which provides leadership training for young people. Additional skills and policy are taught through Advocacy Corps Training and Project Development and Management programs.

HSC is proud to be a pioneer in creating an integrated service-advocacy approach that teaches individuals to be effectively involved in both our economy and democracy. The organization, which began as a committee of the Miami Dade League of Women Voters, is now an independent nonprofit.

This article was written by Daniella Levine, Executive Director, Human Services Coalition.