Continuing to Move the Dime on Literacy

October 14, 2016 – Last week, Governor Snyder signed into law a new measure aimed to improve literacy by third grade. We’ve all heard it before – the critical importance of learning to read in the early grades and Michigan’s ongoing challenge with this important benchmark with 37% of kids unable to read at a basic level and 71% not reading proficiently by the end of third grade – statistics that are far worse for students of color and students facing other learning and life challenges.

Michigan’s Children played a unique and specific role in the conversation, focused primarily on how this bill might impact students whose parents also face their own challenges – whether they are related to parents’ illiteracy, language barriers, parental mental health challenges, housing instability, or work schedules that make parents literally unavailable to support their children’s reading struggles. Through our advocacy efforts, we were glad to see in the final law the following provisions included.

  1. The law includes other caregivers to help support students with “read at home plans,” which are designed to supplement school-based learning with a home-based plan. The original language of the bill did not include other caregivers, and we are glad they were included as they could be and often are critical partners in education such as afterschool providers, neighbors, church members, or other family members who could be implementing a read at home plan when a parent may be unable to.
  2. The law also requires schools to document efforts to engage parents and whether or not those efforts are successful. This as an opportunity to get a better handle on the barriers currently in place that make it challenging for schools to better partner with parents. This could include all of the issues previously laid out around parental literacy, language, ability to be home to support their children’s read at home plans, and other factors. Whatever the issues, understanding them are essential to then figure out how to address them. For example, if a significant barrier around engaging parents are parents’ own literacy challenges, then an opportunity to address that systematically would be to increase access to adult basic education.

While Michigan’s Children was ultimately supportive of the final bill due to these shifts around parental engagement, things we worked specifically on, we know that this is just one step to improve literacy, which will also require a significant resource investment. I was personally glad to see my own state legislator – Rep. Adam Zemke who worked very hard on the third grade reading bill – bring up a potential inequity in the way parents are allowed to request a good cause exemption to not retain their child who may be behind in reading. We know that parents will advocate for their children as best they can, but some families may not have the capacity or time to do so, thus the possibility for some groups of kids to more likely be held back (like kids in foster care) while others are promoted. Rep. Zemke pushed to allow other adults to be able to request exemptions for students besides their parents, an amendment that was ultimately not included but would’ve made the law stronger.

As more information is gleaned from the implementation of the third grade reading law, Michigan’s Children will be monitoring the equity impact and the barriers that schools identify with parental engagement. And we will continue to advocate for a variety of supports to ensure that literacy needs are met for children that span beyond the classroom based on these identified barriers as well as research on what works. This also means making sure that necessary interventions are adequately funded. As candidates are pounding the pavement over the next few weeks, be sure to talk to them about the importance of early literacy and what you think are critically important to move the dime – things like family literacy, high quality child care to prepare kids before they reach kindergarten, and high quality afterschool and summer programs that can reduce the literacy gap through the early grades and beyond.

– Mina Hong

October 6, 2016 – Earlier this week, the National Dropout Prevention Conference (NDPC) was held in Detroit with a focus on empowering students, improving educational success, and mitigating the long-term effects associated with dropping out of school. This month is also National Dropout Prevention Month, encouraging groups across sectors to raise awareness of the issue and work harder toward helping all students stay in school.

The NDPC brings to our attention that, too often, the need for dropout prevention awareness and viable solutions is underestimated. While progress in reducing school dropout rates has been made, the need for greater awareness still exists. Notably, 6.5% of people between the ages of 16 and 24 in the US are not enrolled in school and have not earned a diploma. These young people, on average, will be qualified for only 10% of available jobs and earn $8,000 less per year than high school graduates. Yet as many are aware, individual lived experiences are not captured in these nationally reported numbers.

To provide space for students to share their experiences, the NDPC hosted several Youth Led Sessions. Michigan’s Children assisted with coordinating these sessions, and I was honored to attend several on the afternoon of October 4. Student presenters represented several impactful organizations throughout Michigan focusing on a variety of points along students’ journeys, including: Ozone House, Fostering Success Michigan, Swartz Creek Academy, Crossroads High School, Neutral Zone, Oakland Opportunity Academy, Youth Action Michigan, Lansing Community College, The Children’s Center, Developing K.I.D.S., Metropolitan Youth Policy Fellows, and Washtenaw Technical Middle College.

The Youth Led Sessions covered a wide range of topics, from the importance of embracing technology in the classroom instead of fighting against it to actualizing the idea that students should feel cared for by their teachers. Similarly, presentations varied depending on the students leading them: there were skits, panels, ice breakers, interactive activities, internet memes, and lots of comradery. One common thread among all sessions was the prompting of self-reflection by teachers, administrators and others with influence over students’ learning experiences: What are we doing to make school a place where students want to be? After hearing what students had to say and the thoughtful discussions about their ideas for solutions, I reflect on two key takeaways:

  • Consideration of the multiple factors that go into students’ school-day experiences. Decisions to drop out – or engage in behaviors that lead to punitive responses by school officials – rarely have to do with only one factor, and the intersection of young peoples’ school, home, and community lives cannot be ignored. This highlights the importance of moving toward a trauma-informed educational system in each district and classroom. School should foster a sense of belonging and connectedness to the world students are preparing to enter, rather than serve as another stressor.
  • Raising awareness of resources that can make postsecondary education more of a possibility. In addition to making financial and compensatory resources known to students and their families — e.g., Michigan’s Fostering Futures Scholarship & Tuition Incentive Program for those who have experienced foster care – teachers’ and administrators’ awareness and willingness to engage in discussions about what is helpful to each individual student is also crucial. Students emphasized that their perception of education as a key factor in their future shifted their attitudes toward education in the present.

It was an honor to attend the Youth Led Sessions and engage in these discussions. While the NDPC and awareness campaigns through National Dropout Prevention Month have amplified these discussions to new audiences, the importance of dropout prevention work is ongoing. In Michigan, there are several things candidates can do to promote graduation. To effectively honor what was heard in the Youth Led Sessions, these issues must continue to be highlighted throughout the election season and into the next legislative session.

–  Leann Down

Leann is a former Michigan’s Children Intern, and is finishing up her dual Master’s degrees from the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the Ford School of Public Policy.

September 8, 2016 — Should anyone think that their vote doesn’t matter, please take a look at what just happened in the Michigan primaries. In the 2nd Michigan House District in Detroit, Bettie Cook Scott won her Democratic primary by 17 votes over her closest competitor in the race. That’s right. So if nine people had voted a different way, another candidate would have won. How many times have we been in conversations with more than nine people? How many times have we been able to find nine like-minded people? And, as we’ve talked about many times before, in many districts around the state, including those in the city of Detroit, the primary run determines the winner in November.

So, what do we take from that? We are in charge of the Michigan we make. We can change our state where it needs changing, we can stay the course where we need to. Seem like a leap? No way. Nine people literally made the decision about who was going to represent the 85,000 people in the 2nd district. Wow, what power! I have many more family members than that around my dinner table on a regular basis. I have many more neighbors than that gathered in the backyard on many summer evenings.

But with this power comes responsibility.

  1. We have to understand what the candidates are saying about the issues that we care about – and not just in the November run-offs, but in primaries, too. That is true from the Presidential race to local races for township positions and everywhere in between. The great thing is that the election season is the EASIEST time to hear about the issues from policymakers, and it is the easiest time for them to hear from us. Even when they don’t have a competitive general election race, they are still around, building additional support and getting the bell weather on constituent issues and concerns.
  2. We have to treat the election as the BEGINNING of the process, not the end. As we are connecting with candidates over the next two months, we need to make sure that they know that we are paying attention to what they are saying, and that we will be holding them accountable for promises they are making – those that we like, and those that we don’t.
  3. We have to make friends with decision makers. Remember what Mark Twain famously said, when you need a friend, it is too late to make one. Huh? As we all know, and as I hammer on ALL THE TIME I know, lawmakers – like the rest of us humans – are more likely to turn to people they know and trust for advice. People they have built a relationship with are more likely to be the ones they turn to when they are trying to find out more information about an issue or trying to decide how to vote on something. We know that we all do it. Nothing like a campaign season to make sure that your candidates know who you are, and see you as a resource for their later work.
  4. We have to take responsibility for outcomes in our Democracy. If we aren’t voting, we have given up our power right there. If we aren’t sharing what we know with lawmakers, we can’t expect that they will make the right decisions once elected. If we aren’t paying attention to what they are saying and doing, we are not the ones who will be holding them accountable. Are we all doing the best we can to make sure the people who represent us are well informed, well-prepared, well-supported when they do the right thing, and facing consequences when they don’t.

I feel compelled to raise these issues in election years because it’s honestly that simple – and that darn essential to our lives at home, across the state and nationally. Talk with candidates about what is going on in your own life – what are you seeing in your community, what you think they should do to help. As when you are talking to a friend, be respectful, be honest, be clear, be willing to clarify if you need to. Candidates don’t know what we know! If you want some thoughts about possible questions to ask, take a look at our election issues pieces that include some and other talking points.. You can talk with them directly, or you can talk with them publicly – through all sorts of media. They pay attention to letters to the editor in local papers, they pay attention to social media, they pay attention to people who come to opportunities to meet with them.

Thanks for joining Michigan’s Children and countless other advocates for children and families as we work through this election and beyond to make the Michigan we want and need for children, youth and families everywhere.

– Michele Corey

Michele is the Vice President for Programs at Michigan’s Children

August 26, 2016 – A couple of weeks ago, Michigan’s Children joined the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), University of Michigan Blavin Scholars Program, Eastern Michigan University MAGIC Program, Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative, Enterprising Youth Program, Center for Fostering Success, Western Michigan University, Wayne State University, and the Student Advocacy Center in sponsoring the 2016 Michigan Young Leader Advocacy Summit, a gathering of about 70 young people who have experienced the foster care system, their supporting agencies, and decision-makers interested in building a better understanding of critical issues facing them. It was one of the most impactful days I’ve been a part of.

The Summit proceedings raised familiar issues about the barriers to young people “aging out” of foster care that are completely fixable:

  1. Our services are based on arbitrary ages and arbitrary designations (foster care, adoption, guardianship), instead of making sure that no young person is leaving the system (or coming in and out of the system) without adequate support.
  2. Work and education requirements don’t always fit the lives of young people facing the most challenges as they move into adulthood. Requirements need to be flexible enough to work for all young people under a variety of life circumstances that will likely shift over time.
  3. There are so many changes in the people responsible for helping young people as well as the services available to assist them as they move from traditional to voluntary foster care, as they move from county to county (as we would expect young adults to do.)

The fact is that we wouldn’t place arbitrary age or location requirements on our own children. If they faced similar barriers, we would work to help them remove them, for as long as it took, in as many different ways as we could. These children are also our own.

I am inspired, as always, by the knowledge I gain from these conversations, and the energy of the young people.  This fall, there are many ways for us all to utilize that knowledge.  The Michigan House and Senate need to agree on and pass the Assurance of Quality Foster Care legislation before the end of the year, or that process will have to start over again next Legislative session.  This legislation would require some additional diligence to make sure that our foster care, education and other systems are working well for all young people in the foster care system.   Summit attendees committed to take action to make that happen.  See our Act Now page for more about how you can join them.

In addition, most candidates running for office around the state have limited experience and expertise with the child welfare or foster care systems, but we think they need to build some knowledge there if they want to be elected. Take the time to find out where your candidates are going to be, get there, and ask some questions to at least raise your concerns and offer yourself as a resource.

— Michele Corey

Read more about the Summit from Fostering Success.
Read more about services for youth transitioning out of care from MDHHS.

August 18, 2016 – On Monday, August 5, Michigan’s Children held our third KidSpeak event in partnership with Wayne State University’s Transition to Independence Program (TIP). Youth ages 16-24 stood bravely and told the stories of their experiences in the foster care system to a group of panelist made up of policy makers from various organizations. The youth provided their emotionally-driven testimonies in a way in which they were advocating for change within the foster care system to impact generations to come. While some youth were still involved in the system, many had aged out and are now pursuing post-secondary degrees from Wayne State University or other Michigan institutions. Youth spoke about topics including their safety in their placements and the community, educational and mental health resources, mentorship, and the importance of remaining connected with their siblings upon separation. All of the youth’s stories gave compelling reasons as to why policy makers need to make revisions to the foster care system in Michigan.

As a listener at this event, I was moved by not only the stories of the youth but by their confidence in standing and communicating how their experience, or the experiences of their friends in the foster care system, shaped their goals and where they are now. As an advocate for systemic change for youth, I enjoyed being a part of an event where youth can be an advocate for themselves with the support of those around them. Moving forward, I challenge myself and my colleagues at Michigan’s Children to keep hearing from young people through events such as KidSpeak, while also being a voice for youth who are not presented with the opportunity to have their stories heard. Additionally, in listening to the uniqueness of every youth’s journey in that room and how they were individually effected, I would encourage policy makers to take both the commonalities and the differences that they heard in each story into consideration when advocating for policy change.

