Bridging Advocacy and the Academy: A Researcher's Guide to the Capital

Last Friday I returned from Washington DC after an intensive six-day trip to educate and train students on engaging in policy advocacy. During this time, there were numerous inspiring moments as we watched the Supreme Court debate cases, examined Congress as they voted on legislation, and met with legislators and legislative aides who play a very important role in our day-to-day lives.

For some time now, the political and social environment in the United States has been turbulent and unpredictable. This has made my work as an educator even more important as I train students on navigating current institutions to promote social justice. However, as public dialogue has increasingly involved terms such as alternative facts and fake news, I have started to ask myself: Why am I not getting more involved in policy advocacy?

Unlike many scholars, I have the benefit of having public policy training. As a social worker, policy practice is part of our curriculum. My PhD is in Urban Affairs and Public Policy. I've also benefited from training sponsored by the John A. Hartford Foundation on translating research findings to policymakers.

Researchers can play a paramount role in policymaking - We can evaluate evidence. Community-based researchers are experts on the communities they are embedded in. We have a wealth of knowledge on how current and proposed policies will affect individuals and communities. Given the potential benefits of having more academics involved in policymaking, I am providing tips and resources on how to bridge the academy with the Capital for those academics who may not feel confident on how to get involved.

1. Translate your research findings to policy-speak.

It's a terrible cycle: Researchers complain that their research is not used to inform policy and practice while policymakers and practitioners lament that researchers don't explain HOW to implement research findings. As researchers, we need to have a better understanding on the implications of our research findings for policy and practice. What should policymakers DO. given your research findings? Many policymakers may even need help in understanding WHY your research findings should even be important to them. Some questions you should be able to answer include:

  • What are the implications of your findings for the outcomes of current or proposed policies?

  • What do your research findings indicate about new policies that should be introduced?

  • What aspect of your findings suggest that there should be changes in how policies and public programs should be implemented?

  • What do your research findings say about costs to government and the public? Potential cost-savings?

Don't EVER give a policymaker a research article (unless they ask for it). Instead, translate your research into policy briefs or summaries.

An extreme case where this can go wrong is when policymakers take research out of context. Remember the uproar about Shrimp on Treadmills? What was labeled as "silly research" actually had significant economic and environmental implications that legislators may not have labeled as "silly."

2. Forge relationships with legislators.

Working with policymakers is a marathon of a goal, not a sprint. When you find legislators or their staff members who are really receptive of your work, keep in contact with them. Being fairly new to Alabama, I used the opportunity of taking students to Washington DC to start working on this goal. During my downtime in DC, I met with the staff of legislators from Alabama to discuss the expertise of our faculty, how we can help them with policymaking, and volunteered to provide them with resources and support.

In other words, rather than the common experience where constituents ask legislators to do something for them, I met with legislators to ask, "What can WE do for YOU?" I hope to continue forging these relationship until legislative aides start calling me with questions.

During one meeting with a legislative aide last week, I was told to reach out to the Senator's office when I apply for grants that support communities in Alabama. He said, "We can write letters of support or follow-up with the grantmaking offices for you." I never thought of that. How beneficial that could be in my own career!

Note that many academic institutions have a government relations department. Talk with them first to learn if there are any rules and regulations the university has on talking with legislators. They may also be helpful in connecting you with legislators.

3. Put down social media and become part of the system.

There is no shortage on memes and posts on Facebook and Twitter about government officials and public policy responses. How has that been working to make positive change? Oftentimes, these social media posts are superficial in their message or further divisive.

While social media has its limits, social action can actually facilitate change. Get involved in advocacy causes. Meet with legislators and other public figures. Better yet - become part of the system. This year was the first time I attended a locally-organized information session on how to run for public office. Do I have current plans to run for office? No. Will it help me if I decide to run for office in the future? Of course.

Want to learn more about running for office? There is a non-partisan Candidate Bootcamp that may provide you with important information.

The take away? As academics, we have a lot to offer to facilitate social change. However, you can't make change unless you initiate it! Don't let the March for Science be our only contribution to public policy. Find out how you can put your research into positive action.

Photo: Our faculty and students meeting with Senator Doug Jones (I'm on the bottom, second from the right, leaning on the table).

Photo: Taking academia to the Capital!

#advocacy #policyanalysis

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