Don’t forget that relatively few Americans vote in local elections. That may be a disgrace, but it also means that advocacy by a committed few can have the greatest impact.

Even if the opioid epidemic has been bumped from the news cycle, it’s still with us, and we’re also looking at the impact of ever-increasing cannabis use in many states. That means new money will be required for treatment and prevention– from legislatures that are looking to reduce funding, not expand it.

I’m not a political person by inclination. Nonetheless I’ve learned a few thing over the years about advocacy for human services, from some genuine experts. I thought I’d share a couple lessons.

As a veteran Capitol Hill staffer put it, the business of government is dividing up the pie. That’s the money pie, of course. It’s one thing to pass a much-needed piece of legislation, and another to make sure it’s adequately funded. That’s where advocacy can make the greatest difference.

The first step in success as an advocate, or so a longtime lobbyist told me, is simply to get noticed. Media attention is great, but it’s more important to get the attention of folks who will eventually vote on the issues. Two ways to accomplish that:

First, it’s worth the effort to write your representatives at the local, state, and national level. I know, I know: you suspect that politicians aren’t listening. But the point isn’t to get Congress to pay attention to you, it’s to let them know you’re paying attention to them, and what they do. A staffer needn’t listen to all the voicemails or read all the e-mails to get a feel as to how popular sentiment is running on an issue. That gets passed on in staff meetings. And is likely to stick in the boss’ mind when it’s time to cast votes.

Second: From a former U.S. Senator, I learned that advocacy has the most impact when it’s closest to home. Visiting the Capitol is a great way to draw attention and boost morale. But after you leave, another group arrives, and they want their picture taken, too. The news cycle doesn’t stop.

That’s why, he explained, the real action is at home. Don’t forget that relatively few Americans vote in local elections. That may be a disgrace, but it also means that advocacy by a committed few can have the greatest impact. The people you influence locally then carry the message to City government or the State Capitol or to Congress. That’s how the system works.

And as the Senator put it, democracy might as well work for us rather than against us.


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