A major part of the conversation was the lack of awareness of the availability of higher educational resources available to youth in foster care upon graduating high school. Youth also spoke about the need for mental health and counseling resources in their high schools. As a strong advocate for equity in schools and for youth being able to access a higher education, both of these conversations stuck with me. They inform my current work to better explain to policymakers what trauma-informed education looks like for foster youth, or any youth experiencing adverse experiences in their school, familial, or community lives. The testimony reminded the panelists of the importance of considering whole-child approaches when making policy decisions about the educational structure, opportunities, and resources for foster youth.

The KidSpeak event seemed to have resonated with many of the panelist as well as the audience, and I hope it encouraged the youth to continue to tell their stories so that society understands the complexities of the issues that these youth are facing.

– Briana Coleman

Briana is an MSW intern at Michigan’s Children.

Aug. 11, 2016 – By now, those of us tuned into the Rio Olympics have heard of Simone Biles’ remarkable journey as the world’s most celebrated gymnast and as a child from foster care adopted by her grandparents.

As is the case of many great Olympians, the story behind the making of this Gold-medal winner can be as equally powerful and instructive as her athletic performance. Biles’ childhood story has struck a chord with many foster, adoptive and kinship families across the continents because it is so familiar.

After her biological mother and father couldn’t care for her because of their struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, Biles and her sister spent four years in foster homes until her maternal grandfather and his wife, Ron and Nellie Biles, adopted them. By Biles’ own account, the couple created a loving and secure home and one that provided her with opportunities to hone her extraordinary abilities on display before the world today. They also kept the sisters together, an issue raised time and time again by young people in the foster care system at our most recent KidSpeak.

In Michigan, the new role that grandparents assume when their children can no longer care for their own children is far from unordinary. It is estimated that nearly one-third of children in the state’s welfare system are placed with grandparents and many others are cared for by grandparents outside the system. This has become a growing trend in our society for a variety of social and economic reasons. Lack of parental support services to address drug and alcohol addiction, mental health concerns, and financial distresses leading to circumstances unconducive to child rearing continue to upend families and fuel this change in family structure.

Last October we highlighted the experience of one grandparent-turned-mom again, Deb Frisbie from the Grand Traverse area, after she joined other caregivers and policymakers in Lansing and shared what makes their situation work and how our public policies could better support families like Frisbie’s. I returned to Frisbie recently to discuss grandparent needs and found her continuing to work as an advocate for other grandparents and older adults raising young children who are facing foster care or in foster care.

Near or in retirement, older adults who are starting over as parents have financial limitations and frequently health concerns that make child-rearing more than an Olympic feat, even when the desire to raise one’s own kin is best for the children and all involved, Frisbie says. Once children are adopted from foster care, adoption subsidies are non-existent except for children with special needs, and those are often limited. Providing basic needs and health insurance for children often drains retirement accounts leaving adults’ own future well-being at risk. Because of such struggles, it may be advantageous for families to remain as guardians because of new assistance resources available, but those are again inadequate, Frisbie says.

Delays within state systems continue to be raised as a barrier by young people and caregivers. Frisbie has worked with one friend recently who assumed care for her three granddaughters when their mother was imprisoned. She was advised to seek a foster care license in which public support would enable her to raise the girls. After entering the review process six months ago, she continues to wait for that assistance while caring for the children. She’s already drained her savings account and is now worried she won’t make her next house payment.

Another barrier: We don’t have good information about grandparents and other family members raising children. According to Frisbie and other family advocates, better support is needed for the many families who are offering the best, loving support for children, and ultimately saving society the financial and personal costs of maintaining too many children and youth in a system without a permanent caregiver.

But to do that, we need to have a much better sense of who the caregivers are, in the child welfare system and out of it, and know more about their circumstances and challenges. Without a more consistent and reliable accounting of these families and their struggles, we are turning a blind eye to real needs and future solutions.

Teri Banas is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.

July 29, 2016 – This week, Governor Snyder signed an Executive Order creating the Michigan PreK-12 Literacy Commission. Like many previous efforts, this Commission is charged over the next two years with assisting the K-12 system to improve student literacy skills. The group will be determined through appointments by the Governor, the Superintendent and legislative leadership from both parties.

The focus on literacy is warranted, and clearly not new. It is obviously a gateway skill – that is, the poorer your reading skills, the harder all classes are for you as you progress through the grades. Michigan students don’t test well on literacy compared to their peers in other states; in fact, at the same time that the nation as a whole has improved on 4th grade reading tests, Michigan’s performance worsened, resulting in a national rank on that indicator that places us solidly below 42 other states. And, some specific populations of kids continue to test more poorly than others – Black and Hispanic kids, kids from low-income or homeless families.

