Tell to Win: Advocacy and the Power of the Personal Narrative
By Philip J. Lazarus
If the lion doesn't tell his story, then the hunter will.
— An African Proverb
As school psychologists, we must ensure that all stakeholders know who we are and what we do—that we are indispensible and not a luxury.
And there is no better way to get our message across than by telling purposeful emotional stories. Peter Guber (2011) makes the compelling case that to succeed in business or life you have to persuade others to support your dream, vision, or cause. You have to reach their hearts as well as their minds—and this is just what telling a carefully crafted story does. Stories help us connect with others in a way that data do not.
Stakeholders and policy makers are often unaware of what we do and how we make a difference in the lives of children. Let me cite a few examples. In May 2008, 41 school psychologists from Miami– Dade County Public Schools were given notices of termination and it was expected that another 80 school psychologists would receive notification that they would be let go due to a budget shortfall of $289 million. I was appointed as the spokesperson and asked all school psychologists to send me a letter that gets to the heart of what they do on a daily basis.
One of my former Florida International University graduates, Luz Amesty, who was let go, wrote a poignant letter and here is just one revealing paragraph:
I have established partnerships with parents who were not able to understand why their youngsters stopped developing normally after the age of 2 and were later on identified with a pervasive developmental disorder. I have also dealt with many parents who cannot assist their children with homework not only because of a language barrier but also because they are illiterate and lost in a school system that is completely novel to them. This particular school year, I have been dealing with students who are acting out in the classroom because their families lost their homes and had no choice but to live in a shelter. I will never forget when a student came up to me asking why his brother was shot on the way to his house on the day of his birthday. I have been called many times to intervene in cases where a child loses control, throws chairs, and uses profanity in the classroom while threatening himself and others. I wonder who will be there to provide mental health and instructional support for our children and youth when I am gone.
Gene Cash, our NASP president at the time, in advocating for reinstatement told the M-DCPS school board:
When I attended public school many years ago, we did not have school psychologists, and I believe I turned out okay. The same was not true, however, for my three brothers. All three struggled academically. One is now an alcoholic, and two committed suicide. I am convinced that if school psychologists had been available then, their problems would have been identified early. They could have received the help they needed, and the outcomes might have been very different! School psychologists help to prevent disastrous mental health problems! Cutting school psychological services so drastically sends a very negative message to our children and families. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Our actions speak so loudly that our children cannot hear our words!”
After his speech and those of others, a number of board members were willing to reverse their decision then and there. We eventually prevailed and all school psychologists were reinstated. (For a thorough review of this budget crisis and our advocacy strategies, please see Lazarus, 2009.)
John Kelly testified at a U.S. Senate briefing on mental health:
A student who had been bullied once asked me, “Do you know what it is like to feel that you are hated by everyone the first day you enter kindergarten?” This young man had composed a journal filled with his dark and sad reflections on life. The last page was filled with one phrase repeated again and again: “I decide who lives and who dies.” Luckily, there is good news with this young man. Through significant emotional support and alternative strategies for education, he graduated last year. He hugged me on graduation day, thanking me for believing in him. He told me that his greatest joy was not in graduating, but in the fact that his mother hugged him, telling him how proud she felt.
Every one of us has powerful stories to tell that illustrate how we make a difference in the lives of children. In these tight fiscal times when positions are being eliminated or not being filled, decisions often are made by those who are unaware of our vital role, and they just need to be enlightened. Please make sure to let all stakeholders know what we do because unless we are sitting at the table, we may be on the menu. Remember, if the lion does not tell his story, then the hunter will.
Guber, P. (2011). Tell to win: Connect, persuade and triump with the hidden power of story. New York, NY: Crown Publishing.
Lazarus, P. J. (2009). Saving school psychology jobs in a time of fiscal chaos. Communiqué, 37(6), 1, 23–27
Philip J. Lazarus, PhD, is president of the National Association of School Psychologists.