Start with your story

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Every great story has some similar key elements. You must have strong central characters, an enduring storyline and, of course, the plot. The American community college provides these in the most impactful way on each of our campuses, and it is our responsibility and privilege as leaders to tell that story to all who will listen.

Advocacy for the betterment and advancement of your institution starts with your college’s story. Advocating for various initiatives, funding, bonds and programs is not the sole responsibility of your government relations person, or your president, chancellor or even your board members. It is yours. Regardless of your position, you can and should be advocating for your institution. And this starts with telling the unique story of your campus.

Crafting the story

Oregon’s Blue Mountain Community College recently hosted a town hall for one of our members of Congress who was touring the state as part of the August recess. People from several regional communities came to campus to ask questions and hear what is happening in Washington, D.C. These kinds of opportunities are always valuable. Host a representative or senator, federal or state, whenever you can. It provides a wonderful window for that elected official into what is happening beyond what they read and hear in news reports.

This article comes from the October/November issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

The hidden gem comes from the interactions those same representatives and senators can have with the members of your campus community. Faculty, staff, students — all have a unique perspective of the story of your college. Give them the chance to tell that story through their eyes, through their experiences and your advocacy efforts will make remarkable gains.

The effectiveness of storytelling in advocacy and leadership is a powerful tool when put to work in concert with a comprehensive communications plan. Work those various groups you need to hear your story as a standalone audience. Legislators, members of Congress, locally elected officials, business and industry partners, registered voters for a bond or levy effort, alumni, current students, even potential students need to hear your story of how you are advocating for the advancement of your college.

Identify these audiences and work with your communications and marketing teams to craft the essential elements of your story. Who are your main characters? What is the storyline and how does the plot develop? What is the point of conflict or decision? How does the audience play a role? As you refine these storytelling points, build supporting materials and examples that reinforce the story and, most importantly, existing and potential positive outcomes.

Everyone is a storyteller

When William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, created two divisions effectively creating the American community college in the late 19th century and early 20th, he and several other leading educators of the time set about telling the story of “why” and “how.” Why was this division between the first two years of postsecondary education and the latter two needed? How would it proceed? They told their story. They advocated. As a result, one of the most remarkable American innovations was realized: the modern community college.

Many of our colleagues say, “I’m not a storyteller, I leave that to the communications people or the president.” Like the reluctant character in an evolving story, these faculty, staff, board members, alumni and current students can be the most effective voices to advocate for the needs of our institutions. Give them the tools to be successful. Short sessions during fall in-service meetings, department meetings, any opportunity to sit down together, to explain what is happening, what is being asked, why those funds or policy change are needed to move the work forward and how it impacts the success of students and student outcomes. Once informed and shown how campus initiatives tie into a person’s individual area and work, these reluctant characters in our story can and do come to life.

Now it is up to us as leaders and educators to tell the story of how and why, and, most importantly, who. Who is and should always be at the center of our story? It is our students, especially students in underserved and underrepresented groups are depending on us to tell that story, to advocate and to create campus environments that lead to opportunity for a better future for all who come to us.

If we don’t tell their story and advocate for what is needed to help them find success, who will?

About the Author

J. Mark Browning
Dr. J. Mark Browning is president of Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon.