ELC Recap: Advocacy - September 2008

The 7th Annual Education Leadership Conference (ELC), held this year on September 6th - 9th in Washington, DC, had as its major focus, Internationalizing Psychology Education, but along with that theme, the ELC maintained a strong emphasis on advocacy. Why? APA has long recognized the importance of sharing psychological knowledge and the Education Directorate recognizes that advocacy is a critical tool to use in sharing that knowledge and in promoting the role of psychology in health, education, and the social and economic well being of our nation.

Throughout the conference, advocacy had a place at the table. In fact, there were various sessions dedicated to advocacy, from a simple "how to be an advocate" program for novices to a science-based persuasion workshop, which culminated in high level discussions on the legislative issues and several rounds of role playing exercises.

Including advocacy as part of the ELC provides a unique and important opportunity for psychologists from different fields, different divisions - from all across the country - to inform Congress about the breath of what psychology has to offer to our national policies and programs and its contributions to meeting the mental and behavioral health needs of the underserved.

On Sunday afternoon, ELC participants received an overview of the legislative issues that they would be advocating for on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Psychology-advocates were briefed on S. 3311, the Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act, which was recently introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). This bill allows for institutions of higher education to apply for competitive grants to support efforts such as "providing mental and behavioral health services to students (prevention, screening, early intervention, assessment, treatment, management and educational services)." It also provides for outreach services, educating families, employing appropriately trained staff, and expanding training opportunities through internship, post-doctorate, and residency programs. In addition to supporting mental and behavioral health services for students, the bill outlines a National Public Education Campaign designed to focus on mental and behavioral health on college campuses and establishes an Interagency Working on College Mental Health. If adopted, it will be administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The ELC participants were also briefed on the Campus Suicide Prevention program, which was authorized as part of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act and also administered by SAMHSA. This program, in existence since 2004, provides competitive grant funds for: educational seminars; operation of hotlines; preparation of informational material; preparation of educational material for families and students; training programs for students and campus personnel; or the creation of networking infrastructures. To date approximately $20 million in grants has been made available through counseling centers, psychological service centers, psychology training clinics, and mental health and substance abuse programs at 72 institutions around the country.

On Monday morning, early risers were treated to a session entitled, "Advocacy for Novices." About 25 ELC participants went over the nuts and bolts of the legislative process and a review of the legislative issues relevant to their Hill visits and interactive exercises. This session is intended to deepen participants understanding of the legislative process in an effort to better prepare them for their Capitol Hill visits. Beginning with a pop quiz and wrapping up with some role playing, it was a high-energy and engaging session which was enjoyed by leaders and participants alike.

At lunch on Monday, Board of Education Affairs Chair, Gilbert Newman, PhD announced the recipients of the 2008 Education Advocacy Distinguished Service Awards. This year, Josh Jacobs, Legislative Assistant to Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), was honored as the 2008 Friend of Psychology for his relentless efforts to improve Veterans mental health services. Dr. Michael Roberts then received the 2008 Education Advocacy Distinguished Service Award for his dedicated support of the education advocacy grassroots network since its inception in the early 1990's. Dr. Roberts is a founding member of the Federal Education Advocacy Coordinators (FEDAC) grassroots network and currently serves as a FEDAC Campus/Training Representative at the University of Kansas. The final award was presented to Dr. Joanne Callan (Alliant International University). Dr. Callan was honored as the first Executive Director for the APA Education Directorate - and the "Mother of APA Education Advocacy." During her tenure, Dr. Callan established the Education Public Policy Office (now the Education Government Relations Office), and initiated the annual Education Advocacy Breakfast meeting, which has become an invaluable venue for updating members about our education advocacy legislative initiatives and getting input from members in the field. Dr. Callan also started the education grassroots network, which later became the Federal Education Advocacy Coordinators (FEDAC) grassroots network.

Following the awards luncheon, Linda Demaine, JD, PhD, Director of the Law and Psychology Graduate Program at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law led a plenary session entitled, Science Based Persuasion for Leaders in Education. Her dynamic presentation looked at different principles of persuasion and considered the science that backed up the theories in terms of what works. One example especially relevant to advocacy was the concept of vividness - "colorful statements tend to be more memorable and persuasive than bland facts." This key finding affirmed and underscored the need for ELC participants to include personal stories during their meetings rather than relying solely on data to make their case. This session was active and participatory with ELC attendees getting a chance to role play and put the newly learned persuasion techniques to the test. These persuasion strategies proved enormously helpful and many ELC participants employed them during their meetings on Capitol Hill.

Monday afternoon's final session served as the "glue" of the advocacy agenda, providing a forum for review, practice and role playing. It pulled together the content that had been shared earlier in the conference, as well as the legislative basics and advocacy skills - a concluding effort designed to ensure that our psychologists were well prepared for their Congressional meetings. Christopher Kush, President of Soapbox Consulting helped the ELC participants understand the importance of "staying on message" when meeting with Members of Congress and gave them opportunities to hone their communications skills. Assisted by the Federal Education Advocacy Coordinators (FEDACs) and experienced advocates from across the country, Kush helped attendees perfect their stories and arguments through role playing and "opposition message" round-robin exercises. Playing the role of Senators and Representatives, the FEDACs and seasoned advocates challenged our ELC participants to make their case in the most compelling and persuasive way possible.

On Tuesday morning, Louise Douce, PhD, a veteran of psychology advocacy shared thoughts about her past Hill experiences with the group, ensuring everyone that despite any "butterflies" they might have, they would enjoy their hill visits. Thus, with last minute questions answered and materials in hand, well over100 psychologists headed to Capitol Hill to spend the morning and early afternoon visiting with their Representative and Senators, urging them to support or cosponsor S. 3311 and include both S. 3311 and the Campus Suicide Prevention Program during the SAMHSA reauthorization next Congress. Many of our Advocate-Leaders, in fact, met directly with their Senators and Representatives, while others met with the important legislative staff that will handle this issue when it comes up before Congress. Thanks to our psychologist-advocates, S. 3311 has already added three new co-sponsors and a House companion bill may soon be introduced.

As predicted, ELC advocates had a great day, with many exclaiming that the experience was "outstanding" Judging by the reactions and smiles, as well as the energy and enthusiasm that participants shared with staff upon their return from "The Hill", it is clear that Advocacy is a real highlight of the ELC.