Jonah Edelman

Ashoka Fellow
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United States
Fellow Since 2007
This description of Jonah Edelman's work was prepared when Jonah Edelman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007 .

Introduction

Jonah Edelman is creating a voice for the silent among us—children—by enabling citizen leaders to help children get the excellent public education and support they need to thrive. Framing child advocacy as a 21st century civil rights issue, Jonah aims to create an independent, non-partisan voice for children. He teaches members to understand the dynamics of political power, training them to elect pro-children legislators; initiate and pass statewide ballot measures to meet children’s needs; and press elected leaders and the electorate to invest in children.

The New Idea

Children don’t vote, lobby, or make campaign contributions. They lack the political power to persuade elected officials to meet their fundamental needs. Jonah is harnessing the collective power of parents, grandparents, and other concerned adults to make children a top political priority. He founded Stand for Children (SFC) to provide everyday people the structure, support, and strength in numbers needed to win concrete, long-lasting improvements for children. Jonah aims to give every child a fair chance in life by creating an independent, non-partisan voice for children and enabling SFC’s members to advocate effectively for quality public schools and the safety and healthy development of children. He frames this as a 21st century civil rights issue.

Jonah believes that concerned citizens must first reverse the erosion in public support for education and related issues that are critical to the ability of children to learn and thrive. He is building effective local and statewide grassroots organizations with the staying power needed to turn around long-standing public apathy and challenge the powerful interest groups—teacher’s unions, school administrators, developers, and anti-tax groups—who have a vested interest in the status quo.

Jonah is organizing many thousands of children’s advocates into a sustained, disciplined “unstoppable force” whose members understand and can shift the dynamics of political power to elect pro-children legislators; initiate and pass statewide ballot measures to meet children’s needs; and press elected leaders and the electorate to invest in children.

The Problem

While countries around the world are increasing their investment in education, the U.S. is losing the competitive edge it has long enjoyed. Among industrialized countries it ranks sixteenth in secondary school graduation rates and twelfth in college graduation rates. The U.S. ranked twentieth out of twenty-one on a recent UNICEF survey assessing the well-being of children in rich nations.

Of students in ninth grade today, only 68 percent will graduate on time; of those, only 40 percent will enroll directly in college (two-thirds will have to take remedial courses); and only 27 percent will still be enrolled the following year. In addition, only 18 percent of these students will leave college with the level of education required for a job with a future. Of the 13 million children growing up in poverty, only about 50 percent will graduate from high school. (Those that do graduate will perform on average at an eighth-grade level.) The National Youth Employment Coalition links these dropout rates directly to the strength of our economy, the safety of our communities, and the life prospects of so many of our youth. Without an informed citizenry of individuals who can think critically and articulate their views, the future of our democracy is at risk.

From 2002 to 2006, Massachusetts saw some of the largest school funding cuts in the country. In Oregon, citizens saw $1 billion cut from classrooms and Head Start funding limited to just over 50 percent of eligible children. Many states have a “boom or bust” spending and cutting approach to education budgets.

Children don’t fare well in the democratic process because they can’t help or hurt an elected official’s reelection prospects. Parents and others committed to the education and healthy development of children, are not organized into a voting bloc, so they, too, lack power. Children’s advocacy groups have failed to develop the political clout needed to shift the balance of power and secure the resources and policy reforms that children need. Most are 501(c)(3)s, a tax status that limits lobbying activities and prohibits them from working to elect particular candidates. This also limits their ability to hold elected officials accountable for their actions on children’s issues. Until SFC, no children’s organization had successfully organized parents and other concerned community members into a constituency with both the political power and staying power needed to influence local and state-level candidate races.

Organizations working on behalf of children have not been able to sustain their efforts from one issue or political administration to the next. Typically they issue e-mail alerts to a large database and mobilize people to show up at the State Capitol on a certain day or to rally around a particular issue. Those tactics don’t build the political power needed to be a force for legislators to consider and work with when forming their agendas (as they do with unions, for example). Without that power, these organizations can’t provide the support elected leaders need to press for major reforms over the opposition of powerful interest groups. Children’s advocates are generally no match for powerful lobbies and interest groups, including the educational establishment that resists state mandates regardless of their benefit to children.

