Advocacy awards, course encourage new activism

Students learn how to navigate political, legal systems to make a difference

Left, Rebecca Wilkof presents her report; right, Vanessa Kerr speaks on behalf of Student Immigrant Movement at a protest against Arizona's controversial immigration law.

In 2009 the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life launched Advocacy for Policy Change, an initiative designed to encourage citizens to bring moral and ethical insights to the process of making and revising laws. The initiative focuses on undergraduates, through a Legal Studies Program course introduced in spring 2010. The course is taught by Professor Melissa Stimell and is also called Advocacy for Policy Change (LEGALS 161b).

Students in the course may apply for an advocacy award to continue over the summer work started in the course, or to undertake a proposed new advocacy project. The course is being offered again this spring; only students in the course may apply for the 2011 advocacy awards.

The first awards were given to Vanessa Kerr '11 and Rebecca Wilkof '10, who completed their projects in December 2010, and wrote about their experiences. Kerr tackled immigration issues; Wilkof served as a legislative aide to a Massachusetts state representative.

The course combines an investigation of the ethical dilemmas that arise in the process of law-making with hands-on advocacy work with entities seeking to reform laws or to propose new ones. [Read the report of the spring 2010 class.]

The Advocacy for Policy Change initiative is supported by multi-year commitments from Center board member Norbert Weissberg and his wife, former board member Judith Schneider.

Vanessa Kerr reflects on her immigrant-support work [Excerpts from her report]

Almost a year ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she had signed up for a new course offered by the Legal Studies department called Advocacy for Policy Change. I enrolled in it as well because I thought it sounded interesting. In retrospect, the casual circumstance of my enrollment amuses me. The description said something about community involvement and political advocacy at the state level - more hands-on than other Brandeis classes, I gathered. In all likelihood, I thought, it would be interesting and I might learn something good.

I really had no idea.

Even at the end of the semester, at the Faculty Club luncheon following the presentation of our final projects, I remember being unexpectedly invested on an emotional level in my legislative assignment. But I was mentally preparing to transition from that spring's adventures to a summer internship at the Massachusetts State House. Three of my organizational "contacts" from the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM) had come out to see my presentation. I was thinking about how I would maintain contact when one of them looked across the table at me and said, "So you're coming to D.C. with us tonight, right?"

I'm pretty sure I asked her why I would possibly be going to D.C. this weekend. I'd only been involved with SIM for a few months, but it was long enough for me to learn that you could spend all day in the office and still have no idea what was going on. It didn't surprise me that this was the first I was hearing about SIM's participation in the national "May Day" immigration rally.

I hemmed and hawed - finals were coming up, and Advocacy for Policy Change, with all its thrills and excitement, was finally over. Besides, I had plans for the weekend, I didn't really have money for the bus... she interrupted me and said I could call her later that afternoon to tell her I was coming.

I spent a few hours torn between the prospects of my academic life returning to normal and the promise and obligation I felt toward my new friends at SIM. Being an immigrant myself, the bond I had formed with my undocumented friends had been quick and my decision to do a project on an immigrant rights issue - on in-state tuition for undocumented residents - seemed a natural one.

I'd never had any intention of cutting ties with them - my plan was to stay up-to-date on their projects and stay involved in some way. But had I ever imagined joining SIM on an impromptu trip to Washington? No, not really. Yet in my work with them on in-state tuition, I had become aware of the other initiatives SIM was involved with and I was, admittedly, curious to learn more.

So I packed a bag and was standing in Chinatown at 10 that night getting ready to board the bus for the eight-hour trip to D.C.

On that trip, the friendships that had begun during my work for Advocacy for Policy Change cemented. It was then that I knew my involvement in the Student Immigrant Movement was really just beginning. I met more of the members and not long after the trip I was invited to a leadership meeting.

My education in political advocacy began in my college course, but my education in the day-to-day functions of a membership-led organization really took place over the summer. I learned how to plan and execute press conferences and public actions, and gained practical experience in the ins-and-outs of media visuals. Organizing members and recruiting the community to the cause came next.

Because of what I had learned in Advocacy for Policy Change, my full-time internship in the Massachusetts Senate over the summer became, at first, relevant, and then later, a resource for SIM. Standing in the Senate chamber as our elected officials wrestled with amendments to the state budget, I witnessed one such amendment pass that was of immediate concern to the Student Immigrant Movement and all immigrants in Massachusetts.

Led by the misguided notion that undocumented immigrants use state services and do not pay into the "pool," Massachusetts senators voted to include within the budget some policy that would formalize immigrants' inability to apply for most state services, eliminate the few benefits they are able to secure, enforce the use of expensive and insecure status verification software in employment and set up a 24/7 hotline to which suspected undocumented immigrants could be reported, among other anti-immigrant components.

And, while it was not the worst of the budget amendments, tacked on to the end of this 20-page piece of legislation was a prohibition on in-state tuition for undocumented students - a slap in the face of the Student Immigrant Movement, which had been fighting for this very publicly for years.

A few days later was the leadership retreat that I and other SIM members had organized in order to touch base on our summer goals. After we'd talked at length about federal legislation concerning status for undocumented students, the discussion turned to what our own state government had just done. The anti-immigrant amendments to the budget (promoted as cost-saving measures but potentially being costly in themselves) had passed the Senate version, but it was clear that we needed to work to bring attention to the public of what had happened and we needed to keep the measure from being added to the final version of the budget.

As we spoke about what the amendment entailed, emotions ran high. Students shared their fears: one girl's mother received just enough help from the government to meet the expense of her diabetes medication, and this was threatened by the amendment. Still others wondered when they would ever be able to go to college if their hopes of someday being able to pay a manageable in-state tuition were taken from them. Finally, the discussion facilitator said, "So what are we going to do about it?"

