Grassroots…What's the Big Deal

by Sheila Lane Forsyth

Did you know that in any given legislative year 9-10,000 bills are introduced in the U.S. Congress? Although only a very small percentage (approximately 6 percent) actually becomes law, these laws govern every aspect of our lives, from communication to recreation, from transportation to education and much more. Laws governing issues such as telecommunications, designation of national parks, gasoline taxes and educational loans and scholarships are among the hundreds of decisions that our legislators make on our behalf everyday.

But how do they know what we want or what is best for their local community? They depend on their constituents (the voters in their state or district) to let them know how [proposed] federal policy affects their local community. Knowing and being responsive to the needs and concerns of the voters is, in fact, their top priority; it is what got them elected and will help get them re-elected. In some instances legislators making policy decisions are not fully experienced in certain areas. Legislators, therefore, rely heavily on the expressed views of their constituents and information provided by experts – such as you. Through constituent letters, phone calls, and face-to-face meetings, legislators learn what's important to the “people back home.” As the legendary Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill often said, “all politics is local.”

In fact, knowing what's really important to you, what your needs are, what's happening in your local area or across the state, is what really counts on Capitol Hill. Despite the cynicism surrounding politicians and politics – especially in an election year — most Members of Congress go to work everyday trying to make a difference for his/her district or state and the nation.

It may surprise you to know that they not only rely heavily on what the voters think about an issue; in many cases they reach out to constituents who have expertise or knowledge in particular area and ask them for their help. Has that ever happened to you? If so, that's likely because you have been actively involved with grassroots. They know they can reach out to you when they need some assistance with a particular piece of legislation or even in the development of a proposed new policy initiative. In short: Members of Congress and their staff count on your letters and phone calls, your direct involvement, to help them know if they are "on the right track."

However, no matter how involved you are as an individual, greater influence and impact is gained when large numbers of constituents speak with “one voice.” And how is this best accomplished? It is only possible through organized grassroots activities.

The Federal Education Advocacy Coordinators (FEDAC) grassroots network

Inaugurated in December 2001, FEDAC is a campus-based nationwide, education advocacy grassroots network established to assist the APA Education Directorate and Public Policy-Education staff with efforts to gain federal support (funding) for psychology education and training. Although it is in its first years of development, when fully completed, the FEDAC network will include individuals representing the full spectrum of psychology education/training (i.e., graduate, postgraduate, undergraduate, and pre-college). The FEDAC network also works collaboratively with other psychology grassroots networks whenever possible and appropriate.

The FEDAC grassroots network is vital to the success of Education Advocacy legislative initiatives (i.e., authorizing and appropriations). Thus, FEDAC Regional Coordinators have been actively seeking to recruit psychology representatives on campuses and training sites in across the nation. Currently, there are over 150 Campus-based Training Representatives (CTRs) at psychology programs and training sites nation wide. Most importantly, these CTRs are promoting and coordinating grassroots activities with their psychology faculty colleagues. P sychologists, students and faculty from hundreds of universities, colleges, professional schools, and secondary schools have the potential to unite and become a powerful voice on Capitol Hill for psychology education and training.

“Through FEDAC I've been able to meet with the staffs of my representatives and often have been impressed by their intelligence, dedication, and enthusiasm. This gives me a glimpse into thinking on Capitol Hill and the whys of political decision-making. The fact that good can result from [my advocacy] is a reward enough, whether my own university/program directly benefits or not." Michael Roberts, PhD, Director, Clinical Child Psychology Program, University of Kansas

The emphasis on grassroots development has made an enormous difference in the success of all our advocacy initiatives. The reality is, while studies and testimony can be powerful tools in persuading lawmakers to support a piece of legislation, messages and visits from the "folks back home" (especially when they represent a large number of potential voters) are what catches the attention of the Member and his/her staff. Bottom line is grassroots activity is critical to sustaining support and gaining a "champion" – someone who will chose your issue as one of his/her top priorities. Thus, identifying psychologists who are willing to meet with their Member of Congress in their state or Washington, DC office is one of the most important aspects of our advocacy efforts.

