"People described the trip as life-changing": Reflections on a UK/US learning exchange

"People described the trip as life-changing": Reflections on a UK/US learning exchange

In March 2015, a delegation of advocates from the UK who work with young people traveled to Washington, D.C. for a learning exchange, to share lessons about advocacy, civic engagement, and legal services delivery. The theme of the visit was how NGOs in the US have responded to Administrative Relief. America’s Voice was the host organization, and the exchange was supported by the Legal Education Foundation and Unbound.

We recently spoke with Anita Hurrell, Legal and Policy Officer at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, who was part of the delegation, as well as with Matthew Smerdon, Chief Executive, and Natalie Byrom, Director of Research and Learning, at the Legal Education Foundation, and Jake Lee, Deputy Director, UK Program at Unbound Philanthropy, to hear their perspectives about the exchange.

Grantee perspective on the learning exchange—conversation with Anita Hurrell: April 27, 2015

Taryn Higashi (TH): What were your biggest takeaways from the learning exchange?

Anita Hurrell (AH): There were a number of main takeaways for me. First was the importance of communications. Many organizations that we met with highlighted just how important communications capacity is to them.

The second was the central role of community organizing in building the movement and creating the push for reform. In the UK, our community organizing is a lot less developed, and it’s not a central plank of the immigration reform movement. We saw incredible organizing at CASA de Maryland, and at United We Dream we saw organizing among young people, particularly those who can tell their own stories themselves—that was enormously powerful.

Third, how lawyers fit into the landscape of immigration reform, how lawyers can back up and defend political wins with detailed legal analysis.

Fourth, seeing legal service delivery on such a massive scale, for instance at CASA and CLINIC. It blew our minds! It’s such a huge service provision.

Fifth, we saw the amazing potential of pro bono. Pro bono in its infancy in the UK, and there is some resistance to embracing what pro bono can do.

TH: Is one concern in the UK that, as you’re fighting for government funding to be reinstated, you don’t want the government to say, ‘Pro bono can take care of the need’?

AH: Absolutely. For example, there was a proposal a couple of years ago for a residence test for civil legal aid. A challenge was brought, and the case was successful: it found that the test would have been discriminatory and unlawful. We’re still in the phase where we’re defending what we have. We are conscious of arguments the government might use to say civil legal aid isn’t needed, and that pro bono or civil society can fill the gaps. As a result, one of the biggest differences in legal services provision is that there is a greater and more successful use of pro bono for legal services delivery in the US. KIND is such a successful example of high quality legal services delivered to vulnerable children. On the trip, we had our eyes opened to the amazing potential when people have a vision and they work towards that.

TH: Are there other differences between the US and UK related to advocacy and civic engagement?

AH: Yes, the central role of organizing. In the immigration movement in the UK, the voices of those who have been affected by immigration control don’t necessarily come to the fore. That’s one of the areas where I think we have the most work to do.

TH: Would those voices have the same kind of powerful effect in the UK?

AH: I think they would. What really struck us on the visit was the courage and strength of the young people who have come out, because of the risks involved. In the UK, the political climate is very different. We’ve had some bad experiences of young people speaking out. I think it’s partly about fostering an environment in which young people themselves will want to organize, speak out, and talk about their concerns, experiences, and stories.

TH: Were there any unexpected benefits of the learning exchange?

AH: I was surprised by how much of a difference it made to be with a group of people from the UK, having time to talk and discuss away from our normal lives. That was unexpected.

Funders’ perspective on the learning exchange—conversation with Matthew Smerdon, Natalie Byrom, and Jake Lee: April 28, 2015

Taryn Higashi (TH): What are your overall reflections from the learning exchange?

Matthew Smerdon (MS): People have described the trip as “life changing.” You shouldn’t underestimate the power of these sorts of initiatives and the value of simply spending time with each other. Even on the plane over, there was a lovely, collegiate spirit that we hope will be the beginnings of lasting working relationships. Additionally, Unbound's idea to focus on a particular issue and work that through, in terms of the context, how the policy was won and how it will be delivered was a very clever way to take away lessons. And the people we met with were terrific.

TH: Are there lessons from the foundation perspective?

MS: One of the key things was just how significant foundation funding has been for that sector. The scale of funding is so much greater than in the UK. There are a number of steps that we can take to build the levels of funding. We are talking about a mapping study, to see what funding goes into the law, to establish a baseline.

Jake Lee (JL): As a funder, you got to see the benefits of bringing grantees together, away from their day-to-day work. It was refreshing to see people being energized by being brought away somewhere where legal advice provision funded by the state is nonexistent, and seeing NGOs that work despite that policy environment.

TH: Were there any unexpected surprises that emerged? And would you do anything differently in the future?

JL: We didn’t use the opportunity to bring together US grantees. We could make it more two-way; there are certainly lessons that could travel in the opposite direction.

TH: Could you comment on the value of making a trip like this, as a funder, with grantees?

Natalie Byrom (NB): We learned a lot about our grantees, seeing them in a different context, to see them in a holistic context.

MS: They also learned about us, about what we do, our motivations and experiences. It worked well for people at different stages in their careers to spend time together. Participant selection is key, making sure you have a good dynamic. It’s well worth investing time and effort in.

JL: As funders, you get to see the origin of ideas that may go on to be future grants.