Guest Post: From classroom to capitol, literally

*One of my students, Jody McCready, was a Kansas legislative intern this past session (in addition to her practicum and a full load of classes!). She kindly agreed to share her experiences here, and I know that she’d welcome your comments, too! What can you do to increase your engagement with your state legislature? How should our social work curricula be modified to encourage these experiences? Which piece of advice speaks most to you?

I was interested in interning at the Statehouse this year because I figured given the political environment and economic status there would be much to learn and observe. I was correct in this assumption. Some days I left the Statehouse extremely confused, irritated, and hopeless. I will try to share with you some of the lessons I have learned from my year with the legislature in a precise manner. Here are my top twelve lessons from the Statehouse:

12. Say “Hi” to everyone in the hallways, and start small talk with other people- even those who you disagree with. Talk to all legislators and develop a personal relationship. While talking to representatives, use your clinical skills and gather information about them- what they are experiencing. Talks should not just revolve around professional topics; really dedicate yourself to getting to know elected officials as the person they are. AND create relationships with the secretaries and support staff- they are the gatekeepers to the legislature.

11. Sometimes it is all about the money. Unfortunately, sometimes your goals and mission are overriden by the economic status. This year is a prime example. While this is frustrating to experience, you must not give up on educating elected officials about your mission and the needs of the population you are advocating for.

10. Understand that our representatives are not geniuses, and do not know it all. Many are honestly normal people. While some officials may have higher education, others may just have a high school education. For example, the representative I interned for only has an associate’s degree and has never had experiences with the population I am motivated to advocate for. Other legislators may reference religious morals as a basis for making political policy and votes. We must interact with representatives as if they know nothing about our mission and concerns. We must educate them on the basic concerns and needs of the population we are advocating. We also must know how to manage the topic of religion, especially how its tenets may contradict the realities of our populations. This takes precision and tact when in discussion with representatives who rely on such religious beliefs for policymaking.

9. Use your listening, paraphrasing, and “clinical” skills. Yup, engaging representatives (or consumers) through meaningful conversations is the way to connect. Your connection with an elected official will benefit you!

8. Prepare for uncomfortable situations, awkward statements, and boundary violations. It will happen. Some elected officials are not professional, and others may make inappropriate comments about your appearance or work. Be prepared on how you are going to deal with such situations.

7. Utilize resources supported by the state, like the research office and library. There are many resources supported by the State that are available to the public. Do not be afraid to call the research department when reviewing an issue, or consult the library to find resources.

6. Present professional, well-rounded information. Present professional-looking materials. Try to supply not only statistical information but also personal stories. Make suggestions for amendments for policies in the works; don’t just present problems. If you have a concern about a policy, don’t be afraid to supply amendments or suggestions to improve the policy. You would be surprised how many legislators are interested in hearing such improvements. Many representatives do want to represent their constituents but don’t how to address the gaps in policies. We as social workers are the experts and can supply suggestions close such gaps.

5. Don’t discriminate according to party. Just because a representative is a “Democrat” or “Republican” does not mean that they agree with the party’s stance on every issue. They all are humans and their path through life has led them to have different life experiences, just like us. By talking to representatives you never thought would support your cause, you may surprise yourself and find a new supporter.

4. Know yourself and what topics trigger you! Prepare yourself for stereotypical statements and testimony that will flat-out infuriate you. Prepare for this, create a plan on how to deescalate your feelings when you are getting worked up while in a professional environment, and how to deal with the stress that follows when you leave for the day.

3. Volunteer to attend political events, forums, and to assist in campaigns. I am volunteering to help a representative out of Overland Park this summer just to gain more experience. There is much to learn while interacting with representatives on their campaign, and vice-versa. Representatives do have much to learn from social workers given hot political topics.

2. Constituents need to be present and visible in the Statehouse. Bottom line- constituents are the most effective way to get a representative’s attention. Elected officials are devoted to their constituents and by bringing a constituent to them who can speak to your mission will achieve much.

1. Social workers are needed in the Statehouse DAILY. Social workers need to be visible and available to legislators. Being at the capital for one day does not create a lasting impression with legislature. You want to cultivate a relationship with a legislator? Be visible, available, and constant in the legislator’s day.

I personally suggested to the Dean to make capitol experiences a focus in our school intern curriculum, even for clinical workers. As social workers we learn the needs and concerns from our community through direct experience; this is why we must also have direct experience in the legislature. All social workers have much to learn from direct observation and presence in the legislature. We as social workers need to be present in the legislative session to fill the role of liaisons from policy development to current functioning of our communities.

I also feel that organizations need to continue contact with representatives after session. Organizations must invite legislators to educational events and trainings to inform them of their organization’s mission, concerns, service, and population’s need. There is just not enough time to do this while in session; therefore we must maintain the relationship with our elected officials and continue education with them as much as possible after the end of the legislative session.

7 responses to “Guest Post: From classroom to capitol, literally

  1. What a great experience, thanks for sharing. And I agree, legislative experience would be a great addition to SW curriculum and definitely for clinical tract students. The comment about legislators being just normal people was right on. And the more social workers meet legislators the more we all understand that. I’d love to see a stronger connection between social workers and legislators. Great article!

    • Thanks, Lesa. How do you use your clinical skills in legislative work?

      • Probably the most used skills are my listening skills and my knowledge of group dynamics. I find using reflective listening is very useful when talking with legislators.

        Also I use narrative therapy techniques: having clients share their stories. I think presenting our legislators with snapshots of real people and their situations is helpful. I may not be able to decipher the language of the law but I can show how a law impacts a family or individual. These examples can be very powerful.

      • Awesome about narrative therapy–I think that’s so critical. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great post! I think its important to emphasize that legislators are normal people doing there jobs with what knowledge they have at hand, and that at times it will not be the knowledge that we have had as social workers. Im a new reader to this blog, and I think its wonderful so far, im very glad i stumbled upon it.

    • Absolutely–that understanding of the realities of legislators’ perspectives serves to both reduce the barriers to legislative advocacy (because we have less perceived social distance to policymakers) and to make it all the more imperative! Thanks for reading, and for sharing your comments.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Social Work Links 19 « Fighting Monsters

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