He has been called a street fighter, a skilled advocate, and a shape-shifter who is as comfortable testifying before Congress as he is leading a chant through a bullhorn, but the label that Ilir Zherka (Law ’92) is proudest of is that of American citizen.
The son of Albanian immigrants who left their country in pursuit of democracy and a better life, Zherka is from a long line of community activists who instilled in him a passion for social activism. Growing up in New York's South Bronx, Zherka’s youth was challenging, but he beat the odds and went to college on a scholarship for disadvantaged youth. The University of Virginia School of Law and an advocacy career in human rights and civic engagement followed.
He remained active in Albanian rights and gained policy experience working in Congress. In 2002, he became executive director of DC Vote and spent a decade leading the organization's national efforts to raise public awareness about Washington, D.C.'s lack of voting representation in Congress.
After more than 20 years in the trenches, Zherka shares the lessons he learned in Winning the Inside Game: The Handbook of Advocacy Strategies—a guide to help leaders become more successful advocates.
Read the introduction to Zherka's new book, Winning the Inside Game, below:
It was the fall of 1993, and my job search had taken me to Washington, D.C. I had just returned from a year working in Albania to assist with the transition to democracy there. After a day of exhausting informational interviews on Capitol Hill, unsure of my next career steps, I discovered the Trover Shop, a landmark bookstore on the Hill. Naturally, I was perusing the political section when I came across a short book with a snappy title—Hardball. It was written by Chris Matthews, a former staffer for Speaker Tip O’Neill and current MSNBC host of a news show with the same name. I skimmed the book right in the shop. Matthews did a great job sharing some of the lessons he learned on the Hill—things like the importance of loyalty, the need to respond to all negative attacks, and the utility of turning someone’s perceived strength into a weakness. I especially appreciated the way Matthews used stories to illustrate his lessons.
I bought Hardball and it became a bible of sorts for me over the next several years as I navigated the political arena in D.C. I found myself referring back to it over and over again through my jobs as legislative counsel for Congressman George Miller, as ethnic outreach director for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign, and ultimately as the executive director of the advocacy organization DC Vote.
Not long after I began my job at DC Vote in 2002, I had the privilege of organizing a group of high-powered non-profit leaders on a transformative panel called “Lessons Learned from the Coalition Battlefield.” Sponsored by the Business School Career Center of George Washington University and organized by DC Vote and Common Cause, the panel brought together leaders of several large-scale coalition efforts from the recent past to exchange lessons they had learned from fighting their civil rights issues on the political front, in coalition groups.
What I took away from that day I spent on the “Lessons Learned” panel has stayed with me throughout the eight years that I, along with DC Vote’s board, staff, and thousands of grassroots supporters, have been battling to bring legislative voting representation to the residents of the District of Columbia.
Given the long-lasting resonance of that panel discussion, for several years now I have been thinking that I needed to write my own handbook for those, like me, who have dedicated themselves to changing the world through advocacy. And here it is. Whether you are in your first public interest job, learning the political ropes on Capitol Hill, or you are a seasoned organizational leader and advocate, this book was written for you.
I have brought together the best practices and wisdom on advocacy, and combined them into ten top advocacy strategies, told through the stories I have lived and the experiences of some of the top advocates in the country. Since I am a visual learner, I have included a few important diagrams that may help you internalize the lessons I have learned. To illustrate some of the strategies, my research assistant, Diana Kelly Alvord, and I interviewed some leading advocates in Washington, D.C., as well as senior legislative staffers. I included their stories in each of the chapters to provide additional examples of each principle.
Another wonderful opportunity I have had during my tenure at DC Vote was attending training sessions in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. designed to provide tools for understanding and shaping group dynamics. The model introduced to me at this training, Human Systems Dynamics (HSD), is a collection of theory and tools that help make sense of the patterns that emerge when people interact in groups, families, organizations, and communities. HSD struck me as an excellent behavioral science and analytic tool that can help advocates better understand Congress and the way things work inside its hallowed halls. As such, I have adapted some of the more easy-to-understand tools for the purposes of these top ten advocacy strategies. I believe that this is an innovative way to approach advocacy work. I hope that introducing this model will add tremendous value to the field of advocacy. Executive directors and the in-house lobbyists at non-profit organizations will find these tools especially useful for understanding and influencing the patterns around them.
Although my point of reference is the U.S. Congress, these principles and tools are applicable to any advocacy campaign targeting any group of policy-makers. Whether you are in Sacramento, California; Albany, New York; or Prishtina, Kosova, as long you are advocating for a new law, this book is for you.
Perhaps like you, I appreciate brevity. Therefore, I have purposely kept this book short ... For ease of use, I have divided each chapter in the book into four sections—The Story, Additional Stories, The Tools, and The Bottom Line.
This book is designed to be a reference tool, to be read and used over and over again. Its tenets are simple and straightforward; it provides a road map to successful advocacy in an arcane, complex, and very diverse universe full of legislative and executive bodies throughout America and abroad. I hope that you can take my experiences and the advice of others in this book and spin them into your own advocacy victory, and that this short book will serve you well in your mission. Remember, no one story provides all the answers for how to best apply the principles in this book. And no two stories are exactly alike. Your advocacy campaign will be entirely unique, and you’ll create it with entirely new patterns of behavior.
Becoming a good advocate, as Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, puts it, “takes years and you learn as you go.” My goal is to give you a significant leg up by sharing the strategies that she, I, and so many other advocates have learned over many, many years and many, many battles. Enjoy.