SciPolBites: New School Year, New Advocacy
SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, four members share their perspectives on best practices for advocacy, from community organizing to Hill visits to writing.
Kavi Chintam (@thakavic)
Advocacy: A Community Perspective
Advocacy at its core is about making the case for the cause you care about. Being a “good” advocate means something different to each person. For me, it has largely centered on community organizing. When reflecting on my advocacy work, here are four questions I recommend considering along with my personal experiences:
1) What causes do I care most about? Do any of them overlap?
The intersectionality of the causes I’ve been passionate about has become clearer with time. For example, I have always cared about mental health and immigration. When I lived in New Mexico, I volunteered at Gerard’s House as a grief support group facilitator for children who have experienced family separation, deportation, or death. Supporting those who are in the thick of a larger policy issue informs my perspective.
2) What level of government am I most eager to see change? University-level? Local? Federal?
My answer to this question is generally...all of the above. However, I stress the importance of truly understanding the effects of federal policies on real communities. I am currently a policy analyst for RE-AMP, a nonprofit that connects grassroots organizations in the Midwest to advocate for equitable climate policy. This mix of local, state, and regional levels is the kind of comprehensive advocacy I crave.
3) How much time and energy (both emotional and physical) am I ready to invest in advocacy?
Advocacy can be emotionally taxing, particularly if you are working on the ground. I am one of the founders of my department’s anti-racism, DEI committee. Academia is a difficult space to navigate, as it’s rooted in decades-old values. However, it is also some of the most rewarding advocacy I have been involved in because I can already see positive change not only for my peers, but also for myself. Remember to be realistic with what you can handle to avoid burnout.
4) What skills can I contribute to a cause?
In college, I was restless and needed to act more than I already was. I became a legislative intern for former Pittsburgh Councilperson Dan Gilman. As the only STEM student in my internship program, I was able to utilize my scientific thinking for policy early on. My interpersonal skills worked well on the local level, directly interacting with communities. In fact, it is this experience that spurred the on-the-ground work I’ve done since.
There is no single correct way to be an advocate. Recognize that there are grassroots organizations that dedicate their mission to causes that you already care about. The first step is to try something out and grow from there.
Advocacy: A Government Perspective
Hill Days: Legislative meetings and Hill Days are excellent and accessible ways to begin an advocacy journey as a scientist. There are a plethora of programs, usually housed within a professional society: American Chemical Society, American Society for Microbiology or American Geophysical Union. Just like attending an academic conference, there are typically scholarships and financial assistance available either through the organization or through your school. It is important, especially for your first meeting with staffers or congressional members, to have someone with you that is an experienced advocate and can give you the proper training. Your professional society has individuals whose entire job description is to keep track of legislators and bills that impact the societies they serve.
Meetings with Staffers: Washington and state governments are insular and siloed environments. Very often, everyone knows everyone else. The lobbyists know the staffers, the staffers are the experts on the members they serve, and interpersonal relationships reign supreme. The biggest challenge you will face as a scientist coming to a Hill Day or legislator meeting will be to distinguish yourself in a positive way and be memorable, valuable and consistent enough to begin to develop a relationship. Hill Days are technically single “Days,” but true impact comes from consistently providing value to your representative. Think of Hill Days as formal and structured “Introduction Days.” You will likely not meet with the member themselves unless the organization you are with has a major connection. Meeting with a staffer is incredibly impactful though, and treat it as if you were speaking to the member themselves. While the members are steering the ship, the staffers are at the oars, keeping it afloat, with their fingers on the pulse of every issue affecting their member at all times. Keep the business cards they slide across the table to you, and use them courteously to provide useful information and timely analysis.
Avoiding Trouble with Lobbying: One of the most nerve-wracking mistakes of my early advocacy career was receiving a personal phone call from Notre Dame’s government relations leadership, to give me a rather stern talking to regarding what a student may and may not say to a federal staffer. I had taken some well-meant advice to invite staffers for a tour of lab facilities as a means of relationship building and science communication. However, this was not approved through the proper channels at the university, thus the phone call. I certainly learned my lesson. Having a positive, supportive relationship with your University government relations or public affairs office can be the difference between a successful lawmaker meeting and disaster.
Daniel Puentes (@NuclearPuentes)
Advocacy: A Written Perspective
Advocacy is an activity anyone can engage in. There are several mediums available to people interested in advocating on issues they care about. One way someone could do this is through the classic art of writing. Since its inception, writing has been used to share ideas as well as push for change in their society. Today, through our technology, our ability to advocate through writing has been revolutionized and expanded different avenues. With a little research, anyone can find the contact information for an individual in a place of power, like an elected government official. The ability to mass email through group campaigns can create a push for a certain attitude meant to be understood by the identified individual.
Other ways that someone could advocate through writing include writing op-eds and policy analysis briefs about a topic they feel passionate about. Whether drawing from your expertise or experiences, just getting something published and out there can expose others on the internet about this important issue. Wikipedia is another resource people use for information, being one of the most visited websites. It’s also one of the only sources of free information online for people to learn. Passionate people can recognize policy issues they care about on Wikipedia and write/edit these articles to expand the information available on this virtual repository of information. Different organizations will also post different items for public comment, an easy way to advocate through writing. The first step is identifying what you want to write about.