An Advocacy Overview
by Christopher Woodside, SPSSI Policy Coordinator
A poll of the SPSSI membership conducted several years ago confirmed that public policy and advocacy are important concerns for many of you. The range of experience with national-, state-, and/or local-level advocacy practices among our members is tremendous, and so, one of our goals moving forward is to begin to connect those who wish to stretch their “activist” muscles with informational resources and activist opportunities.
SPSSI staff can aid our members with answers to a wide variety of tactical questions, such as discerning where advocacy efforts might be most effective, how best to garner attention, and practical methods of sharing data and expertise with policymakers and other advocates. We’ve begun this process of indoctrination by initiating our RSS-based SPSSI Policy News Feed (if you haven’t already, please sign up at www.spssi.org) and by e-mailing policy alerts and other information of interest to members, when appropriate. By the time you read this, we’ll be on Twitter as well.
Over the course of the next few months, we’re planning to develop some basic how-to materials for members who haven’t yet had the opportunity to become involved with personal advocacy efforts concerning their work. In this overview we’ll simply begin the process by focusing on some of the most common and effective tools available for conveying messages and scientific data to legislators and advocates: delivering legislative correspondence, conducting legislative visits, and testifying at hearings and in the courts. While further resources will be forthcoming, we encourage you to get started with conducting personal advocacy, wherever you are, both geographically and experientially.
Conducting legislative correspondence: Legislative correspondence is an avenue of advocacy that can be conducted using various forms of communication. Letters, e-mails, faxes, and phone calls are all useful media for conveying scientific information to policymakers and other advocates. While members of Congress do receive an overwhelming amount of correspondence from constituents and advocacy groups, their staffers are almost always intuitive enough to sniff out a quality personal note or statement amongst the sea of “copy and pasted” spam-type form letters. In fact, the impact of a personal letter is generally far greater than that of an email message.
Policymakers will usually listen to an expert on a particular issue area. SPSSI members would be well-served not to hesitate in contacting a local or national leader if they have scientific data that may be pertinent to a current public policy matter. Often joked about for their inability to get things accomplished, when they want to, Capitol Hill’s residents can move very quickly, and the opportunity to influence change can be lost if those with knowledge don’t speak quickly enough to a particular issue – so be alert for your chance.
Visiting your representatives: The idea of a legislative visit is commonly misinterpreted as an individual, or group of individuals marching on Capitol Hill. While there is certainly significant merit to meeting with one’s Congressional Representative or Senator(s), it is often the visits that take place with state level representatives and to a large extent, local level politicians, community leaders, and other like-minded advocates that can produce the biggest impact. Many state- and local-level politicians would welcome learning the science behind the issues that demand action from them. By sharing some of your expertise and insights, you can help them to gain a better understanding of the scientific data. Community advocates and other non-profit groups operating within your specific area may also have the resources to better publicize your research, and to use it effectively to benefit a specific cause. If you are unsure how to set up a meeting or need contact information for a state- or local-level official, the SPSSI Central Office can be of assistance.
Offering testimony: Offering testimony concerning a current social justice issue, whether it is on Capitol Hill at the behest of a member of Congress, in a state legislature, or in a courtroom, is an extremely valuable method of sharing important scientific findings being realized by some SPSSI members. Testifying, in addition to being a significant honor and privilege, is a unique opportunity for experts in a particular social justice field to highlight specific scientific information and answer pointed questions from lawmakers and advocates seeking to address changes in policy and governance.
Testimony, be it legal or legislative in nature, is recorded for all of time in an official record, and can be used as an impactful resource both in the present, and for many years to come. If you are interested in giving congressional testimony on a specific bill pertaining to a social justice issue but have not been officially called to do so, you can contact the sponsoring member of the legislation and offer to provide your thoughts in Committee. Similarly, if you wish to offer testimony in opposition to a piece of legislation, you can sign up to do so in person at a Committee session. If you have more questions about offering testimony, please feel free to contact the Central Office—we may even be able to connect you with other SPSSI members that have advocated in a similar fashion.
Please note that these notes are meant to serve as a very basic introduction to conducting personal advocacy. We will continue to share and highlight more information moving forward. The concept should in no way be viewed as intimidating, however, and is of value to SPSSI members (and all citizens) to learn. We look forward to your feedback, and we hope you’ll share your experiences and advice, as well as your stories of successes (and lessons learned) so that we can post them to inspire other members who may want to jump into the policy fray as well.