While in on my first advocacy trip to Washington D.C., I learned a new term, “Policy Wonk.” I would love to say that I have been one since the beginning of my educational career, but I can’t. I can’t even say that I’m a policy wonk now. Like many people, I had never called a Senator or Representative, and I certainly never imagined trying to visit one! Sure, I had my own political leanings and always voted in presidential elections but never bothered to vote in a local or midterm election. I had never marched or attended a town hall meeting. I had never considered myself knowledgeable enough, and it never occurred to me that a legislator could benefit from my expertise.
I open with a little personal background to help dispel any myths you may have about needing to be a policy expert before you head to D.C., pick up a phone, or attend an event. As a single-subject researcher I have learned to focus on the micro, and this experience was all about the macro. Luckily for me, my advisor has done this before and knew to contact the university’s associate vice president for federal affairs, Betsy Boyd. Boyd and her legislative assistant, Kimberly Koops-Wrabek. They set up appointments with the education staffers for Oregon senators and representatives and helped us prepare for those meetings by role-playing and supplying us with talking points endorsed by the university. After all this preparation, I still found myself feeling very nervous. Were a few role-plays enough to prepare me when advocating on behalf of the special educators, students, and the College of Education? I flew to D.C. not knowing what to expect, but hoping for the best.
I was grateful knowing I had two days of guest speakers and time with experts in special education advocacy sponsored by the Higher Education Consortium on Special Education (HECSE) ahead of me. I met the other doctoral students, we introduced ourselves and talked about our personal goals for our time in D.C. We came from states across the nation and between us; we represented 10 different content areas (e.g., teacher preparation, deafblind research, early intervention). We all came to learn, to grow, and to advocate for our universities, our professions, our students and ourselves. Some came because they were inspired by past activism in their community, some conducted research on educational policy and some, like me, were completely new to the policy world.
Still on day one, we jumped right into meetings with a Democratic committee staffer and a personal staffer for a Republican Senator. We sat in the hearing room for the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee where Betsy DeVos sat not even one week prior. I was struck by how small the room was. No more than 50 spectators could fit at one time. I realized that my expectations of D.C. might not line up with reality. What followed were four days of similar “Ah ha” moments. I learned that politics isn’t nearly as partisan as it seems. I learned that staffers often talk about finding common ground or things they can agree on and then move forward from there. I learned that every constituent phone call (yes, every single phone call) to a legislator is documented. And maybe most importantly, I learned that I needed to be more aware and more involved.
When I arrived home, I was eager to share what I learned. I want to tell anyone that will listen that there are simple steps we can all take to have a larger impact at the federal level. We need to ask: Do our professional organizations (e.g., CEC, ABAI, NASP) have a policy group? Can we join? What “action items” can we assist with? Do they organize visits to the Hill or to state capitols? When is the next University of Oregon advocacy day? We need to start advocating now. We can do this by calling, visiting our politician’s local offices, attending town hall meetings and we can take part in advocacy days with our professional organizations.
There are concrete ways to ensure that your voice is heard. First, build relationships with the education staffers in each office. Second, become a resource for them. Third, reach out often! Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint and long after others drop off, you can be a voice for your university, your students and your profession.
By Christine M. Drew