Iowans Thrive Blog
Featuring stories, research, and news on Iowa's movement to respond to ACEs
You likely see firsthand how families experience stress and adversity in your community and the important work taking place to connect families with services and supports. Informing elected leaders about what is happening in their districts can ensure they are making decisions that promote the conditions for families to thrive.
Groups in two Iowa communities especially have engaged in advocacy with elected officials. These groups consist primarily of government and nonprofit representatives who understand the role they can play in educating their representatives as they weigh policy decisions, without telling them how to vote:
Wapello County Healthy Communities is a group in the Ottumwa area that regularly connects about 40 representatives from organizations in early childhood, education, health and human services, government, and economic and workforce development sectors. Since the 1990s, it has hosted a legislative forum each December. State and federal leaders and their staff are invited to learn about issues related to family and child well-being in the region and to share their priorities. Elevating issues collectively also has encouraged changes, like speeding up the rate of Medicaid reimbursements to providers and looking at childcare solutions that improve the quality of care.
The Thriving Families Alliance in the Council Bluffs area brought organizations in the family support sector together to inform legislators of their work and the needs they see during the 2022 state session. Organizing the forum was the next step in Executive Director Patricia Russmann’s efforts to connect issues related to family well-being with the priorities leaders are focused on. She also has engaged in conversations with the business community and with local officials to help elevate family support as a part of their goals.
Here are ideas Pat McReynolds, Regional Director of the Mahaska Wapello Early Childhood Iowa, and Russmann with Thriving Families offer for engaging in advocacy:
1. Educate as a part of advocacy.
McReynolds views advocacy as “educating legislators passionately in the direction you want them to go.” Using research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), she’s been able to help leaders see beyond individual programs to how they can make decisions that benefit families in all of their decision-making.
Russmann agrees that advocacy is providing leaders with points to consider as they are making decisions, but not telling them what to decide. “An essential part of my role is educating leaders to understand how the decisions they make are really being implemented on the ground and the impact it has,” she said. “It’s not just asking for money. You have to have a lot of other conversations before you ever get to asking for funding. It’s a lot of education.”
2. Build efforts over time.
While Thriving Families first legislative forum was not as well attended as Russmann would have liked, the event engaged a legislator who is working on policies that impact the early childhood sector—opening the door to build a stronger relationship with the legislator. By continuing to host a forum each year, she hopes more leaders will begin to expect the event and engage in the conversation.
She views advocacy as an opportunity to engage leaders over time, helping shift their understanding of issues that address their underlying beliefs. “I think it’s something you just have to chip away at,” she said. “People have to hear it multiple times before eventually, if you’re lucky, a light bulb goes off and they see the connection.”
3. Grow your advocacy base.
Cheryll Jones with University of Iowa’s Child Health Specialty Clinic in Ottumwa engages everyone she meets to serve on advisory boards and to join in advocacy efforts by starting with a training on how to do it, says McReynolds. McReynolds has joined her in educating those new to the human services field or advisory boards in understanding trauma-informed, healing-centered approaches to addressing ACEs. “Any time you have new people coming in, you have that opportunity to bring them up to speed,” said McReynolds.
4. Narrow your focus.
As the Healthy Communities coalition organizes its annual legislative forum, committee members decide what issues to focus on for that year, often selecting two or three topics of broader interest or concern across community organizations. They also select individuals or groups to share their experiences with programs to highlight work that’s happening in the community. Centering each forum around a shared agenda elevates specific, actionable needs each year.
“People are passionate down here and the needs are great,” said McReynolds, “so we just want to make sure that people are aware and understand how those needs come together.”
Russmann agrees that while agencies are often working on many issues that need to be addressed, narrowing the focus is important. “I’ve learned to be more focused if I’m going to have an ask. It needs to be just one or two things—just really zero in and try to not get sidetracked with a lot of other issues that I also care about.”
She also makes sure her emails to elected leaders clearly state she is a constituent and the topic she wants to discuss in the first two lines, before providing any additional context.
5. Leverage relationships with individuals or groups with influence.
While some state funding streams require having an elected official on an advisory committee, Russmann also sees this as an opportunity to build connections in the community with people who have influence. The officials on her board, for example, have helped her secure meetings with her state representatives.
She also has connected with the business community’s priorities by serving on the Chamber of Commerce’s policy committee. Her involvement has given her a chance to learn about their issues while also weighing in, such as educating them on how childcare solutions need to address not just the quantity of spots available but also the quality.
McReynolds has helped raise awareness of ACEs with the business sector, so leaders see their connection to human services issues. Through these education efforts, she’s noticed more business leaders engage in discussions around topics, including childcare and housing.
6. Approach leaders personally.
Before visiting with an elected official, Russmann tries to learn about their background, what committees they serve on and other information that can help her connect what their interests are to the issues she’s talking about. Thanking leaders for their service and asking about their families also has built stronger relationships at a time when many leaders feel threatened by an increase in attacks, especially on social media.
Another strategy is to ask leaders questions and take time to listen to what is important to them, fostering dialogue instead of just delivering a presentation.
7. Go where elected officials are.
Both McReynolds and Russmann attend public meetings that bring elected leaders together to discuss issues, especially during the state legislative session. They see this as an opportunity to learn about elected leaders' priorities and ask questions. McReynolds especially uses these events as opportunities to introduce herself to newly elected officials as their local Early Childhood Iowa representative, positioning herself as a resource. She even subscribes to elected leaders’ newsletters and will respond to their surveys and other opportunities to provide feedback, making sure issues of family and child well-being are a part of what they’re hearing.
8. Get familiar with how the system works.
McReynolds encourages people to attend Day on the Hill events and visit the Capitol to see how the legislative process works. She shares her own experiences with high school government classes to encourage students’ civic participation.
“30 years ago, I never would have thought I would be involved or engaged politically as I am today,” said McReynolds. “The more I’ve gotten involved, the more I’ve seen they’re just people.”