Speak, Even If Your Voice Shakes: How To Be An Advocate
Posted by Jessilyn Dolan (she/her) on 15th Feb 2022
Ed Note: We're reposting this in honor of Susan B. Anthony Day! If you're female or female IDing, you have Aunt Susan (and many, MANY others) to thank for your right to vote!
At times I joke around saying that I just learned how to vote a few years ago. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but it's not too far from the truth. I’m someone who never paid much attention to politics, avoided political conversations, and pretended that what I didn't know didn't hurt me.
Fast forward a few years. I now spend a huge chunk of my time pouring over the Vermont legislative website, watching the schedule, trying to see what bills are new, what bills are being discussed, which bills need support and testimony.
What it proves to me, and hopefully can inspire and show others, is that anyone can get involved at any point, and as nurses, we sure as hell need to. Nurses can and do make a huge big difference in advocating for patients and our own nursing rights.
Many nurses feel they don't have the understanding, knowledge, or time to do advocacy work. Many nurses think engaging in politics will be stressful or intimidating.
Political advocacy is a long game - punctuated by some highly charismatic moments.
But look at us - we’re NURSES! We are well-educated professionals who care for the sick and injured. We stand up to doctors. We comfort families. We deal with broken bones and bodily fluids. We are present for birth and death and some of the most intense experiences life can dish out.
Nursing is also considered the most trustworthy of all professions. As nurses, we garner enormous respect, and we need to use our voices, and speak up even louder - particularly when it comes to something as high stakes as cannabis legalization and the building of just, equitable, healthy, well-regulated commercial cannabis markets.
Now, while I’m still fairly new to political advocacy work, I’ve got enough experience under my belt that I can share a little information and advice for other nurses looking to get more involved.
Remember, you don’t have to do everything all at once. Political advocacy is a long game - punctuated by some highly charismatic moments. It’s ok to take your time to get prepared.
How To Prepare
Learn about the NCSBN National Nursing Guidelines for Patients Using Medical Marijuana
The American Nurses Association (ANA) is experienced in education and advocacy and actively supports legalization for medical cannabis. Join your state’s chapter for access to allies, information, and support.
If you’re not already a member, consider joining American Cannabis Nurses Association, and review their Scope and Standards of Practice for Cannabis Nurses
Explore your state Board Of Nursing’s stance on cannabis, and see whether your state has a nursing position paper on cannabis. In some states, there isn’t an actual published nurse position paper, but you can still get a sense of where folks stand by asking around.
Use NORML as a resource to review your current state laws and policies on medical cannabis, recreational adult use, and hemp. Don’t forget to look up your state’s qualifying conditions for medical cannabis.
Look at your state’s government's website for any cannabis-related legislation. Often you can type “cannabis” or “marijuana” in the search bar and get a list of all the current bills, their sponsors, and which committee is actively looking at the legislation.
Bills often pass from committee to committee, and in Vermont, we have a history of more committees than usual wanting to put their stamp on cannabis-related legislation.
Even if you’re focusing on one bill in particular, it’s still helpful to understand any other related or conflicting bills.
The thing is, even if your legislators disagree with you, don’t ever completely write them off.
Try to get to know a little bit about your representatives and their staff. Find out their stance on cannabis, if they’re sponsoring or co-sponsoring any bills, or if they actively oppose any particular legislation.
You never know where folks are going to stand. For example, one of my local reps is a quality assurance officer and doctor specializing in high risk pregnancy, and is generally very against plant medicine. The other is a licensed social worker and therapist who supports plant medicine.
The thing is, even if your legislators disagree with you, don’t ever completely write them off. They work for you, and it’s their job to listen to what you have to say, and take your views into consideration. So, always be polite. After all, they might agree with you on something else you care about. Think of this as building a professional relationship which has the potential to operate on multiple fronts over time.
Get In Touch
This is a dialogue that can be conducted by phone or email (see the basic email template below).
If you don’t know your legislator and their stance on a particular issue, start by introducing yourself as a constituent and asking about their position.
If they don’t have a position yet - and many don’t - this is a great opportunity to educate them and set yourself up as a resource for when they want to learn more.
If they oppose something you support, don’t worry. You still have an opportunity to shift or soften their thinking. So be polite and explain your personal stance on the issue.
Note: Facts are valuable for framing and supporting arguments, but personal stories have much more emotional impact. Be sure to include both.
If your legislator has sponsored or co-sponsored a bill you support, thanking them is a great way to make a connection.
This is NOT as scary as you might think! After all, legislators are public servants who represent you. You’re their boss. You pay their salary. You can vote them out of office. You have every right to speak about legislation you consider important.
However, it’s also vital to do your homework and make sure you know the details of the bill - as well as any other relevant bills which might come up during your testimony.
How To Get A Speaking Slot
Contact your rep and ask if they can help you get a slot to testify. This is where knowing their stance on the bill is helpful. For example, I would never ask my anti-cannabis rep for help testifying on a cannabis-related bill.
