Behind the Scenes at Lobby Day
It was too early to be awake, too cold to be outside, and definitely too early and too cold to be heading to Albany. And yet, all across the City, dozens of settlement house executive directors and their staff rolled out of bed to join UNH on our annual pilgrimage to the state capital. A rite of passage of sorts for nonprofit providers and advocates, the nearly three-hour trip to Albany is a necessary journey for those hoping to bend the arc of the state budget toward greater investment in human services.
Just a few weeks ago the Governor released his Executive Budget—his first sketch of how he thinks the state should spend some $145 billion—and as usual, it’s a mixed bag for settlement houses. Progressive policy proposals that would benefit our communities? Absolutely: plans to boost the minimum wage, reform the juvenile justice system, implement paid family leave, pass the DREAM Act and improve voter access to the ballot all fall into the "win" column. A budget that prioritizes key services for children, youth, immigrants, older adults and the stability of the nonprofit sector? Not so much. And so there we found ourselves, on the crowded 7:15 a.m. Amtrak train to Albany, reviewing logistics and troubleshooting the last-minute scheduling issues that invariably arise when matching 40 people to nearly 70 meetings over the course of two days.
Bleary eyes aside, the trip to Albany can be quite beautiful if you aren’t a newbie and know to sit on the left-hand side of the train on the way up to soak in the views of the Hudson. The fact that one of our team baked New York State-shaped cookies for everyone to munch on as they review talking points almost makes the whole thing pleasant.
Albany. Sadly, the seat of our state government is often thought to be a place that generally ought to be avoided. Still, for all of the theater, we know that the vast majority of people in state government are there to do the work of the people, and so we and the communities we serve being the people, go.
So there we were at the Capitol building, each of us eleven dollars and some change poorer since the Albany taxi industry has not yet adopted the concept of a collective fare. We have an important message that needs to be spread, and it’s really a simple one: if New York State is to honor its responsibility to meet the needs of the people, if it is to tap the potential of under-resourced populations, if it is to build strong and prosperous neighborhoods and communities, then it needs to invest in the development of children and youth by providing early learning opportunities and after-school programs, it needs to promote the integration and success of immigrants by providing English language classes, and it needs support the dignified aging of older adults by providing health and wellness services. And if it is to deliver all these programs with any degree of quality and efficiency, it needs to invest in the overall stability of the contracted nonprofit human services sector. In short, our message is that people matter. Budgets need to be balanced, for sure. Proverbial “hard choices” must be made, no doubt. But let them not be at the expense of those with the least power, the greatest need and biggest potential.
And so we got to work. We met with state agency commissioners, legislative conference leaders, committee chairs, and with “the second floor”—shorthand for the Governor’s most senior representatives. We engaged in the poker-like ritual of dealing business cards around the table and then launched into our presentations. We talked about our experiences on the ground serving communities and made earnest arguments for investment in the programs we’ve identified as particularly effective. We handed off our one-pagers that sometimes bled to two, our charts and graphs and maps, our glossy folders, reports and business cards. All in the hopes that after we’re gone, after the corridors of the LOB clear out and the elevators are again a viable mode of transport, the people we’ve met with won’t forget that we were there. That in those moments of candid connection, they discovered or reaffirmed the necessity of their leadership on behalf of New Yorkers who don’t get to sit at the table when the budget is being carved up.
It was a hectic day as we trekked back and forth between the Capitol, Legislative Office Building and off-site agency offices. Some of us had a chance to break for a quick bite in the cafeteria, and others lamented that they overlooked my gentle suggestion they pack a snack. Still, as the hours wear on our messaging becomes more refined and more efficient. Our teams were gelling and in a groove, but we were also tired, and so eventually we retreated back to the hotel. Over dinner we listened to remarks from a member of the Governor’s administration. We discussed poverty and data, programs and contracts, and generally conclude that all is not lost: the administration hears our message, understands it, and may even act on it. As the evening wore on, the reality of nonprofit leadership took over as phones came out and urgent voicemails were returned, board meetings were prepared for and the deluge of unread emails slowly shrank. Soon enough it was off to bed, and it’s a good thing, because the next day we did it all over again.
After the last notes were scribbled and the last handshakes made, we were on our way back to the train station. Our colleagues from Syracuse, Rochester and Albany piled into their cars and we waved them off. At that point, my first order of business was, of course, scoring a bowl of mac and cheese; aside from the Governor and legislature not fulfilling our agenda, my biggest fear was that I would be rushed onto the train without lunch. That taken care of, and remembering to sit on the right side of the train for the return trip, I gazed out over the river briefly before cracking open my laptop. After all, we had just completed 66 meetings and it would be impolite not to say thank you.
Kevin Douglas is the co-director of policy and advocacy for United Neighborhood Houses.
This post originally appeared on UNH's blog.