This year, I was sponsored by the Center for Leadership Education in Maternal
and Child Public Health at the University of Minnesota to attend the 2011 AMCHP Annual Conference in Washington, DC. As a master’s student nearing the completion of my MPH training, I knew the conference would offer four days of intensive learning opportunities, but I came away from the experience with much more than even I expected.
As a social service provider with years of experience working with at-risk youth, I am passionate about the policies that impact these populations. However, aside from the occasional email or phone call to a representative’s office, my legislative advocacy efforts have been quite minimal. I definitely see this competency as one of my biggest areas for growth, so when I noticed the skill-building session Can You Hear Me Now? Influencing Policymakers to Hear Your Call for Increased Support was being offered, I jumped at the chance to attend.
The room was filled with professionals, all with varying levels of policy and advocacy experience, and overall, I found their personal stories regarding their interactions with policymakers to be quite poignant. Many spoke of the need to change their messages and their approaches with each election cycle and within an ever-evolving political climate. Their dedication and their ability to work with diverse communities and systems was not only inspiring, but showed incredible creativity. The session emphasized crafting messages that influence policymakers, and it quickly became evident that their stories, some positive and some defeating, played an integral role in advancing the objectives of their organizations. These stories put a human face on MCH issues and can have a strong impact on legislators.
But stories alone are not often enough to persuade policymakers. It is essential to establish yourself as an expert, not just an advocate, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish that, such as presenting the negatives of your argument along with the positives and being prepared to discuss what works in other areas or states. The most important theme of the session was that of relationship building – finding common connections with policymakers, meeting them and establishing a rapport before you make a request, and staying in touch with legislators, not just contacting them when you need something. This session was effective because it not only gave me the tools to approach law makers, but also the confidence to advocate effectively on behalf of issues that I feel so strongly about.
In addition to the variety of skill-building sessions and workshops offered, I was also able to attend a professional coaching session. This individual, 40-minute session allowed me to speak one-on-one with Dr. Kris Risley, a trained and certified leadership coach regarding my career plans. As I near graduation and become more apprehensive about available employment opportunities and the potential need to relocate, it was incredibly helpful to speak with someone with an outside perspective. While I sometimes feel that my future aspirations lack focus, Dr. Risley was able to reassure me that I am able to clearly articulate my interest areas and my relevant experience, as well as offer advice on remaining in contact with the professional network I have made in the Twin Cities area, even if relocation becomes necessary.
As a student attending the AMCHP Conference, I was provided with invaluable professional development and offered a glimpse into the changing scope of the field during these strained financial times. Not only did I gain additional insight about Title V nationally, it was also invigorating to connect with MCH leaders across the country who are working so diligently to develop creative solutions to protect the health and well-being of women, children, and families. The opportunity further validated my decision to pursue my MPH in maternal and child health, and I look forward to joining the ranks of these dedicated professionals.