Contact the sponsor of the bill and ask them for a slot. Let them know who you are, what you want to say, and why you would be a good person for them to listen to.
Contact your local ANA board or chair of their government affairs committee. They might also have a lobbyist who can help you.
Depending on their stance, you can contact your local Board Of Nursing. They also might have a lobbyist.
Honestly, it takes making some noise to get a chance to testify, but you’re already a nurse. You know how to be persistent!
When you ask to testify, remind them that nurses are the most trusted profession 19 years running, and that nurses have a unique position and opportunity to advocate on behalf of patients and consumers, especially vulnerable people and plants.
If You Get Asked To Testify
Make sure you know who asked you, their stance on the bill and what they are specifically asking you to do or testify in support of or against?
Many bills have multiple parts. Are you speaking to one part, one entire bill, an amendment to the bill?
It can be helpful to know who is on the committee, and who else will be speaking before and after you.
For example, if I know I`m testifying before a medical cannabis patient, I set the stage with my testimony by explaining the science and research. Then, the patient follows after me with their corroborating personal story. Again - facts AND personal narrative pack the most power.
Remember that legislators are busy and have tight schedules, so be sure to stay on track, stick to your allotted time, and don’t bring in ideas and information that aren’t relevant. That will only annoy the legislators and damage your credibility.
Also, be aware of how long you get to speak, and practice in advance to make sure you’re well within your time limit. Getting cut off can be embarrassing, it looks unprofessional, and you might miss out on delivering the most important part of your testimony.
In politics, the old saying “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” totally applies.
Find out if you need to present written testimony first, or need to leave written testimony after. It’s fine to read directly from your written testimony. If you’re speaking without notes, at least have bullet points printed out to keep you on track.
As you’re preparing your statement, research your reps, the bill’s sponsors and cosponsors, and the particular committee members you’ll be addressing.
Know what they stand for, and how can you potentially align with them on issues beyond cannabis. That way, you can greet and thank them individually, and let them know you’re an educated citizen with a broad scope of concerns.
Example: Thank you Senator Johnson for your work on the state liquor control board. Your advocacy to keep our schools safe is one that I admire and am grateful for.
In politics, the old saying “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” totally applies.
Tell them a little bit about you and why you support the bill you are discussing (like in the email template below).
Once again, it’s good to have both an anecdotal story AND evidence-based research to back your testimony up whenever possible. If you have resources you can leave with the committee when you’re done, let them know it will be available for them.
If they ask you questions for which you don’t have ready answers, be honest. Don’t make anything up. Just say something like:
- I don't have that information right now, but will follow up and get that to you promptly.
- I don't recall, but can find the information you need and will provide it ASAP.
If your schedule permits, let them know you’ll be available after you testify to answer more questions, and that you’re eager to help and come speak with them again.
REMEMBER, LEGISLATORS OFTEN DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT SPECIFICS! Even though they’re writing the legislation, the bill you care about is a small piece of their huge workload. So, you are the expert, especially when it comes to cannabis.
It’s absolutely worth having some basic information ready if they ask for it, such as info on the ECS, synthetic vs. phytocannabinoids, etc. The CannaKeys database for evidence based research can also be helpful.
I often leave Clean Green Certified pamphlets with them when I testify about cannabis, because I always have to explain what clean cannabis is and why it's important.
Sometimes, props can help to either drive home an idea or patient story. A picture of a patient or a sample bottle or packaging to show or use as an example can work well.
Whether it is your first time, or you have testified dozens of times, things can always go awry! Here are some common mistakes which, hopefully, you'll be able to avoid!
- Always go to the bathroom beforehand (if they’ve put a mic on you, take it off or turn it off before you head to the loo).
- You’ll be nervous. Wear deodorant (written by a true farmer)!
- Legislatures are formal places, so dress your best out of respect.
- Be selective with your handouts so they actually get seen.
- If you can, turn off your phone.
- No swearing - even for comedy or emphasis.
- Have notes to keep your testimony on time and on point
- Bring water and a snack. You may be there for a while.
- DON'T bring your vape pen with you through security.
- Plan where you’re parking and how you’ll pay for it.
So many times, people ask me, “What’s the worst thing I can do?” I always say, “The worst thing you can do is NOT participate!”
Probably the best advice I’ve ever been given was this: “Speak even if your voice shakes.”
Your passion, knowledge and voice is appreciated and needed.
LEGISLATIVE EMAIL TEMPLATE
The Honorable [name of official]
[Your state] [Senate or House Representatives]
Address of Capitol
RE: Pending Bill [number and title]
Thank you for your efforts to [support bills, support kids, support cannabis etc.]
[2-3 sentences about yourself and your affiliations]
[2-3 sentences about what you're advocating for and why]
[2-3 sentences about why you believe they should vote for/vote against/change/amend the bill….]
Thumbnail by Marco Oriolesi on Unsplash. Top photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash