CADCA Expert Outlines 'ABCs of Advocacy'

Bob Curley
April 9, 2004
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Only five to 10 percent of U.S. voters ever contact their legislators about public-policy issues, which is why even small groups of dedicated advocates can have a disproportionate influence on decisions made in Washington, D.C., and state capitals, according to advocate Sue Thau.

"The really organized and vocal people get a lot of pull on Capitol Hill," said Thau, public-policy consultant for Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) at a recent conference session on "The ABCs of Advocacy," as she prepped a group of CADCA members for a visit to their Congressional delegations.

As an example, Thau noted that advocates for home-schooling have been very effective in getting their message across to lawmakers. "They can close down the Capitol switchboard," she said. "There's not many of them, but they're very organized."

Individuals and groups that support addiction treatment, prevention, and recovery issues are frequently urged to get more involved in political advocacy. Thau said that CADCA and other groups in the addiction field have been increasingly effective in getting their views across to lawmakers.

Noting that the average congressional staffer is in his or her 20s, and that lawmakers have a broad range of responsibilities, Thau said that advocates need to make themselves a resource by providing information on their issues and giving policymakers insight into the thinking of their constituents. "We're asking you to form a relationship with these people, so they know you are the experts in the community," Thau said. "Let them know who you are, who your partners are, who you serve, and what federal programs you use."

"Don't be nervous," she said. "They need the information you have." This is especially true of Congressional staffers, who are responsible for detailed research on topics like drugs, crime, and health. In many cases, multiple staff members will have responsibility over aspects of the addiction issue, so all should be at the table when you meet.

Thau said advocates should share any positive local outcomes data they have with lawmakers and their staff, who want to see that federal investments in treatment and prevention are worthwhile. "Anecdotes grab people and put a face on the problem, but you need outcomes, too," she said.

Another reason not to delve too deeply into anecdotal stories is simple economy: the typical meeting with a federal lawmaker's staff does not extend much longer than a half-hour, and your Congressman may only be in the room for five to 10 minutes, if at all. "With a big group, you need to have one person lead the meeting," to help guide the discussion and stay "on message," said Thau, recalling one such meeting that effectively was over before it began because a large group used up all of its time on introductions.

Staffers and lawmakers will meet with constituents no matter what they are wearing, says Thau, but the "uniform" on Capitol Hill is business attire, and that's what advocates should wear, too. On the other hand, she said, advocates for treatment and prevention should not hesitate to bring children and youth -- often the best spokespeople about the issues of kids and drugs -- to meet their representatives.

Politics has always been a "back-scratching" business, so it behooves addiction advocates to engage in some harmless but important promotion on behalf of lawmakers who support your issues. When you meet with legislators, Thau advises, have someone take a picture and send it to your local newspaper. Invite lawmakers to your events, and feature supporters in your newsletters and press releases.

"You want to build a relationship and give them visibility in their home state," said Thau.

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