Use Political Advocacy, Social Action to Benefit Your School

“The inner workings of the political world can be as foreign to your school as your world of academia is to politicians. How do you bridge the gap?”

Gloria Aparicio-BlackwellGloria Aparicio-Blackwell

Campuses have a tendency to be insular. But reaching out to your local and state government leaders can have reciprocal benefits.

It’s a great way to advance your issues and the causes that your school believes in. The trick is getting started. You’re academics and they’re politicians. The inner workings of the political world can be as foreign to your school as your world of academia is to politicians. How do you bridge the gap?

At a workshop at the 2008 Office of Women in Higher Education (part of the American Council on Education) meeting in San Diego in February, three women shared how they and their networks work with politicians to advocate for their schools and the social causes they’ve adopted.

They were: Gloria Aparicio-Blackwell, assistant to the VP for administrative affairs at the University of Maryland at College Park; Carol Hollenshead, director of the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Rose Tseng, chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Advocacy at Maryland

In addition to her job, Aparicio-Blackwell has volunteered for the past three years at the Montgomery County Women’s Commission. It works on women’s issues such as trafficking and domestic violence. Its planning committee has 25 members, mostly African-American women who’d been in sororities. “They’re very energetic,” said Aparicio-Blackwell. During one briefing before a senator and congressman, they mobilized 600 people to attend, including 30 officials.

The team has compiled a “fantastic” list of collaborative partners. “You don’t have to do it by yourself,” she said. “There are people who can work with you—especially if they’re intending on your funds.”

For the past two years, she’s chaired the Women’s Legislative Briefing conference. It features political speakers and workshops on women and health, women and immigration, women and the law, women and the economy, and women and politics: effective advocacy and women running for political office. Conference materials included a reference folder with a comprehensive guide to Maryland’s political process, including a pocket guide to legislative documents and the political process, and government library and information services.

It also contained information about the Maryland Legislative Agenda for Women. Based in Towson, it’s a statewide coalition of individuals and women’s groups that have joined to provide an independent, non-partisan voice for women and families in Maryland. They advocate for progressive policies and critical legislation that protect and promote the well being of women and their families, and assist them with developing their full potential. Their key areas of focus include health care, reproductive rights, family law, economics, and domestic and sexual violence.

They meet periodically to determine their legislative agendas, and after a review by their board of directors, they put bills into action. Recent bills of theirs addressed domestic violence protection, family law and child custody, paternity and rape, health care reform and pay equity issues.

Their literature lists how to take action on issues:

  • Sign up for listservs.
  • Learn more about the issues you care about.
  • Contact your legislatures in season. Call, email, fax, write or visit legislators to express support or opposition to their bills. You can find your legislators, their contact info, copies of their bills and their hearing schedules online.
  • Attend the hearings and be visible and vocal by providing written or oral testimony. You can also contact the head groups to find out more about supporting or opposing proposals. Afterward, find out how the legislators voted, and hold them accountable, either by writing letters or during their next election.
  • Spread the word to friends and colleagues.

It also includes: flow charts of the state general assembly and the state government, an overview of the legislative process, a chart of the steps a bill must take to reach the governor’s office, 2008 general assembly session dates and detailed information on how to contact state legislators and committee members.

“MLAW works more in conjunction with women’s commissions across the state, but there is no direct connection with the university,” Aparicio-Blackwell told WIHE. “I used all of that material to illustrate how women in higher education could connect their efforts with non-profit organizations.”

Armed with this information, it’s easy to become involved in the political process. Ask if such a packet exists for your state; if not, consider compiling one and distributing it to make sure your school has a voice.

You may become so intrigued by the process that you consider running for office. Aparicio-Blackwell asks that you at least think about it. Women are still underrepresented as politicians, although Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent run is sure to spark increased interest in political office.

Research to policy at Michigan

Policy issues have become a central focus of the OWHE Michigan network, said Hollenshead. They have an active public policy committee made up of board members that tracks and works on policy issues in the state. At their annual meeting they hold core sessions on legislative issues affecting women, such as welfare reform, and sponsor dinners with state legislators.

