Advocacy is fundamental
The midterm election is over. We elected people to represent us, and now it is our job to make sure they do!
Advocacy—speaking in support of a cause or an issue—is part of our civic responsibility. It may feel intimidating to address an elected official or testify at a public meeting, but such participation is important to the democratic process. It’s the way we inform our representatives about what matters to us, their constituents.
After the November election, the Heights Coalition for Public Education held a workshop to inspire supporters to advocate for public education with neighbors, friends, community leaders and elected officials at the local, state and national levels. A high point of the evening for me was the down-to-earth advice provided by school board members Dan Heintz and Malia Lewis about how to effectively communicate with them and other public officials.
School board members understand that listening is an essential part of their role. Lewis expects people to speak to her during unplanned encounters in the grocery store or at community events, and, in her view, these situations have the best outcomes when constituents don’t hold her for too long, are able to clearly express what they want her to understand, and don’t expect a complete answer while chatting with her in the produce department. It’s also important to remember that the solution you want may not be something she has the authority to provide.
If you want the entire board to hear your concerns, attend a meeting. There is time for public comment before the business portion of the meeting begins. Open-meeting laws limit board action to items on the agenda, so members will rarely engage with speakers who address them at these times, but that does not mean they are not listening. While the lack of response can be off-putting, the public comment period is the best time to let the board know if you think it is headed in the right direction or giving a topic adequate attention. Your concerns become a part of the public record, and any issues you raise may prompt board action or show up on future meeting agendas.
Heintz provided advice that would be useful in communicating with any elected official:
- Citizens should not assume that elected officials will disagree with them and should also keep in mind that the officials are most likely not prepared to respond to the issue being raised and will need some time to consider what is being told to or asked of them.
- Board members should not be expected to disparage their colleagues, district administrators, teachers or community members, and, when a district resident presents a problem, it is helpful if the resident has a few reasonable solutions to suggest. Written messages should be brief, and citizens should write to board members only at their official district e-mail address for school-related communication. “Silent disagreement sounds exactly the same as silent agreement,” Heintz noted.
- Disagreement and input are both valuable to responsive governance and can lead to good solutions and useful policy. That’s why advocacy is fundamental.
Susie Kaeser has been a public school advocate and resident of Cleveland Heights for 40 years. She is co-convener of the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the retired director of Reaching Heights.