Advocacy is Not a Spectator Sport, Part Two in a Three-Part Series on Policy in Prevention
By Anne Roberts, Nonprofit Consultant
Years ago, the federal government attempted to save money in the school lunch program by counting ketchup as a vegetable. The proposed change was published, by law, in the Federal Register. A small anti-hunger organization noticed the change. Using the media to publicize the issue, they urged parents, teachers, nutritionists, and ordinary citizens to express their views. By the thousands, they did: soon the government was flooded with outraged letters of comment. The result: the proposed regulations were rewritten (ketchup was NOT counted as a vegetable) and public support for the school lunch program remains solid to this day!
Advocacy is NOT a spectator sport. In fact, the first amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right of citizens to petition their government for change.
Prevention professionals are agents of change. You are natural “connectors” who enhance the capacity of those working with vulnerable populations to meet their needs. Sometimes though, as you go about your daily work, you may run up against a barrier, or uncover an odd proposal, that would be detrimental to the populations you serve. Sometimes that barrier is a state law or regulation. This is where your “connector” skills come in.
State lawmakers are public servants dedicated to making life better for their constituents. When they learn of a challenge that is harming their constituents, they want to fix it! But here’s the rub: they won’t know about the challenges in your field unless you tell them!
The best way to change state laws and regulations is to connect with state lawmakers. I understand that many folks feel intimidated at the thought of calling a legislator. But legislators are just people: they watch football and attend their kids’ school concerts; they rake leaves and eat pumpkin pie. And most of all, they, like you, have one particular area of expertise. They may be a banker, or a rancher or a teacher. When they get elected to public office, suddenly they must vote on things they know very little about. They rely on experts to educate them on issues. YOU are the expert who can help lawmakers understand the best way forward.
Most legislative bodies convene after the first of the year, so this is the perfect time to reach out. Lots of community organizations, like your local Chamber of Commerce, will be hosting legislative breakfasts and other events that you can attend. Be sure to bring business cards with you to leave behind. Follow up with an invitation to your facility for a tour. Prepare a short fact sheet outlining the problem you’d like to address. Or, if there are no pressing issues, let them know they can call you anytime a bill comes across their desk that relates to your area.
Advocacy is not a spectator sport. Citizen involvement in their government is the very essence of advocacy. So, think of lawmakers as your partners in making life better for you and your neighbors. Laws and regulations will be made with or without you. Wouldn’t you like your expertise and values to be part of the mix?
Anne Roberts is a lifelong advocate for the health and well-being of children and youth, having served for 20 years as CEO for the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, followed by 10 years at INTEGRIS Health as Director of Legislative Affairs. In these roles, she was a registered lobbyist and worked with state and national policymakers to advance positive changes for Oklahoma families. She received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Oklahoma.