She recommends meeting a public figure at least once before contacting her or him, so that your letters and calls might register. “It’s very important to get to know legislators and their staff,” she told WIHE, “so that when you contact them, they know who you are.”

On campus, she said, it’s important to work with people in charge of government relations, so that there’s a collaboration. Find out if there’s a public relationship development person on campus who might have made some headway on certain issues or with certain people, who can be a valuable resource for insight and knowledge.

Hollenshead retired June 30 after 20 years of directing Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women. Under her tenure, they’ve been engaged in research and publication that influences public policy. Current research addresses the issue of women in a high-tech economy.

“It looks at the need for additional workers in the high-tech economy in both Michigan and the United States in the next decade, and women’s under-representation in those fields. In order to be a global competitor, we need to close that gap,” she said.

The Center conducts research and disseminates it in ways that will affect public policy, as opposed to that which is excellent but doesn’t get past the academic community. “Ultimately one of the most effective things that research universities can do is to bring research to bear on problems and issues that policy makers, including legislators, are trying to address,” she said.

Close relationships at Hawaii at Hilo

Tseng spoke on effective strategies and tactics. Technically, she said, UH has a system head, but he lets them do “whatever,” because “they do it better.”

She’s found plenty of opportunities to practice political advocacy skills in Hawaii. The most effective way is to build close, long-term relationships with your legislators. “If you don’t know anybody, it’s hard to get anything done,” she said.

Cultivate relationships with a number of them by being bipartisan. Within the different parties, people have different views.

Her state has a higher education chairing committee that meets every week. They know her issues and where they stand. She’s made such a presence with them that they have asked her staff to write their bills. “Often legislators don’t like to write or know how,” she said.

Know that there are many points of approach. Ask about the women’s issues they’re working on, and what women can contribute or bring to the table. Don’t say, “We’ve been treated unfairly.” Play your positives and recognize that just complaining isn’t going to help.

Don’t be shy about it—just get in the door. Think out of the box. Attend their community meetings and fundraisers. In-vite them to speak on campus, or to attend meetings on campus or in town. “They love it,” said Tseng. “They love students, and being seen by people.” If it’s during a campaign, be sure to invite both sides.

Every semester, she hosts a legislative breakfast, inviting community leaders and officials. She usually opens by talk-ing about her university first, and has noticed that when invitees speak, they say “We love and are committed to…”

Take initiative as well by meeting them in their legislative offices. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Tseng. “They love for you to go in.”

If university regulations prohibit you from contacting legislators, find out who on your campus is allowed to approach them, and work with those people.

Understanding how legislators think will help you recognize the reciprocal benefits. They need you just as much as you need them, because you have influence. And legislators are especially interested in people who belong to a group of other people.

“They want votes,” she said. “That’s number one. You have 100 friends, and 1,000 students. You’re not just Jane Doe. And they respect faculty views.” Faculty tend to push for education, social change and the environment.

Be ready to help them help you by being clear about what you want. Make your case effectively. Draft the bill for them if need be.

If you do the work, you’ll know it’s getting done well. This also helps you to make friends with their staff. If you only have one meeting with someone, don’t say too many things or make too many points. You don’t want to overwhelm them. Just provide a few messages that will stick. In that meeting, it all boils down to “What exactly do you want?” Use the volume of people at your school as a tool. There is power in numbers. Recruit them to attend hearings. Make sure they’re visible. She has people attend hearings wearing red school shirts, so that they all stand out, and people know where they’re from.

Testify at the hearing, or submit written testimony correctly and on time. Anticipate that there may be very short deadlines. Be helpful, respectful and positive. If you present yourself as there to help legislators make improvements for their constituents, people will want to work with you.

Tseng also has announced her retirement.

Your school deserves to be known and recognized as a key player at the legislative table. Using these forms of political advocacy and social action can magnify its voice at the table and help promote your causes.


Gloria Aparicio-Blackwell at;

Carol Hollenshead at

Rose Tseng at

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