Coleman Advocates: Bringing Ella Baker’s vision into the 21st century

Organizing families with the power of young people at the center

Five years ago this month, Coleman Advocates started off on a bold new journey after three decades of fiercely independent and uniquely successful fights for San Francisco’s children. The board hired a young, ambitious and passionate leader named NTanya Lee, who shared with civil rights visionary Ella Baker the deep conviction that everyday people can and should determine their own destiny.

by NTanya Lee, Executive Director

NTanya-Lee-102308-by-Luke-Thomas-FogCityJournalcom, Coleman Advocates: Bringing Ella Baker’s vision into the 21st century, Local News & Views I am so blessed that I was given the opportunity to steer the Coleman ship in a new direction. Together, over the last five years, we – the board of directors, staff and more than 1,000 new youth and parent members – have transformed the structure and organizational culture of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth (CACY).

We have deepened our roots in the neighborhoods where families in San Francisco are struggling the most. We’ve become a “bottom up” organization, with a policy agenda driven by a new base of grassroots youth and parent leaders. We’ve gone from an advocacy organization offering stipends to a small group of parents and young people to a grassroots organizing powerhouse led by dozens of dues-paying volunteer leaders.

YMAC and PMAC parent and youth leaders determine our campaign goals, debate campaign strategy and devote an average of 15 hours a month to organize their schools and neighborhoods. They recruit hundreds of other Coleman members and they take action, together.

Coleman-kids, Coleman Advocates: Bringing Ella Baker’s vision into the 21st century, Local News & Views We remain the city’s fiercest fighter for the rights and needs of children. We continue to be smart on the issues, data-driven in our analyses, and have the most dynamic staff in town. Our base of supporters throughout the city continues to grow. More than 3,000 San Franciscans read our weekly Advocate Alerts and support our member-led campaigns. Our donor base has grown and diversified.

Most importantly, we continue to win policy change that improves the lives of poor and working families in the city, particularly families of color, immigrant families and young people. We are winning campaigns to make the public schools a real vehicle of economic opportunity for poor children of color in a city that pushes out working class families and imports high-wage professionals.

Each year we stop millions in budget cuts to preserve a basic safety net for low income children and families – and in the last “good year” we successfully won $10 million in city investments to help struggling families stay in the city. And we are part of a movement to make the city’s housing more affordable for families, create good living wage jobs to keep our young people off the streets and out of state prisons, and increase immigrant families’ access to services and opportunities in the city of St. Francis.

What the heck is a ‘hybrid model’? Isn’t that a car?

We describe our model of social change as a hybrid one, building on the best policy advocacy and community organizing strategies. We’ve taken Ella Baker’s vision of bottom-up, grassroots organizing into the 21st century with the benefit of lessons learned from the last generation of community struggles.

Member-led Grassroots Organizing + Sharp Policy & Budget Advocacy + Deep Civic Engagement in Elections = Power to Win a Policy Agenda for SF Families

Coleman-staff-Pecolia-Manigo-Samantha-Liapes-Melanie-Pascual-MK-Nguyen-Rosario-Ramirez-NTanya-Lee-Chelsea-Boilard, Coleman Advocates: Bringing Ella Baker’s vision into the 21st century, Local News & Views We believe everyone in San Francisco – community based organizations, voters and the city’s poorest to its most privileged residents – has a role in making San Francisco a city of hope, justice and opportunity for the city’s children. And we believe that the young people and parents whose lives are most impacted by the city’s policies but who currently have the least power to see their needs and concerns met must build their own power to make change.

We are building a powerful engine of change for the future of San Francisco, with the grassroots leadership of low to moderate income families and families of color driving our policy agenda and with the political and financial support of thousands of other San Franciscans who share their vision.

Key milestones in our five-year journey

2006: Five Year Strategic Plan approved by board, parent and student leadership to shift our strategies for social change and build on Coleman’s unique success;

2007: Next Generation SF campaign launched; we won city commitments to close the racial achievement gap and focus new resources on building affordable family housing;

NTanya-Lee-Thurgood-0303-web, Coleman Advocates: Bringing Ella Baker’s vision into the 21st century, Local News & Views 2008: Our new grassroots electoral operation reaches every voter in District 11, secures 2,000 “yes votes” for Prop B’s Affordable Housing Fund, winning in a key swing district despite the citywide loss. Annual membership reaches 500;

2009: A-G/College and Career for All Policy victory at the school board; 200 Coleman parent and youth members representing Black, Latino and Pacific Islander families packed the school board meeting, demanding quality schools for all;

2010: Our first ever Grassroots Leadership Institute graduates 20 core Coleman leaders from a two-day intensive retreat at Walker Creek Ranch. We launch our Black Family Agenda.

Our first Grassroots Leadership Institute retreat for Coleman parent and youth leaders – MLK weekend, January 2010

Coleman-Advocates-crew-2006, Coleman Advocates: Bringing Ella Baker’s vision into the 21st century, Local News & Views What a beautiful way to celebrate my first five years as Coleman’s executive director and to honor the new organization and community we’ve built together over these years. We called Ella Baker’s spirit into our meeting space and her courage, humility and commitment to youth leadership, multi-racial organizing and everyday people’s power was evident throughout our time together.

For two days, Coleman’s youth and parent leaders, along with staff, deepened our analysis of systemic inequity, our knowledge of our own community’s victories, and strengthened our commitment to a just vision for the world and for our City. We made some key decisions about our work moving forward – challenging decisions, but ones that will make our work smarter and stronger in the years to come.

During Black History Month, please take a moment to learn about the legacy of Ella Baker. Here is a song written for her, about her, using Ella’s own words. We hope it inspires you to join us in making change for the next generation.

‘Ella’s Song’ – sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons

And that which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can shed some light as they carry us through the gale

Ella-Baker2, Coleman Advocates: Bringing Ella Baker’s vision into the 21st century, Local News & Views The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hand of the young who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggles survive

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At time I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Contact Coleman Advocates at 459 Vienna St., San Francisco, CA 94112, (415) 239-0161, fax (415) 239-0584,,, and contact Coleman Executive Director NTanya Lee at