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The Importance of Letting Go

Resource type: News

Stanford Social innovation Review | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Amy Celep & Sara Brenner

On the heels of midterm elections, one debate we can anticipate is whether the Latino vote mattered—that is, whether the participation of Latinos significantly influenced election results. According to Pew Research Center, Latinos—for the first time—made up 11 percent of eligible voters nationwide, but they represented a small share of eligible voters in several contested state races.

Behind this debate lies a powerful story of a long-term commitment to achieving a bold social goal, one that started more than a decade ago. In 2001, The Atlantic Philanthropies began a journey to bring about comprehensive immigration reform policies in the United States and a handful of other countries. For Atlantic staff, the dream is to create policies and systems that treat immigrants with dignity and humanity, protect immigrants’ human rights, and enable countries to manage migration more effectively. Getting eligible Latinos to vote is an important part of realizing this goal in the United States.

“No matter how good your argument, no matter how good your coalition, if elected officials aren’t forced to take action by the electorate, you’re likely to fail, especially on a divisive issue like comprehensive immigration reform,” said Stephen McConnell, who oversees the foundation’s US programs.

To support comprehensive immigration reform in the United States, the foundation has invested $68 million since 2004. Its first grant helped create the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, an effort to bring together a broad national coalition that could influence the debate. Those behind the immigration reform movement have since built a more unified coalition and message, mobilized voters, and nurtured the emergence of immigrant leaders.

At the heart of organizations like Atlantic are courageous, tenacious leaders leveraging intentional influence to move a diverse set of groups and institutions. They also recognize when letting go will advance their goals. But in our experience, it is more the exception than the rule to find such leaders—and with good reason. It is human nature to try to control and hold on to what we know; it gives us a sense of security. If we want to influence others, and inspire and enable them to change their behaviors or decisions, we have to be willing to change ourselves. On the complicated and winding path to comprehensive immigration reform, Atlantic has strategically let go in a number of ways.

Letting Go of Old Assumptions and Boundaries

Atlantic and the advocates it supports realized that over time they needed help from both major political parties to get the job done. This realization ran counter to an early assumption within the immigration reform community that it needed to focus on influencing the Democratic party.

The decision to seek bi-partisan support required that Atlantic challenge old assumptions. McConnell recalls meeting with some members of the Republican party—traditionally not in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. The advocates at the table argued that humanizing immigrants would create understanding and compassion, and thereby open the door to reform. The Republican advisors responded by saying that many Republicans came into government to make it more efficient and effective, and if immigration reform could help achieve that, they could support it. McConnell said of the meeting, “[Their lack of support was] not because they’re cold-hearted. It’s just not why they were [in government].” This insight led advocates to reframe their message to Republicans, putting greater emphasis on the societal implications (a rational immigration system) instead of the more emotional appeals.

Letting Go of Our Perspective—at Least for a Moment

Successfully influencing others often requires that we release our own point of view— even for a few minutes—and try to genuinely understand another’s perspective so that we can frame a message that will move them to action. It is almost impossible to broaden the base of support for any issue without this.

As Atlantic looked to broaden immigration reform’s base of support, it realized that clergy, law enforcement, and businesses were critical to strengthening electoral power, and ultimately supported Bibles, Badges and Business Network for Immigration Reform, an organization that engages all three groups. Advocates set aside their own perspectives to learn others’ stakes in the issue. Many businesses, for example have an interest in developing lawful access to the immigrant workforce, and many in law enforcement believe that providing legal status to immigrants will make their jobs easier.

Letting Go of Control and Short-Termism

While Atlantic wants to be close to the action, it also recognizes that it’s important to give advocates on the front lines room to do what they need to do. At times, that means advocates are empowered to adjust strategy and make tough choices on important matters in the moment, without having to check with the foundation—all in an effort to move the big picture agenda forward.

Additionally, as a foundation that has committed to completing its grantmaking by 2016, Atlantic has had to let go of the natural tendency to focus only on efforts that it knows will come to completion in its lifetime. “We had to accept the idea that we might not win on this issue before we close our doors,” said McConnell.

For organizations like Atlantic, the influence of Latinos at the polls matters and will continue to be an area of focus for immigration reform. If Atlantic and its partners had not overcome natural barriers, it would not have made the progress it has. In the words of poet and novelist Hermann Hesse, “Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.”

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation, Immigration & Migration

Global Impact:

United States