Today I spoke on a panel for the New Leaders Council about activism, organizing, and influencing public policy. It was a wonderful experience with a really important organization for us to have in Omaha, and we had about an hour of lively panel conversation followed by an hour of Q&A from the NLC fellows in attendance. I wanted to share part of my message and experience with you that I was able to talk about with the fellows today.
Understanding public policy, what it means, and how to advocate for it and influence it requires developing habits for continuous, active learning. As with many subjects, there is constant change, which I think is exciting because it means there are always new takes on new perspectives—there’s never an end to what you can learn, observe, and think about. To follow public policy and become effectively engaged with it, you have to take the approach of a lifelong learner, which is an ongoing and self-motivated process. So the question for busy people like us is, what does that look like? Most of us already read, attend conferences, and participate in professional associations and groups—we already do this stuff because we already want to be more involved. However, to have impact on public policy, you have to take a more focused approach to begin influencing outcomes of policy through your advocacy. I have a few general tips that can help anyone become a life learner of public policy, but these tips can apply to any content.
- Read about public policy every day. Set aside time, make it a priority, and identify what it is you want to read so you have it on hand. I suggest reading a local paper, a major national newspaper, and a few magazines that particularly interest you. I read the World-Herald every day, I look at the New York Times every day, and I also keep up with the magazines The Atlantic, The Economist, and Foreign Policy. I also read the Berliner Morgenpost and Die Zeit a few times a week because I’m a German speaker and I don’t want to lose that. I have something to read with me at all times.
- Sort of a bonus here, WRITE about public policy every day. Take notes about what you read. I do this mainly by posting reactions online to the news, to opinion pieces I read, to what’s happening locally. This is also great because you can get feedback and have discussions with other people who are interested in the same subjects. Hopefully sharing your take on issues will even inspire others who come across your post to form an opinion as well. I also keep a database of all my notes and writing about political issues. These are sometimes useful to refer back to, because things get buried and hard to find again when you only share them on social media. Whether you want to publicly share your thoughts on these issues is up to you, but it does raise your visibility with other advocates and open you up to feedback and perspectives you can learn from, so I think it's worth seriously considering.
- Have a group of friends who you discuss this stuff with. I find that I form more thoughtful opinions and reactions when I am looking forward to sharing them with my friends. It’s also obviously a way to hear perspectives I haven’t considered, especially from friends of mine who are different from me and can lend cultural perspectives that are outside of my experience. These meetings are also a great jump-off point to form anything from formal discussion groups to actual action-oriented organizations. I belong to a few loosely-formed organizations like CHEER, which is working to advocate for sex ed policies in public schools. Then there are ones like Safe Space Nebraska which formed as a casual group of friends in 2012 and went on to become a 501(c)3 with a mission and strategic plan for growth. Other friendships have of course led to opportunities for board service or advisory roles for other nonprofit organizations or professional associations. To get there, to form these coalitions, you just have to start by finding your people. See who is doing the same work as you and get together.
- Find a mentor. Get to know some experts in the policy fields you are interested in who know more than you do, and pay attention to what they are reading and focusing on, and give them your feedback. See what you can learn. I would suggest that you don’t ask too much of these people, but that you look for windows of opportunity where you can enrich the work or help reach the goals they are working toward. A lot of these experts will be found in the organizations and coalitions you will find yourself learning about, and they will connect you to opportunities to sort of learn on the job through volunteering.
- So yes, volunteer. Ask where you can help, always. And think seriously about committing to doing one thing for a set amount of time—one month, the entire summer, a year, something. Just start with one. Don’t commit to another thing until you finish the term of commitment for the first, so you don’t overextend yourself too much and so you have space to step back and consider how fulfilling the work is for you.
This is where I would suggest beginning. Other outcomes will happen naturally from these simple first steps, such as developing a habit of writing letters to the editor or to lawmakers, or turning some of those informal groups into a truly mission-driven organization, or possibly getting involved in a campaign or running for office yourself. I think these habits and tips are exactly where to begin to get that snowball rolling and see where it ends up.