The answer? Vigil. I can't remember who said it first, but we quickly decided that we needed to do something to grab attention and do our best to change the hearts and minds of state legislators. When do we start the vigil? Tomorrow. How long will we maintain the vigil? Until the amendment is defeated.

The very next day, as soon as I got out of my internship at the State House, I walked to the ceremonial entrance, where a group of SIM members stood, preparing to begin what would be a 19-day, 24/7 vigil. The Ethics Center grant enabled me to contribute some supplies we needed, such as food, water, blankets for the night and umbrellas for bad weather.

After 19 days of maintaining a constant presence on the steps of the State House, debating with passers-by, and talking to the media, we were successful and the amendment was removed.

I also represented SIM at a conference in Chicago, at which youth immigrant rights activists would be discussed. The Ethics Center grant enabled me to do so, and I am so glad that I was able to provide perspective to the attendees at that conference and tell them SIM's story.

Ethics Center grant funds enabled me to pay for my bus ticket to return to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or "DREAM," Act, which would enable some non-citizen students who graduate from a U.S. high school and complete two years in the military or four years of college to earn conditional permanent residency.

I and other members of SIM lobbied our federal legislators, and held "Dream University" on the lawn in front of the White House. Legislators told us that there was no chance of the DREAM Act coming up for a vote before the end of session - but they were wrong. Immigrant youth across the country worked hard to ensure that DREAM came up not once, but twice before Congress rested for the holidays.

Autumn featured various actions in the Boston area, centered on the DREAM Act. I brought the struggle home to Brandeis, and with the grant was able to purchase materials for a constituent call and petition campaign. Even though the DREAM Act failed by a few votes this year, through all of this action I was able to meet other interested Brandeis students and we are currently planning for the spring.

On my second trip to Washington, D.C., I met Michaela - a real documentarian who had been working in a team to make a full-length film about SIM and other youth immigration activists over the past few years. It was amazing to meet her and learn more about film as a career. I learned from her that my difficulties with doing a film stemmed from the fact that I was simply too engaged in the work to step back and document it. In order to capture what was going on, I realized that I would have had to be both in front and behind the camera. It was more important for me to be involved, and so that is what I did.

[It] has been an amazing and endlessly enlightening experience. The growth that began in Advocacy for Policy Change continued over the summer and was largely enabled by the generous gift I received... It is a gift that keeps giving, and I look forward to continuing the struggle for immigrant rights in the future.

Rebecca Wilkof reflects on her work on Beacon Hill [Excerpts from her report]

Over the course of the summer and fall semester, I was a legislative intern in the office of Massachusetts State Representative Cleon H. Turner, D-Dennis. I was responsible for the many constituent cases that came through the office. This job included communicating with the constituent, researching their question or working to solve their problem and seeing the case through to an answer or solution. I also authored press releases, speech drafts, bill summaries, research reports and seminar records, among other tasks.

Working in the State House... I learned about the process of policy-making and the pitfalls of the system as I advocated on behalf of the constituents that called into the office with problems and complaints. I found the job to be fascinating and simultaneously frustrating.

It was my hope that though my work with constituents, I would not only be able to address their individual issues, but also gain some sense of a larger problem that I could tackle. I hoped also to advocate on their behalf for larger policy change to address their problems, rather than solving the complaints in a piecemeal fashion. Most often, constituents called in with problems with their health care, with tax interest piling up, or with concerns on an upcoming bill vote or amendment. Frequently I was able to contact agencies, insurance companies, tax collectors and other public organizations on their behalf and get to the bottom of the problem.

Unfortunately, the turnaround was slow and in no way transparent to the constituent. Often, a constituent would call in several times in frustration with the sluggish pace of the problem-solving process and I was powerless to speed along the bureaucratic procedure. Advocating on behalf of each constituent was a gradual process. It was difficult to make proposals for any real change to help prevent the issues from arising because there was no consolidated effort or coordination between constituents with similar problems.

The most constructive change came about when a group of constituents was able to mobilize in order to make a consolidated request to Rep. Turner, who could in turn present their case to his caucus or author a bill to amend the problem. Much of my work, while worthwhile and rewarding, was addressing issues in the short-term and hoping to keep up with the load of concerns as they came to our office.

One problem that an advocate faces in working to make comprehensive change rather than short-term modifications is the slow pace of the legislative process. Every bill must go not only through both the House and the Senate but also through numerous committees and readings, amendment sessions and votes.

Although there are myriad resources online for a constituent to take advantage of, the system is difficult to understand and many lay people are too busy to try to access the routes to wider policy change. They often contact their representative as a last resort and, in their desperation, many constituents are emotional and frantic to see a solution to their problem. Further, many legislative aides receive constituent complaints with a dubious ear and so much aggravation can occur for all parties.

For an advocate, there are also many benefits of working in the State House. The networking opportunities are innumerable and all the policy-making resources one could hope for are in one building.

Yet the State House may not be the best place to work from an advocate's perspective. While working in the building gave me open access to policy-makers and other important stakeholders, the system is sluggish and there is much time wasted on bureaucratic hoops.

In the future, I hope to participate in positive policy-making from an outside institution. For example, I worked with a constituent who struggled with an occupational injury and had formed a small coalition of workers who were also injured on the job. Within the State House, there was little I could help him with. However, if I approached the problem from the perspective of the Department of Occupational Safety, his complaint and those of his colleagues would be more directly addressed and taken into account when promoting policy change.

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