Meet Natisha Knight, Director of Community Partnerships
Natisha Knight began her career as a Title I math teacher for Richmond Public Schools. During that time, she had an opportunity to conduct professional development opportunities for colleagues at the district, regional, and state level, which led to dialogue with other educators about possible solutions to some of the most pressing needs of their students. After 12 years, she made the leap into the nonprofit sector, spending time with various organizations that served children and/or families.
Joining the Community Foundation in late 2020, Natisha is the newest member of our Community Engagement team. We recently talked with her about her new role and why she believes advocacy can be a powerful (and not so scary) tool for nonprofits in advancing their missions. Here’s what she had to say.
What’s your role at the Community Foundation?
As the Director of Community Partnerships, I play an integral role in progressing the Foundation’s desire to influence systems-level change that will benefit Central Virginia residents. We have begun to place greater focus on advocacy and policy change, which allows us to participate in important conversations about the root causes of some of the most pressing needs in our community. I’m taking time to learn about initiatives that are in progress so the Foundation can support collaboration and efforts that will lead to equitable, systemic and sustained change.
Right now, my primary areas of focus are education, workforce development and housing. I look forward to working with government agencies, elected or appointed officials, corporations, nonprofits, residents, and other funders to envision, develop, and execute solutions designed to address systemic issues.
I’m also employing an equity and social justice lens to my work to ensure we are adequately addressing the needs and concerns of the historically disadvantaged in our region. Ultimately, the best way to achieve our goals is to create policies and laws that can resolve persistent community challenges and inequities. To do this, we must start at a grassroots level to uplift the voices of those most affected.
How are you currently working with local nonprofits?
I am meeting with individuals and organizations who are working in the policy space and engaging in work that impacts systems-level change. I’ve enjoyed taking a deep dive into this information and learning how I can best support the many initiatives that already exist in the region, as well as developing additional ideas. Nonprofits that I have not yet spoken with can reach out to me to see how we can collaborate and support each other.
Natisha spends time as a "Read to Them" ambassador at Richmond Public Schools.
Why is it important for nonprofits to consider engaging in advocacy efforts?
Nonprofits are responding to disparities created by, or perpetuated by, uninformed policy decisions made by local, state, and federal government. Keyed into the local community, nonprofits are often the experts that decision-makers need to hear from to create more empowering community policies.
One misconception is that advocacy equates to lobbying. Advocacy can include public education, providing advice to local officials when requested, writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper, skills training, or nonpartisan research. In many ways, nonprofits are advocating daily as they work to advance their mission and better the lives of the individuals they serve.
Nonprofits can engage in advocacy that aligns to their work if they are not attempting to influence specific legislation. Lobbying is also not forbidden. I would suggest checking IRS guidelines to ensure compliance with regulations related to a nonprofit’s legal status.
What advocacy efforts were you paying attention to during the recent General Assembly session?
The General Assembly just wrapped up their regular and special sessions, and a lot of progress was made that impacts the nonprofit and social sector!
Virginia is a state historically linked to the Confederacy and Jim Crow Laws. During this year’s General Assembly session, a resolution was passed declaring racism as a public health crisis. Virginia was the first southern state to make this historical declaration. The resolution addresses five specific issues and lays the groundwork to create new policies that address our inequitable systems, including health and housing.
Another exciting achievement relates to culturally responsive training in education. House Bill 1904 and Senate Bill 1196 require educators to complete cultural competency training to maintain their license through the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). This initiative will get us closer to ensuring inclusive learning environments and equitable outcomes for all students, which is especially important given our diverse student populations.
One organization I am looking at as a leader in the policy research and advocacy space is The Commonwealth Institute (TCI). One of their core values is to advance racial justice within and beyond their organization, which directly aligns with my work. Most recently, TCI provided research and data to inform delegates on an approved bill that allows undocumented immigrants to receive financial aid at Virginia colleges.
The Virginia Poverty Law Center hosted housing advocacy sessions during the 2021 General Assembly to encourage support on a range of bills including increased rights for tenants and additional time for families to pay rent so they can stay housed. They held webinars to invite community members to send written comments or speak during virtual committee meetings.
What are some recent examples of nonprofits engaging in advocacy, either at the state or local level, to further their mission?
Over the past year or so, I’ve seen so many local organizations collaborating and finding ways to advocate for their missions and for the people they serve.
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) worked closely with Senator Jennifer McClellan to look at trends in punished behavior in school and which students are charged and/or arrested. In 2020, Senate Bill 3 became law and prevents students from being charged with disorderly conduct in a public space if the disorderly behavior occurs at school, on buses, or at school-sponsored events. Additionally, SB 729 removed a requirement that school principals report incidents to law enforcement that could be considered a misdemeanor. This provides a significant disruption to the school-to-prison pipeline. This had a major impact locally because Richmond Public Schools, a district that is majority Black, had the second-highest rate of out-of-school suspensions in Virginia according to a LAJC 2019 report.
In 2020, project:Homes purchased a mobile home park with the plan to build single-wide manufactured homes. Their goal is to improve the quality of life for residents and help eliminate the stigma around these types of communities. They worked with Chesterfield County to address rezoning concerns and existing safety code violations and then began the re-development of Bermuda Estates. Staff are working hard to ensure families can continue to live there with similar payment structures, owning a home that will maintain or appreciate in value rather than depreciate like typical trailers do.
Bermuda Estates community in Chesterfield County (project:Homes)
Virginia Excels, led by Taikein Cooper, hosts a Parent Advocacy Fellowship and Youth Ambassador Program. I believe the work at Virginia Excels gets to the heart of what’s needed to build our community and I am impressed by Mr. Cooper’s advocacy efforts to reimagine public education in our region to benefit all students. Recently, two participants in the parents’ group were running for Richmond City School Board. To hear directly from individuals affected by policy, then give them the tools to advocate for themselves, is a major key to sustainable and equitable change.
RVA Rapid Transit hosted educational opportunities to inform the community about the need for equitable transit and recent legislation that requested the Department of Rail and Public Transportation conduct a two-year study of transit equity and modernization in the Commonwealth.
If a nonprofit wants to learn more or take the first step in advocacy efforts, what would you recommend?
First, I would recommend examining IRS guidelines and compare them to the procedures related to your nonprofit’s tax-exempt status.
As with any new initiative, you need to build buy-in among staff, board members, and supporters. Start with an issue that is connected to your core mission to build a culture of advocacy. For example, if your organization works with the homeless population, you can invite policymakers to your organization. Educate them about how policy affects day-to-day operations and share firsthand stories from your constituents. Advocacy can also be as simple as using your organization’s social media to educate policymakers; however, your pitch can’t include a call to action or try to influence legislation.
You should continue to collaborate with other organizations that share your concern. There is an African proverb that states “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This is applicable to advocacy work, which typically takes an extended period to achieve desired results.
I would recommend checking out the Bolder Advocacy website where you will find lots of helpful information in their Resource Library, including “Tools for Effective Advocacy.” Another great resource is the National Council of Nonprofits website, which goes into further detail on how and why nonprofits should incorporate advocacy into their work.
Nonprofits that engage in advocacy, as well as those that aspire to, can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would enjoy the opportunity to learn more about their mission and how I could possibly support their work if it aligns with the goals of the Community Foundation.
Natisha and her daughter Naysa enjoying a day at the beach.