By Melinda Lewis
At the Kansas Coalition for School Readiness’ advocacy day last Wednesday, I met a young mother of two who made the trip to Topeka, on her own, to express her support for her children’s Early Head Start program. She listened to the presentation of the coalition’s key policy issues – supporting the governor’s recommendation for $51.5 million in Children’s Initiative Funds for FY2014 and FY2015 and restoring the Child and Dependent Care Credit. She soaked up the advice on how to approach legislator visits and how to begin a relationship with an elected official.
Then she got on a bus with dozens of advocates, most of whom were there as part of their official job duties, and headed to the Capitol.
When I met her, in the Capitol rotunda after her two legislative visits, she was somewhat shaken. The visits, in her opinion, hadn’t gone too well. The new young legislators with whom she met were open about their disagreement with her position, and I don’t think that she was totally prepared for a policymaker’s only slightly tempered hostility.
She told me that one of the representatives had declared that he doesn’t support Head Start because it’s ‘just daycare’ and that parents should be the ones teaching their children everything they need to know. She asked me how a policymaker who, after all, isn’t a parent, could presume to be such an expert on parenting.
I asked her how she responded to his challenge.
Hesitating, she said, “Well, I just told him that that’s not my experience. I kept my son home with me until he was ready for preschool, and then I enrolled him in Head Start so that he could get ready for Kindergarten. And I know that he is going to succeed in school because he got the preparation he needs. I can teach him a lot, but part of my responsibility as a parent is to select a good school for him, and that’s what Head Start makes possible.”
And that’s what has stuck with me today. As parents and as advocates and as citizens, we can’t always sway the opinions of our policymakers. But we can share our experiences, and those cannot be refuted. We cannot be shaken, in sharing our own stories. We must not be deterred.
We don’t need to know every statistic. We can’t prepare for every eventuality. We can’t speak to every argument.
But we owe it to ourselves, to our children, to our clients, and to our policymakers – who depend on us for their legitimacy as elected officials, after all – to share, “In my experience…”
And when we got back to the hotel for lunch, and the speaker asked who was headed back to the Capitol for more visits that afternoon, that young mom raised her hand.
Her children, I know, are lucky to have her in their lives. And so are those policymakers. So are we.
Melinda Lewis is an adjunct instructor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Kansas and former director of policy advocacy and research at El Centro Inc. Her blog is titled Classroom to Capitol.