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by Elizabeth Barnhill, Executive Director, IowaCASA

This article was originally published in ReShape, Issue #5, March 2002


 I was quite surprised the first year I worked for the coalition and tried to lobby our issues.  I believed that issues would rise or fall on their own merit.  We had carefully reasoned arguments, and, of course were working on behalf of rape victims.  I thought, who would possibly oppose us?  Then I heard the Iowa legislature hotly debating MPD, learned that Mysterious Pig Disease was clearly a more pressing issue than any dissociative disorder, and realized this was all much harder than I had thought. 

Then the incline on the learning curve got steeper.  The smart, capable advocates I’d worked with, women who have the skills to challenge an insensitive police officer, indifferent judge, or manipulative offender – surely those women would have no problem talking with self-important legislators, right?  “That’s why we hired you,” said an experienced director, when I called to ask about the coalition’s past strategies on an issue.  I learned that even some of the most seasoned advocates were uncomfortable talking to legislators.  

We did have the genesis, however, of a successful public policy network.  IowaCASA, along with the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, had tried for a number of years to have the marital rape exemption removed from the Iowa code.  Along the way, the coalitions made a strategic error by sending out postcards with the words: “In Iowa, a marriage license is a license to rape.”  We apparently tread on the sanctity of marriage, and legislators went ballistic.  (I thought it was a good idea at the time, but political reality is what it is.)  So the two coalitions held a series of seminars, staged in key districts around the state.  The seminars included information on domestic violence, sexual assault, and testimony by victims of marital rape.  Speakers from the coalition offices were paired with speakers from the local sexual assault and domestic violence programs.  This strategy – workshops targeting districts with key legislators, using outside speakers, local representatives, and survivors of the crime, eventually proved successful.

IowaCASA had also begun another eventually successful legislative networking effort: the formation of a task force on sexual exploitation by counselors and therapists.  The group, which did an informal survey of the problem, had representatives from most of the mental health disciplines, plus several friendly legislators, including one who eventually agreed to sponsor the bill.   That strategy – involving the likely opposition, collecting data, and including key legislators in the creation of the legislation, was also eventually successful.

So we had the makings of a successful policy network.  We just needed to figure out how to 1) organize extremely busy advocates, whose rightful priority is crisis response, not the often tedious and illogical business of legislation 2) provide training to those who might be intimidated by contacting legislators, and 3) how to successfully communicate with very busy, usually not well-informed legislators who often had other priorities.

1) Organizing busy advocates into an effective public policy group

Our earlier email efforts involved fact sheets and phone trees.  The fact sheets did prove to be useful tools, both for the advocates and the legislators.  A format I have found useful (borrowed from some other coalition I no longer remember, but thanks!) is a one-sheet page with the following information:

  • Problem — briefly described
  • Background — legislative or other relevant history
  • Remedy – legislative remedy 
  • Contact information — coalition and lobbyist information
  • For advocates, I include Action needed — House and Senate phone numbers and information to convey

Although legislative sponsors and some advocates may need more information, as a general rule, neither group has the time to absorb much more than that.

Phone trees have proven to be less than effective, at least when used alone.  We often got the result achieved in the childhood game of “telephone,” with information becoming progressively more garbled as it is passed on.  After beginning one such phone tree, I later received a call from a new advocate who urged ME to secure passage of a funding bill . . .

A more effective strategy seems to be: an initial distribution of the legislative package, followed by a fax or email when an issue needs attention, THEN followed by reminder calls.  The coalition members, with time and practice, have become pretty effective at making last-minute calls when a bill needs to get out of committee, or is up for debate.  A flurry of calls, from centers all over the state, can look like a huge groundswell of support and be very effective.  We encourage members to call the coalition office if there are questions they can’t answer, or if they receive an unfriendly response from a particular legislator.  We then have either the coalition staff or our lobbyist respond. 

2) Providing training to advocates on legislative and public policy issues

In addition to distribution of our legislative package, we have time at a coalition to discuss upcoming issues, and provide Q & A time for the membership.  During our legislative session (our legislature is in session about 5 months of the year), we organize our meetings so that members have time in the afternoon to visit with legislators.  This gives less experienced members a time to accompany others and observe.  We also have our lobbyist available to assist the membership.  Our lobby day, held jointly with the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, is also a time for new advocates, volunteers, and board members of centers to get some experience meeting with legislators.

We have also encouraged the membership to invite legislators to their programs for tours and listening sessions, particularly when the legislature is not in session.  This gives them an opportunity to meet legislators on their own turf, in a less intimidating setting, and to really talk about issues affecting their work. 

After the legislative session, our legislative chair provides a very helpful training session on any changes.  She reviews the changes, outlines the specific language, and provides an explanation.  The membership then divides into small groups, and each group is assigned one of the legislative changes.  They are asked to study the change, and devise a layperson’s explanation as well as any questions they feel may arise in their communities.  The small groups then present this information back to the membership.  The exercise provides the advocates a chance to become familiar with new legislation before they work with it in their communities.  (Exercise courtesy of Sue Prochazka in Keokuk, Iowa.) 

3) Communicating with busy legislators

We have worked with the domestic violence coalition for the past several years, and surveyed legislators on issues of violence against women.  While not all the surveys are returned, it raises the profile of the issues for the legislators.

We also mail out our legislative agenda, and then ask coalition members to discuss the issues at the town meetings or Q & A sessions most legislators have in their districts.  Again, this raises the profile of the issues, and gives time for discussion in a less volatile and hurried atmosphere than the legislature. 

Fact sheets that are succinct and specific seem most helpful for legislators.  For example, we are currently trying to compile information about the effect of budget cuts on programs.  We have asked the centers to tell us, about how staff cuts will affect the number of victims who can attend support groups, how reduced funding will force them to cut services in certain counties, etc. 

Survivors who are willing to talk with legislators have been tremendously effective.  When we receive calls from survivors who are frustrated about a statute or procedure, we ask if they are willing to talk with legislators.  (We of course make referrals if they need advocacy or other assistance.  Survivors who contact the coalition office, however, often are more interested in affecting change.)  We keep, those names, sometimes for several years, and contact them when an issue comes before the legislature. 

Once the legislature is in session, we ask advocates to continue their contact in the ways outlined above, and to be in touch with their legislators on the weekends.  Many of the legislators here host Saturday breakfasts during the session; these provide a good opportunity to ask questions and provide information as the session progresses.

We of course also work collaboratively with a number of groups who focus on issues affecting women, crime victims, mental health, Communities of Color, immigrant and refugee communities, GLBT communities, human services, youth, faith communities and others.  We often endorse and promote one another’s agenda, which increases exposure for the issues, and expands our lobbying force.  Advocates often bring our agenda to the attention of other groups in which they are active.  When party platforms are being written, we provide statements to the advocates, and ask them to attend their respective caucuses and have those issues forwarded to the state committees writing party platforms. 

So – we still schedule our lobby days to avoid conflicts with the beef and pork lobby, but we have made significant progress in being effective communicators.  Although I’m sure there are still those who think MPD is about pigs…