Effective Advocacy Leads to Action: Managing a Changing Landscape

January 23, 2014

The Huffington Post

Earlier this month new elected officials took office for the first time in city and town councils and state governments across the nation, including here in Boston where city government has experienced a sea of change not seen for over 20 years. Boston's City Hall - a massive cement structure that can't be missed on Boston's City Hall Plaza- welcomed Mayor Martin Walsh and four new city councilors, Michael F. Flaherty, Timothy McCarthy, Michelle Wu and Josh Zakim, along with hosts of new cabinet leaders and staffers. This change brings new vigor, and with this, many new opportunities to improve the lives of children and families. As the Mayor and city councilors assumed their new roles earlier this month, so too will new advocates - many of whom are the young people that will shape the future of the great City of Boston. Their energy is what inspires me as a college president every day. While new advocates prepare to work to effect change, I reflect on a number of best practices I have learned from working as a public health and education advocate in Boston for over 40 years - tips that can be applied to advocacy across lawmaking bodies just about anywhere.

Advocates have an opportunity to be a resource for the public and its elected officials. It is impossible for elected officials to be expert in every policy area or social problem. Advocates can help by serving as educators. It's likely that you as an advocate have become familiar with your cause from firsthand experience in the classroom, serving as a social worker in a community setting or even becoming personally affected by your cause. This intimate knowledge is invaluable, and you should turn to it to galvanize you and others each day.


Tip One: Present your cause clearly and concisely
Your first step is to supplement your knowledge with evidence-based research and facts, as basing laws or changes on anecdotes about a few never makes sound policy for all. After you become an expert in your issue area, learn how to present your cause clearly and concisely. This is where I see many committed advocates experience some missteps. It can be difficult to be brief about a cause of great passion to you, but if you do not condense your information and ideas into the most important points - both verbally and on paper - your message can become difficult to distill and, unfortunately, lost. Practice being brief and try to keep written material to one or two pages of only the most important talking points and supporting facts.


Tip Two: Know "the players"
Fortunately, here in Boston, this year's political campaigns centered on issues related to child and family welfare, such as education, housing, access to community health services and much more. All our new and past candidates are child and family advocates in their own right - for which the people of Boston are extremely fortunate. With passion for our cause already in place, advocates must find ways to help their specific policy proposal become a priority for officials and the public. This isn't easy - elected officials must advance a host of constituent and district interests, but without a champion for your cause, it is unlikely to go far.

As such, my second tip to advocates is to know "the players." This doesn't just mean elected officials, but also staffers who are the turn engines of many offices, working long and hard to advance policy and constituent issues. Learn about their priorities and what excites and influences them. Identifying who holds what sources of decision making power - whether in an official capacity as a committee chair or chamber leader, such as the Senate President or other majority leadership members, or in an unofficial capacity as a long-time or well-liked member - is a roadmap to who you need to influence and possibly how. Additionally, it provides information about the politics within the governing body you are attempting to influence. You must know the political context by which you are surrounded. All this information will help you as an advocate identify the councilor or official best positioned to be a leader for your cause from within government, an ally in navigating the complex process of lawmaking - my next important tip.


Tip Three: Do not give up!
In my experience, no two bills ever follow the same path to become a law. All governing entities have unique lawmaking and decision processes. It is vital for advocates to know all the rules of the council or chamber they are lobbying in order to use the rules to their advantage. I have seen bills in the Massachusetts Legislature put into a "study," meaning that they are "dead" in the process. However, advocates who understand the process can find different paths to resurrect the bill - attaching it the budget or legislation that's on the move.

The process offers a multitude of opportunities to advance your cause - it makes so many avenues available to those who are familiar with the directions. For me, the best way to learn has been to immerse myself in the process. However, many government entities offer information about their rules and processes online. I also find that identifying an ally or mentor who has navigated the process and can offer advice and guidance is always helpful. Most importantly - do not give up! The endurance of the American spirit is truly ingrained in the ingenuity of the democratic lawmaking process and offers us, as the public and advocates, fuel to keep fighting even when the odds for success seem unlikely.

Tip Four: Collaborate effectively with others
My last piece of advice is to always aim towards collaboration with others. There are typically multiple agencies, advocacy associations and organizations working within the same issue area. For example, there are a host of organizations in Massachusetts that aim to advance public health causes. These groups, and many others within the health care sector, worked together to advocate for universal health care in Massachusetts. Through this unification, collaboration and willingness to compromise in order to benefit the whole, they helped advance their cause into law in 2006.

I am excited by the prospect of so many new leaders, new faces and new advocates in Boston working to make change that improves the lives of children and families. Listen to one another and seek input from as many people as possible, especially children, youth and families whose voices will be kept at the forefront of policy through your work.

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