Column Underscores Why Advocates Need Stories

Early Childhood

In December, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof knocked the advocacy community back on its heels with a column asserting that “America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.” Last week, a critique of Kristof’s column by The Times’ Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, reminded me to reread his original column. And from an advocacy communications perspective, it’s a reminder of the importance of personal stories.

Ms. Sullivan cites a well-researched, fact-driven response to Kristof’s column. And she concludes that he should have tried harder to find a first-hand source for his assertions about the connection between government anti-poverty initiatives and parents’ motivations. And there are other legitimate questions about the column. Did he overstate or misunderstand the correlation between marriage and child poverty? Did direct service providers do enough to make the case for public initiatives they strongly support?

But if you set those defensive questions aside, the column is still a powerful indictment, and it’s based mostly on individual people’s stories. A school official here and a community organization manager there, and the column paints a compelling picture of well-intentioned folly that costs kids and taxpayers alike.

If we’re to contend in public debates, advocates should take a lesson from Kristof and communicate through the power of individual experience. Saying that half the Americans who get their health care through Medicaid are children is important. So is telling the story of one child who’s able to stay in school and on track for graduation because Medicaid finally helped her get her asthma under control.

The National Head Start Association does a great job of telling stories. Their Facebook page is a collage of parents and kids talking about how Head Start made their lives better. Each story is a compelling reminder that Head Start budget cuts hurt real people. That message isn’t lost on Kristof, who wrote a January column lauding Head Start’s lifelong benefits.

It isn’t easy. As advocacy organizations, we don’t have the same easy access to “real people” that our direct service counterparts do. At First Focus, we try to partner when we can with strong, smart grassroots organizations like MomsRising to help us close that gap.

But whether it’s through partnerships or cultivating our own grassroots networks, it’s important that we keep trying. Because, as Nick Kristof’s column shows, making the case for investments in children – or effectively defending those investments – requires both the intellectual stability of hard data and the emotional power of personal stories.