Read the paper, watch the news, sign up for that NPR podcast. Keep yourself up-to-date on issues that are important to you. Follow up on policies that interest you. It is not easy to be a part of the solution if you do not know what the problems are. Reading The Wall Street Journal cover-to-cover every day may not be a viable option for most of us, but following a few top stories in an area of interest is not so time-consuming and can help you develop a broader understanding of your field that can help guide your research, clinical work, and teaching.
The big, national issues may get the most media attention and the idea of making a difference at a national or global scale is certainly appealing (and possible), but remember that motto, “Think globally, act locally?” Getting involved in local issues can offer simpler ways to impact policy. Keep up with local developments. Worried about how the local community mental health services are being portrayed? Write a letter to the editor. Know who your state and national representatives are and do not be afraid to contact them. The website usa.gov makes it easy to find contact information for both state and federal legislators with easy-to-use search tools. Remember, the fact that you write is often more important than what you write when it comes to contacting your representatives; they are here to represent you but can only do so if they know what side of an issue their constituents support.
Support Your Community
Get involved in small ways with community organizations. Volunteer at a local food pantry or attend that gallery showing of the after-school art program. Shop at local stores that give back to the community. These small acts can make a bigger difference than you might realize. You can also make connections with organizations that may need your help, learn more about issues that are directly affecting your local community, and meet like-minded community members who share your passions. Find volunteer opportunities through websites such as serve.gov that match your interests with local organizations and events that need help.
Fuel Your Passions
Speaking of passions, know yours. There are always going to be more problems to solve, more organizations to support, and more families that need your help. One of the most difficult parts of getting involved can be prioritizing those issues that are most important to you, but this step is essential. Reading multiple newspaper articles, deciphering complicated legislation, and spending your valuable free time volunteering can be fun and engaging if you are passionate about the topic. It can just as easily become a chore or fall by the wayside if you are not.
With the upcoming election, voting is a topic on everyone’s minds right now, but do not forget that there are more than just presidential elections every four years. In fact, most elected officials are chosen during midterm elections that occur between the presidential elections. Websites like TurboVote.com will send you a text message or email reminders about upcoming elections in your area and will even automatically send you absentee ballots when election time arrives. Voter registration can feel confusing for students who may not view their current location as home, but according to a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Symm v US, 1979) students can register in either location. Check out organizations like the Fair Elections Legal Network and vote411.org for more information on registering and staying informed about candidates.
Keep It Balanced
Considering the connections between your advocacy work and your professional work is important for students. Is one an offshoot of the other? If so, your community involvement can be a great way to make connections and develop new ideas for your research or clinical work. Or do you prefer to keep the two separate? Engaging your passions outside of work can keep you energized and connected with community members outside of the academic bubble that can consume graduate students. Either way, remember to balance your commitments. Panelists at the Mentoring Breakfast had a wide array of experiences with getting involved in advocacy work as a student, but all were quick to remind the audience that as students our top priority is developing the skills that will help us to make the most difference for the most families in the future. Educating yourself is, after all, the first step in enacting meaningful change.