Student Advocacy Project–Invisible Kansans

This is the first in a series of posts about my students’ organizing and advocacy projects this semester. They have graciously given me permission to post about their activities, their reported learning, and my response to their projects, and I am very grateful. I hope that these summaries might be helpful to other faculty engaged in the supervision of similar advocacy/organizing projects, to students contemplating how to weave together action and academics, and to practitioners who are considering utilizing student activists in their work. Students, PLEASE comment to correct any mischaracterizations on my part and/or to add your own analysis. I appreciate so much your openness to the learning experiences this past semester and your generosity in sharing your stories. You are a tremendous group of people!

I’m starting in no particular order, but I think everyone will agree that this first project was truly stellar. I was very excited about this project even before the semester started because I have very high regard for the host organization, Interhab, and their advocacy. They consistently involve constituents in very meaningful ways and, while they have not always been successful in advancing their ambitious legislative agenda of increased funding for services for those with developmental disabilities, they are absolutely always on the agenda, due to their lobbying, organizing, and media work, and that is no small feat.

The students’ experience ended up even more rewarding, I think, than I had dared to hope. Interhab involved the group of 5 students in their Invisible Kansans campaign, and they had opportunities to participate in event organizing, direct campus/peer organizing, policy research, and messaging work. They were also able to observe Interhab’s truly cutting-edge work related to paid advertising, lobbying, emerging technologies, and constituent empowerment. (You should seriously check out their website, because their use of YouTube videos and Facebook and consumer testimonials is really outstanding). Some of the students’ specific activities included:

  • Collecting more than 100 signatures on postcards to legislators regarding legislation to increase funding for Medicaid waiver services (including those collected on campus at KU, as students canvassed in front of Wescoe Hall)
  • Helping with the organizing of a reception to honor providers and other leaders in the movement for justice and dignity for those with developmental disabilities, and the preparation of advocacy materials to be included there
  • Assisting with the creation of these excellent documents that detail the economic impact of HB2094, the “Invisible Kansans” bill–I was blown away by how slick these documents look (see links below), and how excellent the information was regarding the actual dollars that would be brought into each county if the bill passes; we all need to get a lot smarter about learning how to talk about our social service issues like this!
  • Identifying organizations at KU that could be recruited to endorse the legislation and participate in the campaign–hopefully some of these will become long-term partners of Interhab, as a major goal of theirs for this year was to expand their coalition beyond providers and consumers, and they identified college students as a possible target group

    The students expressed some challenges, particularly related to distance (Interhab is about an hour away from the campus where these students have class) and to some communication difficulties, particularly as their primary contact at Interhab (Matt Fletcher–a great person to know if you want to learn about how to mobilize and do media work, particularly) was extremely busy during the legislative session. They also missed Interhab’s Lobby Day, because it was very early in the session. In all, though, it was a pretty smooth collaboration, and the students identified a few key learnings that I think apply to other students engaging in advocacy for the first time, too:

  • Some of the strategies that were the most successful were also those that were the most uncomfortable initially; it was in getting beyond their comfort zone, so to speak, that they saw the most impact.
  • Dividing up work according to their areas of greatest interest and skill helped their group to function more effectively and maximized their enjoyment of the project–Adam did amazing things with the analysis and document preparation, and I wasn’t surprised, since his policy brief was terrific, also; Alicia is outgoing and determined, and she took the lead in the canvassing on campus.
  • Because they had little direct experience working with this population or these issues, it helped to work with an organization that is so focused on keeping the consumers at the center of the advocacy; however, it was still hard to feel totally connected, particularly to the legislative piece, so more frequent updates from Matt would have been helpful.

    At the end of the semester, HB2094 still hadn’t even been voted out of the House Appropriations Committee, evidence that even stellar organizing does not guarantee legislative progress, particularly in a budget year like this one. While the students were frustrated by this, they also felt that they had been able to see some steps in the process through to completion, which helped their overall feelings of accomplishment. As their instructor, one of my biggest learnings here was that it is important to choose projects not just based on my relationships (I had really had very little interaction with Interhab before) but primarily based on the organization’s own track record for advocacy and organizing. Interhab provided the students with a superior experience, and I have built some new contacts that will help other students in the future. I also think it’s important to provide some of the context for organizing and advocacy work in class, since the ‘big picture’ easily gets lost in the field when students and their hosts are busy moving towards a set of goals.

    The students involved in this project were: Adam Timberlake, Susila Gabbert, Anna Giles, Anna Gude, and Alicia Jones. What questions do you have for them? Or for me? Students, what did I leave out, or what do you want to say about your experience this semester? Interhab folks, is there anything that you want to add?

    politicallyDisabled_largeOne of the pieces the Invisible Kansas Campaign developed for their branding

    Materials:
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