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Advocacy through Relationship: Making the Story Personal

This is a guest blog by Becky Sipe,  Chair of NCTE’s Conference on English Leadership (CEL).

BeckySipesmallOne of my strongest advocacy role models was Dr. Louise Rosenblatt, who, in her late 80s, described purchasing a fax machine because she realized she could send messages to her legislators virtually every day to push back on objectionable educational policies under consideration. Contacting legislators has always been important to me. Even if my voice is one of many, I feel my lifetime immersion in literacy education provides me with a more multifaceted understanding of the needs of students and teachers than my legislators might possess.

Interestingly, over a year ago students in Eastern Michigan University’s Honors College, where I have the privilege of serving as director, raised an important question: how can legislators who are so far removed from college begin to understand the pressures of student debt, the impact of rising tuition, and the struggle families experience when trying to be supportive of their college-age students despite the radical downturn in the economy? This question gave me—and others in the college—pause. How indeed?

From beginning conversations such as these was born a new vision of advocacy for our college. In September 2014, Representative Dave Rutledge, who represents our district in the Michigan Legislature, was invited to EMU to shadow an Honors College student for the day. From our side, we advertised to our Honors College student population the opportunity to serve as host to Representative Rutledge. One applicant, Andrea, was selected from among those who applied.

What transpired has been exciting and inspirational. Representative Rutledge’s day with Andrea started with breakfast on campus followed by a steady flow of classes, club meetings, study group, and part-time job. From political science to world languages to working in a campus office, he was able to see firsthand the life of a student who values her education and balances many different pressures to gain the opportunities in which she is immersed. Representative Rutledge learned a bit more of the impact being felt by students resulting from tuition increases as state support for higher education has been scaled back. He heard from Andrea and her friends about opportunities they hope to experience—such as intensive research, study abroad, and presenting at a regional or national conference—and about the many ways they work to create the necessary funding to make these things happen. And he had the opportunity to see some very fine examples of professors teaching, of earnest students seeking educational opportunities, and of administrators working hard to keep opportunities available and costs down.

I’m sure our representative left campus tired that day, and I’m pleased to say that the story did not end there. In late summer of 2015, his office manager contacted us. This time Representative Rutledge wanted to make a reciprocal opportunity available for one of our students. In October 2015, a different student traveled to Lansing with a small select group on behalf of our college. Leah spent the day shadowing Representative Rutledge, attending caucus meetings and a legislative hearing and spending time on the floor of the State Legislature. Not only did Leah learn much, but she was also, like Andrea, able to give lawmakers a glimpse into the lives and cares of an important group of constituents.

Though these exchanges are likely not novel or unique, they have been powerful in the advocacy platform our college has developed. We have witnessed a growing trust and eagerness to fully understand across the great divides of age, position, and power. The takeaway that we share with students is simple: Advocacy is a two-way street. We not only have to help legislators know what we want, but we also have to help them develop experiences that allow them to understand how decisions they make—or fail to make—affect the daily lives of those they represent. Representative Rutledge has always been considered a friend to education. Now he fully appreciates that every dollar reduced in state appropriations for higher education will have a real impact on more than one college student. Further, he has seen that this impact generally has a disproportionate impact on first-generation, lower socioeconomic students. And our students? We hope they too have learned that it is not only okay but indeed critical that they make their needs and wishes known by being strong and active advocates.

Rebecca Sipe, a former middle school teacher, curriculum coordinator, university professor, and university department head, currently serves as the Assistant Vice President, Honors College at Eastern Michigan University. She is a passionate advocate for literacy instruction and literacy leaders.