Parents struggle to organize because they are not a cohesive, focused, or politically active constituency. Parents may volunteer in or fundraise for their child’s school, and mobilize around “close to home” issues like school boundaries. But few parents feel equipped to effect systemic changes that significantly improves their children’s school experience. To find the quality education they seek, middle-class parents often move to the suburbs or enroll their children in private schools.

The Strategy

Jonah is creating a political force made up of children’s champions—parents and grandparents first, but also teachers and other concerned community members. SFC builds the individual and collective ability of these committed adults to change local, state, and eventually national priorities by mobilizing large numbers of people to elect and support pro-schools candidates. The organization makes sure that its members are well prepared to stand their ground in the public square and in meetings with elected officials. Working in local Chapters, members choose an issue, find an effective achievable solution, then engage decision-makers and use the electoral process to win support for the solution. Addressing one issue at a time, they lobby, help pass ballot initiatives and elect candidates committed to improving children’s educational opportunities and well-being. To win consistently, the Chapters base their positions on solid information and real political power.

Jonah is the National Executive Director of SFC, which currently has affiliates in Oregon, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington, and expects to add three to six new affiliates in the next three years as well as begin lobbying on federal issues. Each state affiliate has an Executive Director, organizers, and a small support staff, and each affiliate raises its own budget plus a fee to pay part of the cost of services provided by SFC’s national staff. Stand forms new affiliates with start-up support from foundations and major donors—in the case of Washington, the Gates Foundation provided three years of funding at a declining level each year to ensure diversification of funding sources. The Stand for Children Leadership Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that works with a 501(c)(4) companion organization, Stand for Children. SFC has formed state-based Political Action Committees in three of its four affiliate states. SFC recruits people with shared values and helps them use the democratic process to win important victories for children. The Leadership Center builds the capacity, engagement, and impact of citizen leaders for the long-term. With training and support, individuals with latent leadership potential become central to the success of their Chapter and of Stand’s statewide effort. Prospective leaders need only have passion for the well-being of children, a nascent political orientation, and a willingness to learn. Staff organizers teach every Stand leader to communicate effectively, recruit and mobilize members, and manage the Chapter Teams they form, and every leader is taught key basics about politics and education policymaking in their state. In addition, Stand sets a high bar for membership participation in organizational decision-making; to take on a new issue 50 percent of members in a community or state must vote and 80 percent of the members who vote must be supportive.

By combining rigorous, personalized training and coaching with a high bar for membership participation in organizational decision-making, Stand not only develops committed, skilled leaders but also builds a high level of ownership among its members.

Stand is primarily organizing the middle-class to impact problems that affect all children, and have disproportionately profound effect on poor children. While reaching out to include people in low-income communities (waiving dues to remove that barrier), Jonah operates in community organizer Saul Alinsky’s lexicon, as a “realistic radical” who works within the system to change it. Jonah’s strategy is to build a strong membership; identify solutions to broadly and deeply felt children’s issues; engage decision-makers; and use the electoral process effectively to win support. The power to shape educational policy and school funding resides primarily in state legislatures. Scaling up requires the capacity to impact state policies, so Stand spreads by opening a state office that can build local Chapters throughout a state. New states must be politically strategic in the national context, and have opportunities for significant local impact; a solid pool of potential staff; and the ability to supervise those staff.

Each Chapter begins with a kickoff event at which Stand helps recruit the Chapter’s founding members. This is followed by Team-building: Team Coordinators, each of whom volunteer one to two hours per week, recruit least ten members connected either by a school or congregation; a neighborhood; or a personal network. The largest Team has roughly eighty members. Teams are a venue for members to build community, learn, and take part in meaningful local actions. Volunteer leaders are guided and supporters by Stand organizers through each step and routinely receive follow-up calls for accountability and support. A Chapter handbook spells out everything from how to run an effective meeting (don’t spend time on updates, use the time to take action and get input), to goal setting (constantly assess with no blame or shame) and working with the media (how to get all types of coverage). A Strategy Team with delegates from each Team reviews the suggestions and chooses one unifying issue and achievable solution for the entire Chapter. Then the Chapter takes action—which may involve lobbying appropriate decision-makers, using the electoral process, or both—to win support for the solution.

