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Wendy Williams

SPSSI President

 

As many of you know, SPSSI is currently engaging in strategic planning. This has gotten me thinking about the changes in the organization since I became involved 18 years ago. When I first was gifted a SPSSI membership in graduate school, SPSSI was located in Ann Arbor, and I did not know much about what they did. What kept me involved after that gift membership, however, was learning about SPSSI’s advocacy for sound policy based on good science. To me, SPSSI’s strength is that it continues to return to, learn from, be inspired by, and push the boundaries of, the nexus between science and application. Moreover, the use of science to ameliorate social injustice is not just something we do on occasion—it is a core foundation of who we are.

Although not present for the vote to move from Ann Arbor to DC in 2001, I was on Council during the move to DC in 2003 (as Chair of the Graduate Student Committee). I recall the strategic planning we engaged in at that time, figuring out how to best position the organization for this next step. When I think back to those conversations, I can both see what an incredible leap of faith it was to move us to DC, but also how “meant to be” that decision turned out. Today, we are a financially healthy organization, with a staff of five amazing professionals who advance the mission every day on our behalf, in a gorgeous new building that increases our profile on Capitol Hill. I cannot tell you how many times I have marveled at the changes and growth in 15 short years.

At the same time, as a SPSSI member, the last few years of anti-science sentiment and rolling back of civil rights going on outside the organization has been difficult to abide, and I’ve found myself searching for ways in which I could more fully use my expertise, skills, and voice. Thus, it was during a SPSSI Executive Committee phone call that the idea for SPSSI Council to engage in Congressional Hill visits first came to me. It was shortly after the 2016 election, and the Executive Committee was discussing the fact that members’ expertise in guiding science-based policy was needed now more than ever. It occurred to me that although we have engaged members in policy workshops and other advocacy work (e.g., Congressional briefings, policy statements), we had not yet tapped the vast expertise within our Council while they are in town working on behalf of SPSSI’s mission. Moreover, this seemed like an opportune time to engage our members more broadly in advocacy on Capitol Hill, especially if other members were, like me, feeling like they wanted their science to have a more direct impact on society. Thus, in winter 2017, I proposed that Council extend their meeting by one day at the winter 2018 meeting in order to engage in policy advocacy, and Council approved this plan on a trial basis.

On February 8th, 2018, twenty-one SPSSI Council members, additional position holders, staff, and local SPSSI members engaged in a total of 50 visits with Congressional staff from 13 different states to discuss the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. We chose to advocate on the HEA because of both SPSSI’s historic commitment to education and because our science demonstrates the need for federal support in making higher education accessible and affordable. Yet, many of the HEA programs (e.g., Pell grants, work study, loan repayment, outreach and support programs like TRIO) are in danger of either being cut or their effectiveness hampered (e.g., not renewing legislation that indexes Pell grants to inflation). Consequently, we took the message to the Hill that the proposed changes to the HEA would make graduate and undergraduate education more expensive and less accessible for historically underserved students—a position that SPSSI cannot support as educators, as researchers, and as former students ourselves (see link to one page “leave behind” created by Policy Director, Sarah Mancoll HERE).

Despite my trepidation about how my meetings would go, in my five personal visits with Congressional staffers, I felt empowered to speak with authority about our science and its application to educational policy. Afterwards, many other participants said that they felt the same way—that the meetings had been daunting, but exciting. I do not know whether we will continue to engage in these Hill visits as a regular part of Council’s work, or if we will look for other ways to engage our members in direct advocacy on the Hill. But, as I reflect on this event, it occurred to me that this was exactly the kind of event that was only possible because of where we are today: our location in DC, our competent staff who support this work, our strong financial situation, and our ability to translate our science for sound policy.

It is for this reason that I remain excited about the current strategic planning process. As you may remember, we embarked in January on a survey of stakeholders’ attitudes about SPSSI (and if you participated, thank you again!). Council then took a full day at our February Council meeting to discuss how to position the organization in the next 3-5 years. Based on data collected, Council determined that we should focus broadly on the following items: (1) member engagement, (2) building our capacity (including the capacity of our staff, our use of technology, and our infrastructure), (3) engaging in program evaluation of our activities, (4) infusing diversity and inclusion throughout the organization, (5) using our science for policy and advocacy, and (6) strengthening the Journal of Social Issues. In March, a small group of participants from Council and staff met to further flesh out how to operationalize these goals in terms of specific objectives for the next 3 years. This work will continue through the spring, and then be brought back to Council for discussion and revision in June. We hope to share the outcome of this process with members shortly thereafter.

In the meantime, we appreciate your assistance in helping to shape SPSSI’s future. Consistent with how our Hill visits were both exactly what SPSSI Council hoped the move from Ann Arbor would achieve, while simultaneously being unimaginable 15 years ago, it is my hope that this strategic plan will lead to similar opportunities and serendipity 15 years from now. Until then, I continue to thank you for all you do for the organization as we plan for tomorrow.

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