It isn’t as if we have not acted at all on this situation. There have been numerous initiatives within our K-12 system and the state Department of Education, including current Top 10 in 10 efforts. In the current legislature there has definitely been increased attention to the problem, and we even saw some investment in the last two state budgets, driven by concerns and efforts around improving our status. This investment was not enough, and some of it could have been better focused, as we’ve talked about before. Now we have yet another effort tasked with pinpointing strategies.

For candidates in this election year, for new legislators in 2017, for the Governor and for the new Commission members, here are some key facts. They are well known, and well researched.

Fact One: Gaps in literacy emerge as early as nine months. Some kids have stronger nutrition and better health, some kids are ready to more often, some kids are spoken to more often, some kids experience more stress and trauma in their early years. All these things impact literacy skill-building, and their impact starts right away. Efforts to support families early are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Two: There is ample evidence (and common sense) that says that the educational success of parents has everything to do with the literacy success of their children. Family literacy efforts targeted toward building the skills of parents and other caregivers are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Three: The 6,000 hour learning gap, experienced between lower income children and their financially more better off peers, contributes to a variety of skill gaps, including literacy, by the time young people are in middle school. As I’ve already stated, starting early and maintaining opportunities that expand learning through elementary, middle and high school are critical to the state’s literacy success.

Fact Four: Kids have to be in school in order to take advantage of even the most effective school-based literacy programming. Making sure barriers to attending school are addressed for families and young people, including unsafe streets, unsupportive school climates and exclusionary school discipline practices are critical to the state’s literacy success.

We have many effective strategies at our disposal inside and outside the school building to improve literacy, and it never hurts to focus efforts on learning more about what can be done. However, we hope that the Governor and Legislature don’t have to wait for this Commission to finish its work to continue to recognize and commit to needed investments in literacy. 2017 will bring shifting legislative leadership and the Governor’s final two years of legacy. There is no time like the present to reiterate what needs to be done, marshal the resources and take action!

– Michele Corey

July 12, 2016 – On Thursday, July 7, Michigan’s Children partnered with The Children’s Center in Detroit to hold the first Youth-Led Candidate Forum of the 2016 election season.  Youth from various programs of the Children’s Center came together to elicit answers from candidates in regards to some of the most compelling issues that they are facing in their communities.  The forum consisted of incumbents running for re-election and candidates who are first-time runners seeking to represent State House districts 2, 5, and 6.  The six candidates proved an interest in addressing a number of issues which the youth considered to be barriers to their personal safety and the safety of their community, their academic success, health, and their families’ economic issues.  The youth asked questions regarding crime throughout the City, high unemployment rates, racism and discrimination in their schools, substance and alcohol use by minors, the Detroit Public Schools crisis, and in light of recent events, redefining the roles and perceptions of police officers by residents in their community.  The space was truly uplifting as I heard the passion in these youth’s voices and listened as youth shared their personal stories of growing up in Detroit, specifically as it related to their growth and their families’ experiences facing various systemic barriers.

During the forum, most candidates shared their experiences growing up in Detroit which reinforced their passionate concern about the issues that the youth were most concerned about.  The candidates spoke about their extensive community involvement throughout the City of Detroit explaining why their commitment to serving and restoring the City was significant.  Often times the candidates mentioned the importance of working together within communities to create change, and encouraged the youth to continue to advocate through activities and conversations, such as the forum, that bring communities together to bring about change.  The youth were given opportunities to challenge answers from the candidates if they were in disagreement or wanted more information about how the solutions mentioned would come about.  Subsequently, this created a dialogue between the youth and candidates to critically think of policy solutions that would truly bring about real change.

Afterwards, the candidates expressed the value of, importance of, and showed gratitude for being involved in such an event.  Many said that it reinforced their commitment to running for State Representative and truly pushing for change in Detroit so that this generation of youth and those to follow can have a more enriching environment to be kids, grow, and succeed.  Candidates stayed around after the forum to thank the youth and applaud them on their courage and efforts to create change in their communities as a group.

Overall, this forum allowed candidates to hear about concerns from young people in their communities and consider potential solutions to bring about change.  And it showed the youth that they can have a say in what the future of their community looks like, and I believe that it did just that.

-Briana Coleman

Briana is an MSW intern at Michigan’s Children.

