LESSON 6:V – ENGAGING WITH ELECTED LAWMAKERS TO PREVENT ACES AND TRAUMA
Your ACEs prevention project, including innovations and projects focused on ensuring that all children, students and families have access to behavioral health care, medical care, stable housing, secure food sources and fully-resourced community schools, will depend on support from local and state leadership. We must start building those relationships thoughtfully, strategically and respectfully.
To succeed with your mission to ensure trauma-free and thriving childhoods, consider a very long sentence that describes basic communication in six components:
Who says what to whom for what reason through which process with what results?
What this 14-word question details is everything you need to know about communicating with those leaders and stakeholders who hold the success of your project in their hands by controlling the priorities and budgets of state, county, city and school departments. As you contemplate connecting with an elected leaders, whether a state senator, city council member or school board member, be very clear about the following.
The “who” is you, or more accurately, who is doing the reaching out and, ideally, the face-to-face meeting. This might you be you, Rayna F. Sanchez, private citizen. It could be Rayna, leader of the ACEs Action Community initiative of Lea County. It might be one representative or the entire ten-person action team. Or better yet, it might be Rayna representing the Leah County Cross-Sector Community initiative which represents twenty-five agencies serving thousands of people a day throughout the county. When you begin to reach out to others, be very aware of what we call your “public face” and who you represent. Elected officials and the staff who most likely may make an appointment will see a solo resident very different than someone who legitimately represents hundreds if not thousands of residents/constituents.
What is your message? If you are leading the ACEs Community action team on behavioral health care, you may have many messages but focus on the top three most important issues. You may wish to share with a state senator that: 1) based on the results from the County Parent Survey, 75% of parents report having little or no access to behavioral health care. 2) Based on data from the ACEs surveys and other public health data focused on mental health, there is a significant need for behavioral health care. 3) Your research strongly suggests that one of the most effective strategies for improving access to care for both parents and their children is through school-based behavioral health care centers and you would like support for a bill focused on funding such centers across your county.
Be very clear about whom you need to connect with and why the relationships matters. If your issue is seeking funding to support a countywide system of affordable housing, a school board member might not be “the whom” you need to be speaking with — at least at first. If you have identified a particular project that you are seeking funding for, it might be a local or state lawmaker instead. You will want to research all the lawmakers that might impact your work in housing (or the other nine sectors). You should know an elected leader’s voting record and interests and it would also help to know a bit about a leader’s staff. Remember, you are building relationships that will take time. Due diligence will bring rewards.
For what reason?
Again, as mentioned earlier, be very clear about why you are seeking a meeting and building a relationship with a lawmaker and their staff. Do you want to introduce the mission of your ACES Prevention Coalition and build awareness of the epidemic of adverse childhood experiences and trauma? Do you wish to hand deliver a copy of the county survey on parent’s needs? Do you want to share data focused on documenting a problem that desperately needs to be addressed by funding through a city budget, or the development of a state senate or house bill? Might you want a policy created by the school board? Be very clear about your communication strategy and your reasons for meeting. You will want to focus on building awareness of the emotional and financial costs of ACEs and trauma first. After that, you can determine mutual interest in the issue and if a lawmaker might support prevention strategies.
Through which process?
You, like hundreds if not thousands of residents, want the ear of an elected official. You not only wish to be heard, you want a partner in the city hall or state house for a mission and cause you feel deeply about. You will most likely be starting with multiple emails, then a phone call, in order to secure an appointment. You might be meeting with staff a few times before you actually meet with a lawmaker. It all depends on the city, county and state. In some political environments, things are quite horizontal or “flat,” meaning that even state lawmakers are very accessible and not living on some lofty cloud. In other localities, lawmakers are tech millionaires who can be very hard to reach. It’s all about personal style. If you meet with staff or a lawmaker, just follow the golden rule: be polite. Go prepared with a one-pager that clearly describes your project and why it’s important. Have reliable data to make a point. Show up early. Listen closely. Your mission, in a first meeting, is not about getting a “yes” — it’s about exploring a connection to assess if you and your action team might be in alignment with a lawmaker. It’s a process not unlike dating (the old fashioned slow form, not the app-driven instant hook up style).
With what results?
The goal of any meeting with an elected official and their staff should be to make a connection, share vital information and explore mutual interest in a ACEs Community project (by the way, in some situations it’s the staff who may become your biggest supporter, so never be dismissive of the support staff who often wield great power). After your meeting, you and your action team members should assess what took place — or at least what you think took place. Follow up with thank you in electronic or paper form and continue to share updates with staff and leaders.
There you have it, in a tongue-twisting 14-word question: Who says what to whom for what reason through which process with what results? Consider giving it a test-drive as it’s worked wonders for us with state lawmakers, county commissioners, mayors, city council members and school board members.