Leaders and Advocacy
By Amy R. Smith
Decisions are made by those who show up. As I am writing this article, our political parties are gearing up for the home stretch of the presidential campaign season. By the time you are reading this article, I suspect many of us will have had our fill of the political process. Both parties have declared that the stakes are high in this election and it seems that the behavior of those involved is matching the level of stress and urgency each side feels. It has become easy to be cynical about the political process and disengage. Indeed, the percentage of eligible voters that actually participates suggests many have. But rather than disengage, I submit that now is the time to lead through advocacy.
One notable difference for me in the 2012 campaign has been what seems to be a limited amount of time devoted to education issues. I've noticed fewer references to education during stump speeches and interviews compared to years past other than candidates vowing to “fix” public education. While it is understandable that the economy is the focus of the campaign, it is still important to hold our leaders accountable for their responsibility to attend to the issues facing the field of education at this time. This is true at the national level, and it's true at the state and local levels as well. But holding decision makers accountable and participating in the decision-making process—advocacy work—requires purposeful planning and action.
One of my favorite quotes, which I originally heard delivered by one of my favorite presidents, Jeb Bartlett from The West Wing, is “Decisions are made by those who show up.” It's not clear who originally made the statement, but to me it captures the very essence of advocacy. Showing up, which can take many different forms, is what is needed now. Not being empowered to make decisions does not absolve us from the responsibility of educating those who do have that power. In fact, it becomes more important that those who are informed advocate for those issues.
The need to manage the changes occurring in education provides an opportunity for school psychologists to lead through advocacy. Educators are currently facing significant challenges at the federal, state, and local levels. The economy and actions resulting from the political climate are stressing already overwhelmed systems. Shrinking budgets and policy changes are forcing difficult decisions that will have far reaching implications for the services our students will receive. In many cases, who is chosen to make these decisions will determine, to a large part, the impact felt by those affected. Decision makers who have good information will be more effective than those that don't.
There are tools available to develop advocacy skills that can be used at the local, state, and national levels. I encourage you to explore the resources available on the NASP website for information and ideas. One of our major advocacy events each year is a Public Policy Institute (PPI) that NASP offers in cooperation with George Washington University. Through our state affiliate associations, school psychologists from across the country come to Washington, DC, for 3 days in July. The focus of the first 2 days is learning about policy development, the political process, and skills associated with being an effective advocate. On the final day, participants go to Capitol Hill to meet with staff from the offices of their Senators and Congressman. They quite literally show up. It is an incredible experience, and participants leave with great stories and new skills they can use at the state and local levels.
One particular presentation I attended during a PPI left a lasting impression. A legislative aide shared his perspective on having appointments with visitors like us. He explained the reality that no politician or their staffers could have the level of expertise necessary to govern on every topic. They depend on having contacts and information from experts in the field. His point was, to paraphrase, if we only hear one side of the story, that's all we'll know and we'll use that to make decisions. It's easy to translate that point to a local level. Advocacy involves providing information to decision makers so they can make the best decisions.
As stated in our Principles for Professional Ethics, “School psychologists have a special obligation to speak up for the rights and welfare of students and families.” NASP continually conducts advocacy work on behalf of the field of school psychology as well as mental health and education-related issues. All this work is done with the goal of ensuring that the best possible services are available for the students, families, and educators we serve. Join the effort, consider ways you can contribute through advocacy work at a local, state, or national level and show up.
Amy R. Smith is the president of the National Association of School Psychologists