May 9, 2016 – Hello! My name is Briana Coleman and I am excited to begin my journey into the policy world during my time at Michigan’s Children.  I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Michigan State University in May of 2015. Originally from Hamtramck, Michigan I have always taken a value in diversity and understanding the importance of community to motivate change. Coming from a low-income background, and understanding the struggle of graduating high school and going away to college sparked an interest very early in my professional career to work with youth who come from similar communities as myself. Beginning in 2012, I worked as an advocate and later as a case supervisor for the Adolescent Project which is a community based intervention program between the Juvenile Justice Division of the Lansing District Court and a department at Michigan State University. Mentoring youth and helping them find resources in their community led me to further working with youth involved in foster care, homelessness and housing insecurity, abuse and neglect services, and in more aspects of juvenile justice. Most recently, I have served as a program assistant for the Center for Educational Outreach at the University of Michigan where I have been in charge of developing, facilitating, and evaluating college access workshops which were presented to students in Detroit, Monroe, and Garden City among other cities in Michigan.

Currently, I am in my second year of my graduate studies at the University of Michigan studying social and educational policies which effect disadvantaged youth. Having experience working with youth in multiple systems led me to see how these systems overlap, and enable youth to become further involved with behaviors that will have a negative effect on their futures. Furthermore my experiences have led me to understanding how the disparities and lack of resources in the educational system across economic thresholds effects the chances of youth involvement within these systems. With this perspective I became interested in policy advocacy work for children and youth from disadvantaged communities. Upon being made aware of Michigan’s Children I became intrigued with their work and wanted to become involved in the things that they were doing due to the overlap of issues that they prioritize and my personal interests. The emphasis that Michigan’s Children places on improving youth outcomes from a multi-systemic approach further warranted my interest in the organization.

During my time at Michigan’s Children I hope to learn and expand on my advocacy skills while also learning skills relevant to building and maintaining partnerships within the communities where we work. Additionally, during my time here I hope to contribute to the mission of Michigan’s Children by engaging in research, assisting with outreach events, contributing my thoughts on policies which effects children, and by learning from the people that I work with.

– Briana Coleman

Michigan’s Children is proud to welcome intern Briana Coleman to our staff. You will hear more from her throughout her year at Michigan’s Children, and can get in touch with her via email.

April 11, 2016 – If you’ve never sat on a crowded bus or taken a carpool at sunrise to the state Capitol for one of the many time-honored Legislative Education (substitute Action) Days, you really should add it to your bucket list. As one who wants Michigan to become the very best place to grow up and raise a family, you owe it to yourself and your state to help raise awareness about issues policymakers have the power to change. Organized by advocacy groups and professional organizations, an advocacy creates synergy fueled by the power of numbers bringing together strong, united voices to educate and move action.

The 2016 Michigan Kids Count Data Book gives us a county-by-county look at where child well-being stands and a great opener for talks with decision-makers on where we’ve been and where we still need to go. An upcoming opportunity to talk about child well-being and ways to prevent child abuse and neglect is happening on April 19 in Lansing. Organized by the Children’s Trust Fund of Michigan, it’s just one of many opportunities for ordinary people to come together and collectively draw attention to how we can build healthy families and communities.

Whether you’re attending this or another legislative day, here are some tips to help you before you go. Begin by knowing that speaking out is taking responsibility for living in a participatory democratic society. It’s in our national DNA. Your voice, your experiences, your take on life in your community is critically important for elected leaders to hear so they can make informed decisions on policy and budget deliberations. Research shows that only 10-20 percent of voters ever contact their elected officials. If our elected leaders are going to make decisions based on our best interest, they must hear from more of us and especially between election cycles.

What do they need to know? Use data, information and stories to inform lawmakers about what’s happening – good and bad – at home. Raise real-life success stories about programs that help kids and families and identify issues of concern. Stories are often most memorable with lawmakers and help support a case for maintaining funding for the good work at home. Identified concerns help recognize where new efforts should be applied. Consider how you want them to think and feel about what you’re saying. Anticipating the outcome will help you choose what you say and how you say it. Helping to educate decision-makers within a framework for change and providing solutions for problems can be powerful persuasive strategies.

Know your legislator. Know the committees they work with, especially if these are useful to moving your issues. Learn about the issues they’ve championed. Their office and campaign websites are a good starting point for those insights. Also become familiar with knowledgeable staff members who can serve as points of contact after the visit is over. Afterward, also make sure you leave behind something to remind them of your message, whether it’s a description of a particular program, a fact sheet or summary of key points. Lastly, leave them with a plan for next steps. And do take a photo you can share back home or with the lawmaker so they can include it in their communications with constituents. Ultimately, these visits can be the start of opening lines of communications and a solid relationship that will serve you, your issues and your community well long past the legislative visit.

Teri is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.

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