The Changing Face of Advocacy


According to the Greek Mythology, the god, Helios, would put the Sun in a chariot and drive it through the sky each day.  That is how the Sun would rise and set.  Today, we would scoff at such a notion and understand that such a feat would be impossible.  We would think that people who would believe such a notion probably were not very intelligent and extremely gullible.  Such is the story of modern day lobbyists and advocates.

Frank R. Baumgartner, a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says there is no consistent correlation between money spent on lobbying and outcomes.  In his book, Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why, Baumgartner effectively proves that lobbyists are far less influential than political rhetoric suggests and that they fail to change policy despite millions of dollars spent trying. As to the why?  He points to an “entrenched system” with an enormous “bias in favor of the status quo.”

I have been on the forefront of policy change for over a quarter of a century, advocating for education.  It means that I have witnessed much the last three decades in Tennessee. I have seen policymakers come and go.  I have seen lobbyists come and go.  Next year, in 2019, we will see a new US Senator, a new Governor and perhaps as many as 35 new state legislators.  Campaign contributions, as important as those may be to the candidate, mean very little in the current system.  Money no longer “buys” votes, and it should never have done so in the first place.  Politicians now often receive contributions from interests on both sides of any issue.

It is amazing with the vast array of people lobbying on an issue that anyone or any group should take credit for the passage of any legislation.  The truth is that it is always a coalition of stakeholders building a compelling case on a political issue.  In the end, only the legislator votes.  So, any person or group who claims credit for a passage of legislation needs to be reminded of that truth.

In the end, we build coalitions work together, educate legislators on issues and count votes.  The legislator is the decisionmaker.  Advocates have three numbers you have to reach – 50, 17 and one:  50 votes in the House of Representatives, 17 in the Senate, and one from the Governor.  Only the Tennessee General Assembly deserves credit or blame for the passage of legislation.  In all the years that I have worked with legislators, I truthfully have found most to be honest, hard working people who want to do the right thing for their constituents.  I have also seen some who really do not listen, and these usually do not last long in the political arena.

The key to effective advocacy is relationships, which must be developed and also sustained.  Building relationships with lawmakers and other stakeholders means getting to know them, their personal interests and histories, and even their families. Having a relationship never guarantees support, but it does help to ensure that others will listen to you.  We must build networks and coalitions, around the objective of helping those you serve.  Stakeholders know what is likely to be taken serious by policymakers, sometimes just by whom introduces it, or who carries the legislation for the lobbyists.  We must also know how to correctly draft legislation to assist lawmakers who are overwhelmed during session.  We frequently see people try to put things in the wrong part of the code or use the wrong terminology. Advocates must identify people who support changing a policy and are willing to testify.  Those who advocate or lobby have to be taken seriously at the Capitol.  Then there is media coverage, which is a whole separate issue.  The media will cover an issue if they think voters or their audience are interested in the subject.

In advocacy, we have to be honest and transparent.  We have to tell the truth.  People can spot a snake-oil salesman a mile away.  A Cheshire cat grin and a fake tan will only take you so far.  Legislators do not like being lectured to when you testify.  The biggest mistake I see is when a know-it-all goes before a committee arrogantly and moralizes and lectures legislators.  People talk.  Just answer the question when asked, and don’t pontificate to hear your own voice by expounding on unrelated issues.  Conceit, excessive pride, combined with arrogance is called hubris.

When we engage in grassroots and direct advocacy with policymakers and key influencers around the state on behalf of public education policies, it reminds us that we live for a far greater purpose than just ourselves. Our impact is immeasurable and transforming.  It not only matters to the profession and our educators, it also matters to children and families across Tennessee.

Our experience here in Tennessee ensures our members’ concerns are heard at the Tennessee General Assembly and by other stakeholder groups. It also means we work with other groups on goals we want to achieve: some long-term, some short-term.  By doing this, we witness and help facilitate minor and major shifts in education policies and observe and work with changing political leaders.  And we must remember, these new education policies can have a positive or negative impact on educators or children.  We work the entire year focused on the priorities of our organization and our members.  However, we do not do it alone.  We accomplish our goals by working with others and through elected officials.

Leaders also need mountains to climb.  We and they also realize that they cannot solve every problem on our own. Leadership is about giving.  Great leaders understand that leading others means serving others.  The one question leaders must ask themselves: are you interested in finding solutions for today’s challenges? Then learn to work with others to benefit those you serve, without worrying about who gets credit.  It is a hard lesson to learn for some.  The sun will still come up, even if you don’t get the recognition.


JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.