I’m a huge believer in the idea that to make a difference, you should start where you’re already at. For me, that’s a graduate student studying bioengineering in Arizona. Many of us start graduate school with grand plans that inevitably are cut to size by our advisor. It takes time to learn the tools to make an impact, so we start small by learning to be the best scientists and community members we can be in our own labs. Ultimately these small steps help us to leave graduate school with the skills and confidence to make that big impact we wanted to when we first started.
Similarly, the goal of affecting political change can feel amorphous and far away when you’re just getting started. Washington D.C. is a long way from the lab for many of us and the distance can sometimes feel too far to bridge. However, much of the policy that affects our day-to-day lives is made on the state and local level. In my state, this includes everything from tax rates on gasoline to water usage to renter’s rights. My health, finances, and housing are directly affected by decisions made fifteen minutes down the road from me at our state capitol in Phoenix.
With this in mind, myself and other concerned graduate students got together to organize the first ever Science Day at the Arizona state legislature this past February. Our initial goals were pretty simple. We wanted to introduce ourselves to our legislators so they could learn about our science, and to introduce young scientists to the legislative process. We spent the day mingling with legislators, presenting our work on water issues, brainstorming new advocacy ideas, and observing law-making in action.
We learned a few key things along the way that may help your advocacy as well!
- Don’t go it alone: Several of us had been to the capitol before as individuals to comment on bills or speak with our legislators. I for one, sat through many frustrating hearings without back-up or moral support. Having a group of peers to help with organizing and refine the direction of our advocacy is an invaluable resource. Team up!
- Have an ally (or allies!) on the inside: Prior to Science Day, we built relationships with several sympathetic representatives. Their staffers were instrumental in helping us navigate everything at the capitol from room reservations to political dynamics. Build relationships and maintain them to work effectively at your state legislature. More often than not, representatives are happy to engage with you. Which brings me to our next tip…
- Make calls: In D.C., people’s phones are constantly ringing. In state capitols, much less so. Your calls have much more influence here. Trying to schedule something? Pick up the phone rather than sending an email. Staffers are an amazing resource and you can often get issues resolved quite quickly if you speak with them directly. Likewise, if you want to make yourself heard on an issue, keeping a representative’s staffer tied up on the phone is an effective way to make a statement. Fielding 50 calls from concerned local scientists takes up time that a staffer would otherwise be using to plan a representative’s schedule, bring them lunch, or make their day run more smoothly in a myriad of ways. Your lawmakers will notice you!
- Plan diligently but be flexible: While we scheduled our room for Science Day months in advance, the majority party decided to use it for caucusing the day before our event. We scrambled to find another space last minute and had to make some changes to the agenda, but ultimately the day went fantastically. Plan as best you can, but be prepared for some hiccups. Use those allies of yours to navigate them!
- Speak their language: Before we went to the capitol, we held several happy hours with local legislators and a fellow graduate student working in communications to help prepare us for speaking with our lawmakers. It’s a good idea to do some preparation beforehand on non-confrontational communication. Focus on building relationships and telling your story first, instead of starting with a demand. This will make the legislator you’re speaking with more receptive to the message you ultimately leave with them.
- Have a continuation plan: Put plans in place to sustain your advocacy like debriefing after events to discuss what worked and what didn’t, keeping in touch with staffers on a regular basis, and making sure that when a key player graduates or moves, someone else in the group can pick up the torch where they left off.
We hope that this Science Day will be an annual event that becomes part of our larger goals that have emerged from productive time with our lawmakers. Ultimately, we are working to establish a group of scientists as a “go-to” resource for science advising at the Arizona legislature. Just a few weeks after Science Day, a representative we spoke with decided to found a Science Caucus at the capitol to help represent scientific formally in our lawmaking. We’re excited to use the caucus as a stepping stone to the formation of a formal office for science advising at the state capitol. Secondly, we hope to continue empowering young scientists to make change in our state and beyond by giving them the confidence that comes from directly learning the structure, culture, and language of politics. Plans are in the works to provide regular speaking opportunities at the capitol for trainees in STEM.
Cassandra Barrett is a science policy activist and co-founder of the Arizona Science Policy Network. Her background is in CRISPR and epigenetic therapeutics development, and science communication in unconventional spaces. Her personal mission is to help ethically shape the regulation and implementation of genetic medicines by centering patient needs and justice practices. Cassandra obtained her PhD in Biological Design from the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering at Arizona State University. Find her on Twitter @cas9bar.
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