Coalitions are not only the key to moving issues forward, they’re essential to reducing unintended consequences. They can also be fraught and pose numerous challenges. Below are some questions to ask and challenges to plan for in order to build and maintain a successful coalition.

What Are the Benefits

There are many reasons to build a robust and diverse coalition for advocacy work, including.

  • Diverse skillsets and capacities at the table. Whether it’s how to engage community, how to read a bill, knowledge on the challenges of accessing state funding, issues specific to migrant sex workers – no one knows everything, but together we know a lot. Our movement functions better when diverse stakeholders can come to the table and share their expertise.
  • Diverse experiences mean less unintended consequences. Change impacts every group differently. There may be policy nuances that you won’t know to look for if you don’t have multiple groups at the table. Are you reducing penalties to something that may still get someone deported? Is the phrasing of our outreach going to make a certain group feel alienated? The more perspectives, the more likely everyone is to identify unintended consequences from the outset.
  • Not every policy maker has the same priorities. For a legislator who has made their name on civil liberties, having a local ACLU involved matters. Not everyone hears the message best from the same messengers, and having diverse groups means you speak with authority to more people.
  • Tax designations. Lobbying is a specific term which can pose challenges for non profits. Knowing which groups are allowed to lobby, which groups are not, and which groups have to be careful about how much can mean moving funding, capacity and tasks through people and groups strategically.

Who can access the meetings? Information? Places where decisions are made?

Not every member of a coalition is going to have the same accessibility needs. Prioritize the needs of impacted groups, which may mean moving spaces, having meetings at times which aren’t comfortable for everyone, or even having multiple meetings. Does your building require an ID to get in? Is there a nearby space to smoke or do you have to leave a 20 floor building? Being intentional about accessibility needs from the outset can mean more participation in the long term. If the place where the strategy and priorities are knocked out happens in a space that isn’t accessible, that means some people will be left out of the process.

What are the relationships?

One of the challenges that can occur is to have service providers AND people who access services in the same space. This can make it difficult to share candid information, or even mean some people can’t be in the room. Be transparent about what the restrictions are going in, and let each group determine what’s possible in order to anticipate challenges before they occur.

This may also pose challenges around the disclosure of information. People who access services may not be able to share information freely. Service providers may not feel comfortable sharing information with community members. People who regularly lobby may share sensitive information about policymakers’ offices which can’t be shared publicly. Confidentiality and boundaries may not be intuitive processes for everyone.

The last, and very important, question is that of youth. Minors (under 18) who trade sex meet the definition of a victim of trafficking. People who facilitate that commercial exchange meet the requirements for a trafficker. Many service providers may be mandatory reporters if information about a young person disclosing that they are currently engaged in sex work. Make sure everyone is clear on young people’s participation, the limits of disclosure about circumstances, and who would be asked by the state to disclose that information.

Who is in your coalition?

Tell us about this office. You can find out what your Rep or Senator cares about on their website, and by how much they champion different issues. Sex workers’ rights falls into a lot of different issue areas, and can be described in a lot of different ways, so this will help you guide your talking points. Your coalition may include:

  • Community-based groups
  • Sex workers who do not identify with those groups
  • Service Providers
  • Legal services organizations
  • Departments of health or medical practitioners
  • Civil Rights Groups
  • Staff from digital advertisers
  • LGBTQ, women’s rights groups, reproductive justice groups, HIV organizations or other advocacy organizations
  • Student organizations

Step 1: Common Goals and parameters

Identify the reasons for your coalition in explicit detail. Passing a law and changing the circumstances on the ground are not the same. If the end of the group comes when you pass a bill, then it will not be around for implementation or assessment. If your group wants to change practices, it may not be the ultimate goal to pass a decriminalization bill if the practice of arresting sex workers stops. Don’t assume!

Further, everyone’s work goes on outside of coalitional spaces. Some organizations work with people and on topics that cause friction. If an LGBTQ group is working on non-discrimination provisions with a women’s group who is End Demand, is that something to talk about? Anti-trafficking groups who provide services all have some level of relationship with law enforcement. Discuss all of these ahead of time and explicitly outline your parameters.

Step 2: Define your values, and value what you bring

Values are not as intuitive as we think they are, and not disclosing this early on can quickly lead to challenges. Here’s a quick step by step workshop on how to identify shared and differing values.

Also look at how those principles are going to be part of the day to day work of your coalition. If your values are anti-oppression or uplifting impacted voices, how does that change your meetings or who coordinates these efforts? Some groups value transparency first while others value the creation of a safe space – does that mean your meeting notes are public? Values are just words before they have action behind them.

Step 3: Define expectations and roles

Just like a session with a new client, clarity around expectations about what people will do and bring to the table averts a lot of challenges later. Be transparent around what everyone expects from each other and write it down. Make it clear that you can’t get mad at someone for something they didn’t know they were supposed to do.

Clarifying what people bring to the table is also important – an online escort’s lived experience is essential, just as the ability to understand what a proposed piece of legislation says, just as the expertise of the legislative process, just as the lived experience of a person who was in court-mandated services who was helped by the experience, just as the experience of working with a wide range of clients in court. Everyone should be cognizant of their expertise and their limitations – and all of those have to be honored and valued.

Step 4: Design your decision making to reflect your values.

There are many kinds of decision making forms for coalitions. Does everyone get a vote? Does everyone get the same weight in their vote? How fast do decisions have to be made? Is it a majority, a super majority, or a consensus? The Sylvia Rivera Law Project has a guide on their approach to grassroots community organizing, and a discussion on their decision making models begin on page 12.

Step 5: Plan for conflict

There will be disagreements in every coalition. If you don’t have disagreements, you’re probably in an echo chamber. Plan ahead for how those conflicts will be addressed, as well as whether this includes conflicts between groups that occur outside of the coalition space. For example, if you are working with a shelter and one of your community members acts out in a way which leads to the police being called by a staff member, how does that impact your organizing together?

Step 6: Write it all down

Coalitions working on long-term projects mean turn over. You will not end your project with the same people who began it. Write down all of these things in a Memo of Understanding (MOU) that you can refer back to, update annually, and share with new folks to know what the expectations are, and have everyone new sign on.

Step 7: Revisit your agreements as necessary

Coalitions are living organisms, and the plan that you start with is probably not going to be the plan that you end with. Establish a time where everyone will re-visit the agreements and see what’s working or what’s a challenge – in six months? A year? When your coalition reaches a certain level of membership? When your work reaches a certain milestone? Plan ahead for when you should check in!