Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"What is it that you do all day?"

I actually had a colleague ask me that recently. While it might sound a bit offensive to some, it really didn't rub me the wrong way because my job is kind of confusing and filled with tons preconceived notions.

I am a lobbyist. I work for a wonderful non-profit and work to make sure children in our state are given ever chance to grow up safe and healthy.

"Lobbyist" is a bit of a dirty word. Partly, because there are some dirty lobbyist out there. But then there are some awesome, hard working, smart and ethical people in this role that do the right thing for the right reason. Can you guess which group I chose to associate myself with?

The simplest way I can answer the question of "what is it that you do all day?" is to compare it to waiting in an airport for a flight. There is a flight you are taking (in this case, it's a bill you are working on passing) and you've been informed its going to "take off" at a certain time. So, you prepare and pack for your trip (or do all your research and fact finding to support your case) and show up at the airport (or State House). Then you sit. And wait for your plane to take off (or your bill to come up in debate in a committee hearing or on the floor). While you wait, you check e-mails and strike up conversations with fellow travelers (or fellow lobbyists). You find out why they are there and often find out that you traveling to the same final destination (or both support the same bills). Suddenly, over the loudspeaker, you hear one of two announcements: your fight has been delayed (your bill is not up for reading or debate today) or you are now boarding (your bill is now up for reading or debate). If you are lucky enough to begin the "boarding process" the next few minutes (or in some cases hours) are filled with excitement, nervousness, and stress. And you don't truly breathe a sigh of relief until you are finally in the air at cruising altitude (or all the votes have been tallied and your bill passes).   But that relief is short lived, because whether you got delayed or off the ground you are going to have to do it all over again when your flight is re-booked or when you make your connection (and your bill will eventually come up for debate or it will then move to the other chamber for the process to start over).

While this is just a snap shot of a day, it really doesn't give justice to the work that goes in to passing laws (on both sides lobbyists to lawmakers).  Or why we  do what we do. I was recently asked by a college student for a class paper to answer some questions about my profession. I found as I was answering the questions, that I'm proud of the work I do and what I have been able to accomplish along side of some fantastic people. Here's a snap shot of my responses:

1. Why did you choose this profession? I went into social work, like many people do, because I was interested in helping others. I chose to focus on a “macro” track in grad school because I wanted to work on “big picture issues” that are addressed at the organization and community level. I have spent the last 8 years working with various nonprofits in South Carolina to improve the health and well-being of women, children and family.

2. How would you describe the responsibilities of your position? I am responsible for tracking state legislation that impacts our mission of preventing child abuse and neglect and unintentional injury. I create a legislative agenda that includes bills our organization will lead, endorse, monitor, or oppose during the session. I work closely with members of the General Assembly and provide them with information (data, reports) that help them make the best decisions for children.  I work closely with our program staff to integrate program and policy work as we build our advocacy network among organizational partners. It’s absolutely critical to have voices from people that work in the field and on the front lines to share their experiences with those making decisions about how funding is spent and programs are run.

3.How would you describe a typical day or week in your position? During the legislative session (January-June) I spend most days at the State House. I listen to bills being discussed in committee meetings and follow debate on the floor of the Senate and House. I talk with legislators and other lobbyists about bills we are trying to pass (or block). I also spend time researching similar legislation that has been introduced in other states and data that supports or discredits current proposed legislation.  When we aren’t in session, I continue to spend time researching legislation that we might consider introducing or supporting in the upcoming session and meeting with other groups who are interested in working with us.  For instance, we are working on update current state law to reflect the most recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics on how infants and young children should be restrained in a car. Updating this law is very important because these recommendations provide important new research on how to keep kids safe. The closer our law reflects the newer recommendations, the better it can be enforced and the better the chance children will not be injured or killed because they were not in the right car seat or booster seat for their age. 

4.What major challenges and problems do you face and how do you handle them? Part of the biggest challenge of this job is realizing that every organization or group has something that they are passionate about and are asking legislators to support their work. It’s often easy to get lost in the crowd.  You have to keep pushing information to the front so that the issue you are working on gets noticed. You also need strong supporters that will help you along the way. Of course you will always have to deal with people who disagree or don’t see the importance of the work you are doing. A lot of my job is about education. I’m educating the public about why these issues are important so that they can help me in educating their lawmakers to do something about it.

5.What was your biggest accomplishment in this profession? The biggest thing I am most proud of thus far is being a part of a group effort to pass a law establishing school polices to protect student athletes from concussions. While I was new to the work, this group had been together and working on this issue for many legislative sessions. The bill passed this session and was signed into law by the Governor. I was able to attend the signing and see all the hard work pay off, which was very rewarding!

Concussion law signing with Governor 

We find ourselves living in a time where often politics get in the way of policy. Parties are becoming increasingly divisive.  But ideologies aside, I believe there should always be respect given to those who have been elected to public service.  And I will continue to push to put our issues aside so we can do right by our smallest citizens.