Policy Matters Blog

Advocacy in a Time of Division

I recently came across a news story reporting on the rising levels of anxiety and stress amongst many Americans, and how the current political climate may be a contributing factor. At times, it can feel like we have further divided into different camps: Republican, Democrat, Progressive, Conservative, Libertarian, or Independent. How often do we find ourselves seeking out news and information from one particular source, removing Facebook friends with differing views, or avoiding awkward political discussions with extended family over holiday dinners? As school psychologists, we know that anxiety/stress is reduced when presenting stimuli are removed. Yet we also know the avoidance of stimuli (e.g., opinionated Uncle) can lead to significant and sometimes negative changes in our own behaviors (e.g., reduced likelihood in engaging in challenging discussions during Thanksgiving dinner). In the advocacy arena, the danger of disengagement is allowing someone else to dictate decision-making. 

Much has been written about this new era of polarization as well as the importance of reaching across the aisle and getting a seat at the decision-making table. The importance of building allies in this quest cannot be overstated (see Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 3). Indeed, in my nearly decade of service with NASP and membership on the Government and Professional Relations Committee, we have actively sought to build coalitions across a number of organizations representing diverse constituencies. While school psychologists are pretty great (high fives all around!), we simply cannot advance our priorities without a broader community of supporters. During this past NASP convention, I was particularly struck by a comment from Paul Meyer on the importance of associations, "the purpose of an association is to achieve a goal or objective not possible by an individual." I believe that quote succinctly communicates the importance and potential of our collective advocacy work in advancing policy that will better the lives of the kids and families we serve. To accomplish this goal, we all need to be active in our advocacy efforts.  

So, what is your (my, our) role in advocacy? How do we overcome the tendency to disengage or avoid challenging discussions? There are five steps for effective advocacy in this era of polarization.  

First, take a moment of self-reflection and describe your personal values and beliefs. Having a clear understanding of one's own beliefs on a particular issue is an essential starting point to knowing (mis)alignment with the values and beliefs of an association or a policy platform. Know which positions are etched in stone and which are drawn in the sand.  

Second, define your ideal accomplishments through your advocacy efforts, without consideration of political or logistical hurdles. Knowing where your values are and where you hope your efforts to lead can be an effective method for outlining the advocacy distance that needs to be traveled.  

Third, when advocating on behalf of someone or a larger group, remove the personal opinions and biases that we all have. A collective and coherent voice will always be more influential than a number of fragmented individual asks. Consensus building within your organization is a necessary pre-requisite.    

Fourth, focus on what matters. Regardless of which tribe one may ascribe to, we are all pro-kid. Emphasizing the positive potential of a specific proposal for children is a great starting point for finding common ground. Connecting this policy with your organizations goals (data!) and the stakeholder's values is even better. Remember that policy is made by value and fact, but not necessarily in equal quantities.   

Lastly, be willing to take that first advocacy step. There is a large range of advocacy activities for the both new and experienced advocates. The willingness to advocate, especially in a time of polarization, is the most important component of the advocacy process. Yes it can be scary, and yes there is a strong likelihood of disagreement with some stakeholders, yet it is better to be a voice at the decision-making table than ruminating on what could have been.   

School psychologists may never have the same number of members or amount of resources as other advocacy groups. Thus, we do not have the luxury of silence! We all can engage in advocacy by taking these steps and continuously build towards a better tomorrow even in a divided today.