This January, 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 in the plaza – welcomed a new Mayor and four new city councilors, 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 city council and Mayor assumed their new roles, so too new advocates – many of who are the young people that will shape the future of the great City of Boston. Their energy is what inspires me 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 an advocate for a number of years as well as a former city councilor on Chelsea, Massachusetts – 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. Your next step is to supplement it with evidence-based research and facts, as basing laws or changes on anecdotes of 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.
Fortunately, here in Boston, 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 leader 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.
In my experience, no two bills ever follow the same path to become a law. All governing entities have lawmaking and decision processes unique to their body or entity. It is vital for advocates to know all the rules of the council or chamber they are lobbying in order to use them to their advantage. I have seen bills in the MA 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 the public and advocates if you 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 engrained 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.
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. My last piece of advice is to always aim towards collaboration with others. 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.
About the Author
Marta T. Rosa, M.ED. Senior Executive Director of Government & External Affairs and Strategic Partnerships; Chief Diversity Officer
In 2005, Marta Rosa was asked by Wheelock President Jackie Jenkins-Scott to establish the Office of Government Relations after working as a consultant to Wheelock convening discussions with community leaders and focusing on legislative related work.
Currently, she focuses on engaging public officials and decision makers on issues that are of interest to the College. She creates venues for convening community groups to discuss critical policy issues that affect children and families; develops programs for leadership opportunities in policy development and implementation; seeks related resources and funding opportunities; and organizes local, state and national forums for interactive discussion and action on critical policy issues. Within her work at Wheelock, she conceptualized and became the Founding Director of the Aspire Institute (2007/2008) and the Administrative leader of the Math and Science Education Initiative (2006/2007).