At Stand, research rules. Every action is based on thorough research, so members are confident in the information and arguments they make. This fuels members’ loyalty and ensures their credibility when recruiting prospective members or seeking decision makers’ support. Good research has also helped Stand build a consistent, winning record. As a volunteer leader said, “Effectiveness is energizing!” Evaluation is another core principle: Stand staff profess never to pursue a strategy once it has proven ineffective.

Stand develops a legislative campaign strategy with specific voter outreach goals in key districts. In Oregon, this shifted the state legislature to a pro-schools majority for the first time in sixteen years. To address overcrowded schools Stand prevailed over the powerful Oregon Homebuilders Association which opposed charging developers a school impact fee when issuing a building permit. The homebuilders had defeated similar bills for years. When Stand lined up a majority of state senators to vote for its bill, the homebuilders proposed a compromise construction tax that raised $60 million per year for school facilities. Stand members accepted the compromise since it yielded the same amount they had sought.

Since 1999, working in four states, SFC victories at the state and local levels have helped over 3 million children by leveraging important education reforms and nearly $2 billion for schools and other pro-children programs. Stand has helped win hundreds of millions of dollars of school funding increases in Massachusetts alone; and in Tennessee, Stand has helped secure $20 million in state funding to provide 250 new pre-K classrooms for 5,000 at-risk four-year-olds. In Oregon, Stand played a key role persuading the legislature to invest hundreds of millions of additional dollars in classrooms, enabling Oregon school districts to reduce class size, and/or restore art, music, and PE programs. Stand’s Oregon affiliate has also helped to implement a statewide mentoring program for new teachers and principals, approve increased funding for Head Start, and eliminate candy and soda pop from schools.

Stand is constantly solidifying its model, and significantly increasing the number of people participating in its Chapter and state organizations. This is positioning the organization to win bigger victories for children in current states, and expand into “swing states” strategically targeted to increase national impact.

The Person

Born and raised primarily in Washington, D.C., Jonah and his two brothers grew up in a household frequented by the “who’s who” of our times. His mother, Marian, an iconic figure in the social justice field, founded and leads the nation’s largest children’s advocacy organization, and his law professor father, Peter, an anti-poverty activist, author, and scholar, served the Clinton Administration as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services. Like his parents, Jonah is passionate about achieving social justice, and is hard-wired to achieve. His parents sent a clear message that it’s appropriate to lead.

Jonah excelled at sports and earned straight A’s, knowing his parents expected him to attend a top college. Graduating from Yale in 1992, Jonah went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, where in three years he earned Masters and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in politics.

In 1996, at age twenty-five, Jonah organized a SFC rally in Washington, D.C. on behalf of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). More than 300,000 people attended the largest demonstration of support for children in U.S. history. But after the rally, Jonah asked, “Now what?” He was urged to work within CDF, but chose to start his own organization. He met Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, an expert in grassroots organizing and child advocacy, who became his mentor and friend. Jonah studied membership associations, child advocacy organizations, and community organizing. In 1999, with the support of Portland-based business entrepreneur Gun Denhart, he moved to Oregon to test a new model combining a membership organization with an advocacy organization to build real political power.

Professor Ganz describes Stand as an evangelical model that relies on participants who can tell the story to get other people engaged. Not coincidentally, Jonah’s maternal grandfather was a pastor in South Carolina, and the leader of a ministerial alliance. His dad’s grandfather was a rabbi and scholar.

Jonah loves learning about people who build organizations—the risks they took and lessons they learned. He appreciates the incredible exposure he’s had to social entrepreneurs, activists, and agents of change. Jonah sees his highest and best use as building enduring power by teaching people how to lead.

Jonah met his wife, a lawyer, through a SFC Chapter leader who belonged to the same synagogue and recruited her as a Stand volunteer. The couple married on New Year’s Eve 2002 and are the parents of twins, Elijah and Levi. Jonah says in his mid-20s he was so caught up in work that he couldn’t take time to go to the dentist, but in his mid-30s, with his wife helping him balance his life, he made time to spend every Friday at home with his sons until, at age three, they attended preschool. Now children are his professional and personal priority.