Executive Director at the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
This month’s CivXNow member spotlight features Steven M. Rothstein, the Executive Director of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. Rothstein, who took the helm of the organization in 2016, was a leader in the formation of the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition (MCLC). MCLC, composed of civics education nonprofits, school districts, research institutions, and others invested in students’ civic learning, was instrumental in crafting and advocating for the sweeping civic education legislation passed in Massachusetts in 2018. Their work currently includes advocating for funding — both public and private — to support the implementation of the law, professional development for teachers, and civics projects. During the current FY20 state budget process, MCLC has spearheaded legislative outreach, hosted two lobby days at the state capitol, and had over 50 Massachusetts Legislators sign on to budget amendments to support these efforts.
Q: What was the genesis of forming the Massachusetts Civics Learning Coalition?
Rothstein: There had been a longstanding effort for many years to highlight the importance of civic education. Many groups — nonprofits, educational organizations, legislators — had concerns about the lack of civics education and knowledge, across the Commonwealth and beyond.
When I started at the Kennedy Library Foundation roughly three years ago, I met with many of them to find out what was happening, because civic education and engagement is an issue that is important to President Kennedy’s legacy and important to many of the programs that we operate. It was clear that there were lots of great people working on civic education, but that the work was happening in silos. So several of us — Louise Dubè, of iCivics, Generation Citizen, and I — brought people together and asked, “What if we started a coalition to bring people together to work on the project together with a collective voice?”
Q: What steps did you take next?
Rothstein: We started with a small group and reached out to more and more groups, mostly nonprofits and some school districts, to see if they would join us. And then as we got a critical mass of groups, we met with legislators and set priorities, particularly on getting legislation through, but also on supporting the effort to establish the new history and social studies framework that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was working on.
Q: What was the role of JFK Library Foundation in the coalition?
Rothstein: The purpose was to make sure the variety of organizations — whether they were legislative, state agencies, or private funders — spoke with a single voice so that people understand that in addition to all of the work that individual groups do, which is great, that collectively there is a clear unified voice here.
Q: Why was this movement important to the JFK Library Foundation?
Rothstein: We have been working on education for decades. President Kennedy believed strongly in people getting involved in society and making a difference, whether it’s volunteering in neighborhood voting or signing up for the Peace Corps. And fundamentally people aren’t going to get involved if they don’t understand the system and how to be involved. So building people’s understanding is critical.
Q: How did the coalition function in terms of getting legislation passed?
Rothstein: We were very active. We met with individual legislators, and then met with the legislative staff together. Legislators and their staff worked on compromises internally. So instead of having roughly a dozen bills, they coalesced around a particular bill. And then we organized lobby days at the State House to engage people in further advocacy.
It included helping legislators come together, supporting them when they did, and then actively lobbying to ensure that the proposed legislation continued to receive attention.
Q: What were some of the key steps and then some of the obstacles you had to overcome?
Rothstein: One key step was sharing information — putting together fact sheets and memos so that people had the same information. Another was suggesting tactics. There were a lot of members who hadn’t necessarily engaged in lobbying or other advocacy before. So we had to help them understand the best way to do that.
Some of the obstacles stem from the fact that this is a very complicated field, with groups doing great work but operating in very different ways. The groups involved in the coalition coalesced to make sure there was a common identity.
Q: Could you talk about some of the more difficult moments?
Rothstein: I won’t be specific, but I can say that each of the groups has their own perspective, and each is very important. So the challenge was finding a way to support their work but to also have a broader shared agenda. Some of the questions we discussed were: What is the role of classroom work? What is the role of action civics? How should we address issues across the Commonwealth? How do we reach some of the poorer communities? So there were a lot of important but competing agendas during the process.
Q: How did you overcome those obstacles?
Rothstein: It came down to helping people understand that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts. Everyone — iCivics, Generation Citizen, The Kennedy Library Foundation, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, and so many other groups — they all continue to advocate for themselves. But no one group has the resources, the time, the personnel, to address everything that it takes to work with the State House, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and to address other needs in the field. We had to make sure that we worked together to share those responsibilities and to collectively have one voice.
For example, right now we are offering some comments on a proposed plan for civic education in the state. And we have eight or nine groups that have commented on a Google Doc, and each added useful points. Any single group alone wouldn’t be able to offer all those perspectives. Our success has stemmed from figuring out that the sum of the parts is bigger — and having every group contribute some effort.
As in any coalition, some groups are more leaders and some contribute fewer resources.
Q: Do you have any recommendations for other groups looking to form coalitions in other states?
Rothstein: When I was leading a lot of the meetings, I took off my institutional hat. In other words, there were some points that I could have promoted that would have been better, at least in the short term, for my own organization, but that I didn’t push for because they didn’t serve the whole coalition well. If you are going to lead a coalition, the priority has to be on that role and to bring people together. In any particular initiative, you may want a little more of something or a little less of something, but I think it is more important to have as broad a group as possible and to find common ground. You’re not going to be able to have everything, but you can find that common ground. Also, it’s important to set some measurable goals — and to work toward them, goals such as seeing legislation through, getting a grant, publishing an article, so that people see success. Success begets success. When people see things happening, it energizes more people to get involved. And it’s also important to be very transparent, very open so that everyone shares important information.
Share insights from Steven on social media:
President Kennedy believed strongly in people getting involved in society and making a difference… fundamentally people aren’t going to get involved if they don’t understand the system… So building people’s understanding is critical. -Steven M. Rothstein, @JFKLibrary #CivXNow
If you are going to lead a coalition, the priority has to be on that role and to bring people together…Success begets success. When people see things happening, it energizes more people to get involved. -Steven M. Rothstein, @JFKLibrary#CivXNow @MAcivics4all
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Post originally from Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019 CivXNow Coalition Newsletter.