In January, NH-ME LEND convened trainees, faculty, and five panelists for a Leadership Intensive: Organizing to Influence Your State's Policy. Panelists represented perspectives on advocacy at the state, local, and personal levels. The Leadership Intensive was the first step in preparing the 2023 LEND cohort for the spring Disability Policy Seminar (DPS) and subsequent meetings with congressional delegations.
The keynote address was given by parent advocate Carrie Woodcock, Executive Director of the Maine Parent Federation. Ms. Woodcock initially became involved in advocacy when her daughter was born with Down syndrome. "What I want for my daughter, I want for every individual who has a different ability in our state. The door doesn't open and close with me for her; I want it to stay open for everyone else to walk through."
For panelist Cameron Myers, a 2022 graduate of Lake Region High School (ME), his self-advocacy started in high school when he began attending his individualized education program (IEP) meetings and being part of decisions affecting his life. “The most helpful thing was just learning about the plan. Nobody understands what anyone else is going through better than themselves.”
Recalling his first experience testifying as a professional before the Maine legislature, Ben Jones, Disability Rights Maine, recalled “You’re committing to the record your words. So, it’s something that will live on. That part is actually scarier to me—to get it right.”
NH House Representative David Luneau (D-Merrimack) reflected on how public testimony from advocates has changed his mind. “After you read a bill in preparation for a hearing, you might have some preconceived notion. As I hear testimony, it does change your position. It gives you new ideas as to what was the real intent behind the bill and how the bill is solving a problem.”
Highlighting the importance of educating legislators, Maine state senator Joe Baldacci (D-Bangor) commented, “Testimony is very helpful to better inform us, is necessary, and we listen to it. Informed testimony that has facts and statistics that are supportable, or true-life stories, get listened to and do make an impact.”
The panel wrapped up the session with suggestions on how this interdisciplinary group of leaders can more effectively engage in the policy process. “Reach out to the policy advocates,” said Luneau. “Policy advocates [like Maine Parent Federation, Inc. or Disability Rights Maine] will not only provide you support, it’s also a huge benefit for the advocate because now they can leverage their experience.”
“Be brave,” said Ben Jones. “You’re going to be in settings where it might not feel like the popular thing to be an advocate and to speak up. We (Disability Rights Maine) can be a conduit as we’re often going to be testifying already from our own organization.”
The session closed with Ms. Woodcock encouraging the trainees: “Don’t give up. The policy and legislative process is exhausting and there are often times when you feel like your statement should make the change and it doesn’t. And if it didn’t, you’ve introduced the topic, and you know what you need to do the next time you want to reintroduce the topic. It can take many years to make change.”