In response to the increasing political attacks on science, in 2018 the Union of Concerned Scientists launched the Science and Democracy Fellowship to support scientists in becoming local advocacy leaders. We were selected for the inaugural six-month program to mobilize our local communities, in partnership with UCS, in confronting federal attacks on science.
Who are we, and what did we do?
We are five early- and mid-career scientists from Indiana (Adrienne), Maine (Shri), Missouri (Emily), Montana (Lindsay), and Nevada (Tim) who organized actions and events within our respective local communities to stand up for science-based policies at the local and federal level. Some common themes emerged as we reflected on our collective lessons-learned, which we’ll share in a two-part blog series.
- Being a constituent gives you the right to engage. Start with one small step; each action you take will empower you to do more.
- Develop inclusive relationships.
- Be explicit in your ask and prepare to be adaptive to the response.
We continue to integrate these ideas in our advocacy and invite you to listen to our experiences in our own voices below.
1. Being a constituent gives you the right to engage. Start with one small step; each action you take will empower you to do more.
Tim – Advocacy doesn’t have to be complicated or be some huge project. Little efforts, like letters to the editor (LTEs), are small acts of advocacy and achieve small action goals when people don’t have much time or experience. Having success on these smaller projects builds momentum that can provide better support for larger projects. I found that once my group had done a smaller effort, it was easier to focus on a bigger goal.
Adrienne – I agree, Tim. Leading with small examples makes the bar lower for others to get engaged. For example, if you are trying to get others to call their congresspeople, are you also calling every week? Even better, can you get someone else to make a call with you during your coffee break? LTEs can be short, but should be timely which can be challenging to accomplish as a solo act. Can you get one other person to join you in writing a letter, getting them engaged, splitting the work, and enhancing inclusivity?
Shri – The template for writing LTEs provided by UCS made it so easy! Once I had a local paper in my hand it took about 5 minutes of skimming to find an article I could reply to. Then it was as simple as plugging in sentences according to the template. The biggest barrier during our LTE party was the fact that none of us actually read the paper! We realized that this was an important way to be connected to the local community. Writing an LTE is a great place to start. If I were to do it over again I would get a bunch of people in the same room with a stack of papers. We could easily go through the whole process of skimming the paper, finding the article and writing the letter in an hour.
Emily – Remember that newspapers are struggling with shrinking budgets! Many editors and reporters will be happy that you’re offering your own perspective in the form of an op-ed or LTE, and they don’t have to use vital resources to track a story down themselves.
Lindsay – It’s easy to make excuses that prevent you from engaging. It’s just as easy to engage. An LTE is a mere 150 words, we all have 150 words to share on a topic we care about! I put off writing an LTE for months, when I finally did it, it was a breeze. Having community members and representatives reach out to me on social media in response was validating, and made me feel silly for putting off such a simple, effective task for so long.
2. Develop inclusive relationships.
Shri: Build inclusive relationships, make connections, use your network. Consider who is at the table, be grateful to those who show up, and make the effort to reach out to the people who are not at the table, whose voices are under represented. When you prepare to take an action, take a step back and identify who is impacted, then make moves to raise their voices. This could mean putting your efforts on hold to support what they already have going on. Be intentionally inclusive and proactive about addressing equality. It’s helpful to make meaningful connections by keeping the ask low pressure, simple and sincere.
Tim – I think of this one as a network circle. A journey around my network circle includes members of science advocacy groups, such as the Nevada watchdogs, the communities who have a specific science supported goal, and the audience or recipient of the action or advocacy goal. I agree with Shri and the other fellows that inclusion is essential to success. This inclusion was a key to identifying important scientific question topics that we submitted to our Senate debate.
Emily – As Tim has said, a “network circle” is a great visual that really speaks to the core importance of advocacy communities. I envisioned a “ripple” when thinking about the network I hoped to build. As in, how far do my advocacy concerns resonate outside my immediate circle? Also, in thinking about diversity equity inclusion (DEI), it’s important to ask, “Who am I not seeing ‘at the table’? Who is missing, and why?” I’m learning not to assume that the people who show up to your actions are the only ones interested. Many others may be constrained by time, resources, or a feeling they don’t belong. But the strongest network circle is going to be the one that captures as many voices as possible.
Lindsay – Diversity, equity, and inclusion were at the forefront of all of my planning but I struggled to incorporate it in an effective way in my actions. This struggle led me to organize a discussion that was open to the community on the challenges and importance of creating inclusive spaces. My takeaway is that this is not always an easy task, but it is a task worth every ounce of energy. Be willing to learn in public spaces and learn from your neighbors.
3. Be explicit in your ask and prepare to be adaptive to the response.
Tim – In my experience, people have limited time but do want to get involved. That being said the more specific tasks or asks that you present, the greater the chance for involvement or success. I had two contrasting group events and saw a noticeable difference in engagement when I was able to drill down to a single or few items for each person to accomplish in a project rather than an open format that allowed individuals to work out the details of a larger project.
Shri – Use examples to show what a finished piece looks like, i.e., an LTE or letter to one’s representatives.
Emily – After you’ve made a specific ask, as Shri and Tim mention, it might be time to “adapt to the response”. Remember that your advocacy goals versus the goals of the groups or individuals you are working with may differ, but be prepared to lean into that difference. A community member who’s been engaged for longer than you has insider information as well as needs and constraints that are important to heed.
Each of us joined the Fellowship as a single drop, so to speak, but in joining our advocacy efforts with each other, and in engaging with members of our local communities, we made ripples in advancing science and policy advocacy in our respective states. Over time, these advocacy ripples became waves and influenced science and policy at a higher level. Just remember – we started as drops. Now, that little drop could be YOU.
Stay tuned for the second part of our series where we focus on how to make organizing and advocacy a sustainable endeavor–even while juggling work, school, and life.
Shri A. Verrill grew up in the Western foothills of Maine and holds a M.S. in Biology from the University of Southern Maine where she gained expertise in wetland science focusing on coastal salt marsh, estuarine ecology. Shri is currently a Habitat Restoration Project Manager with the Downeast Salmon Federation, and has lobbied both at the State and Federal level with the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and with the Downeast Science Watchdogs.
Lindsay Wancour works with Swan Valley Connections, a collaborative conservation and education non-profit, as their Field Program Coordinator. Originally from Michigan, Lindsay moved to Montana after graduating from Michigan State University and served in Americorps’ Montana Conservation Corps. She then went on to complete her M.S. in Environmental Science from University of Montana, focusing on community engagement in watershed health. After completing her UCS fellowship, she started a UCS Western Montana Local Team and has continued her work in advocacy with her newly formed team.
Adrienne Keller is a PhD student in the Evolution, Ecology and Behavior program in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, where she studies forest carbon and nutrient cycling. Adrienne holds an M.S. in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana and a B.A. in Biology and Geography from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN). In addition to her research in ecosystem ecology, Adrienne is an active member of the newly formed, grassroots organization Concerned Scientists @ IU.
Tim Rafalski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Computer Science department at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He works under Dr. Andreas Stefik conducting empirical studies—designing, running, and implementing programming language experiments—to validate scientific computing design and organization. Outside of the lab, Tim is a math and science tutor for students in elementary school through college, and he helps organize and participate in community elevating educational events.
Emily Piontek is seeking her master’s degree in Human Dimensions of Natural Resource Management at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She believes that climate solutions and common-pool-resource protections require a combination of political action and the fostering of place-based environmental values in our communities. In her classes and as a research assistant, she studies the relationship between human behavior and natural resources.
Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.
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