Getting Involved Is an Easy and Rewarding Experience

So, exactly how hard is it to get involved? And what's in it for you, anyway? First, it is very easy to get involved in grassroots activities. Plus, contrary to what you may think, it doesn't take up that much of your time. In fact, it may be no more than an hour or your time every four to six months, if that. When you assist APA with its advocacy initiatives, we provide all the information you will need (e.g., sample letters, talking points, background briefing sheets) — whatever you would need to make an informed call or draft a letter. Further, should you agree to participate in a hill visit, we not only provide all the background materials you need, we also meet with you in advance and accompany you on your visit. So, you see, it's very easy… and rewarding.

“I think it is important to advocate for what you believe…it is important to work to improve our training for the future generations of psychologists, for the practice of psychologists and for the recipients of our services…. [Through grassroots activities] I have contributed to the development of [legislation] that hopefully will enhance the profession of psychology and the services we deliver to the public.” Emil R. Rodolfa, PhD, Director, Counseling Center, University of California-Davis

Funding for the Graduate Psychology Education (GPE) program — the first and only federal program solely dedicated to psychology education and training — would not have been possible without the support of psychologists all across the country. Over the past three years, over 200 psychologists have written letters, sent e-mail, made multiple phone calls and/or come into Washington to meet with their Members urging their support for the GPE program, which provides grants to APA accredited doctoral, internship and postdoctoral programs in support of interdisciplinary training of psychology students for the provision of psychological services to underserved populations (i.e., older adults, children, chronically ill, and victims of abuse and trauma), especially in rural and urban communities.

Has grassroots support made a difference to the GPE Program? Indeed it has. The program has continued a steady growth since its inception. Despite some of the worst budget battles in U.S. history, with many programs sustaining major cuts and others being eliminated, the GPE program has managed to grow or maintain its funding every year. Why? Because hundreds of psychologists are speaking out with one voice in support of the GPE program, that's why.

Grassroots activities have also been instrumental in gaining psychology's inclusion in key provisions of the reauthorization of Higher Education Act (HEA). Most recently, because of grassroots support, from APA members we were able to gain support for a very important legislation initiative.

"Personally, [advocacy] makes you feel you can make something happen (i.e., changing the passivity of an agenda that is important to you, into activity) and it makes you feel that you are helping both yourself and others, including the generations to follow. I have found it both personally and professionally invaluable." Laura Barbanel, EdD, Private Practice, Brooklyn Heights, New York

The APA proposed “College Care and Counseling Act” (S. 2215; HR 3593) was introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 12, 2004 by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Mike DeWine (R-OH), and co-sponsored by Senators Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and by Representatives Danny K. Davis (D-IL) and Tom Osborne (R-NE) in the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2003. The bill brings national attention to the mental and behavioral health needs of students on college campuses, especially as related to success (or failure) in college. With the support of grassroots involvement, these Members of Congress and their exceptional staff have worked hand in hand with APA Education Advocacy staff to draft the proposal submitted by APA. APA members developed every aspect of the language for this competitive grant program and worked closely with Education PPO staff in responding to congressional questions regarding needs at mental and behavioral health service centers on campuses around the country.

“Initiating and contributing to legislative and grassroots action, and the broadened perspective that accompanies these actions, is both collaborative and stimulating. With leadership from the Public Policy Office, the skill-building and encouragement needed to produce change on a larger level have been exciting and rewarding.” Rebecca MacNair-Semands, Associate Director, Counseling Center, UNC Charlotte

Grassroots…What's the Big Deal

Grassroots is the foundation for any successful advocacy initiative. It is the number one reason why legislators vote "for or against" pending or proposed bills. Thus, grassroots gives you an opportunity to help make a difference for psychology, for your students and for your community. So, the next time one of your colleagues asks you to write a letter, make a phone call or visit with your Senator or Representative on an issue of great importance to psychology, just say "yes." Don't be afraid of grass stains… join us!

For further information about advocacy initiatives and grassroots activities, contact Arielle Eiser.