Putting the Legislative Process to Work

Marian Gardner '18 (left) with project partner Vanessa Alamo '17 (right)

Marian Gardner '18 (left) with project partner Vanessa Alamo '17 (right)

Marian Gardner '18

May, 2017

In the spring semester of 2017, I took the ENACT course “Advocacy for Policy Change” with Professor Melissa Stimell at Brandeis University. The main goal of the course is to teach students the process of lawmaking with hands-on work.

This course taught me that I have power and it enabled me to grasp the difference any single person can make through involvement in local politics, either by running for office or being a citizen advocate. Meeting with representatives like Solomon Goldstein-Rose, who at 23 is the youngest current member of the Massachusetts legislature, helped me deconstruct the concept that politicians are people who are unreachable. We have the power to elect those who are committed to positive change and we need to pay close attention and hold our legislators accountable. Although at times the legislative process is slow and discouraging and immediate results are hard to come by, it is important to be patient and maintain passion and persistence necessary to effect change.  

Throughout the semester, along with a partner, I worked on the Higher Education Equity Act (HD.644/SD.669), which was introduced on January 13th, 2017 by Representative Denise Provost. The bill seeks to extend in-state tuition and state financial assistance to undocumented Massachusetts high school graduates. I chose this particular bill because I’ve always been passionate about advocating for the rights of the marginalized (like immigrant communities). Working on a bill that I felt so passionately about made this experience powerful for me.

Our classroom time was dedicated to learning about the legislative process and various advocacy techniques to engage and persuade legislators. I first wrote an in-depth research report on the bill and became an expert. We learned how to craft an effective elevator speech and how to create media advocacy campaign through video and an op-ed piece. These lessons were critical and allowed me to have successful meetings with members of the Joint Committee for Higher Education as I attempted to persuade them to pass the bill.  

One of the most effective advocacy strategies my partner and I used was creating a campaign storybook that focused on two individuals who are personally impacted by the bill. We shared the story of Rodrigo, originally from Guatemala, who had outstanding grades in high school and all the public universities in Massachusetts he applied to accepted him. However, due to his undocumented status, he was asked to pay international tuition rate, which is almost three times higher than the in-state tuition rate and he was barred from state financial assistance. Consequently, he is unable to fulfill his dream of studying microphysics and quantum physics in college.

Stories like Rodrigo’s allowed legislators to put a name and a face to the issue and helped them better understand the significance of the bill. Furthermore, such stories also helped us deconstruct misconceptions about the bill. For instance, many opponents assume the legislation seeks to provide undocumented students with free tuition to Massachusetts’s universities and community colleges. However, through the stories we shared and our informational meetings, we were able to educate legislators that it will provide undocumented students the same opportunity as a native-born student to access higher education, thereby leveling the playing field.

Throughout our advocacy journey, my partner and I struggled to find a coalition that was pushing for our bill. Coalitions supporting past versions of this bill were focused on more immediate immigration issues such as deportation, brought on by Trump’s presidency. However, we cannot forget about education equality. Moving forward, support from immigration coalitions like the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) and Student Immigration Movement (SIM) is pertinent. These organizations need to put their resources towards educating the public about the bill, gathering testimonies for the hearing, and implementing a media advocacy campaign in order to garner large support for the bill.

Additionally, a large group of people need to mobilize and attend the hearing in order to inform the legislatures that this bill matters to a large demographic of people.

Furthermore, one of the most crucial times is the lag time between the hearing and the voting period. During this time, coalitions need to hold large protest events and have as many people as they can contact members of the Joint Committee for Higher Education and ask them to vote the bill out favorably. Seeing that there is a large support for the bill from the public will push policymakers to prioritize this legislation, and it will remind them that their action regarding the bill is being watched. If all of us exercise our power and utilize these strategies, the Higher Education Equity bill will have a much better chance of passing this time around.

I am excited to continue my work as a citizen advocate at the Massachusetts State House this summer as an intern under Representative Brian Murray. My internship at the State House will build on the skills I have gained this semester and further prepare me to take on the ENACT delegate position.

As an ENACT delegate, I hope to educate my peers about their power and engage them in this critical work. I would like to focus on campus organizations that represent minorities because minorities are most vulnerable to decisions at the State House. I believe it is important to engage and teach them how to mobilize, to challenge, or to promote policies that personally affect them.

About ENACT

ENACT: The Educational Network for Active Civic Transformation is a new national program to engage young people in state-level legislative change. Students enrolled in courses taught by ENACT faculty fellows at colleges and universities in or near state capitals around the country are learning how to work with advocacy organizations, legislators and legislative staff members to advance policy. For more information, visit go.brandeis.edu/ENACT.