By Meredith Cohen, JFCS Program Development Manager
From February 5th through the 7th, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Washington with my colleagues in Jewish Family and Children’s Service and Federation, on the 2013 Government Affairs Institute & Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies Advocacy Mission. Despite coming from a legal background, I have never experienced political activism, and was interested to see what it entailed. I wondered what a “mission” meant, how much impact a small group could actually have, and whether our platforms would really be heard.
We received our policy talking points ahead of the trip, and a schedule of the three days, which included the politicians’ staffers we would be addressing. On the first day, we heard from a myriad of well-informed speakers who updated us on the issues surrounding family service agencies, and upcoming trends. I must admit the acronyms were flying, and I was Googling at a rapid pace to keep up.
I learned that if the looming sequester were to become a reality, big budget cuts in entitlement programs could have a tremendous impact on our ability to provide programs and services. I learned that a proposed reduction in the charitable tax deduction could significantly reduce the revenue received from generous donors into our Federation system. I learned of trends that will impact members of our community, such as the baby boomers. This “sandwich” generation is living longer, which will affect their need for employment and the rising cost of health care.
I also learned something else. Looking around the room, I recognized that I was part of a greater good- I was surrounded by a “team” of smart and talented individuals who continually provide help and hope, and were invested in comprehending the political landscape so that they could continue to do so.
It was with this team that I entered day two. More briefings and education, by talented Washington insiders and elected officials, and then, finally, into the Senate and Congressional offices. There, we were face-to-face with the staffers who would listen, comment and pass along our agendas to Senators Lautenberg and Menendez, and Congressmen Runyan and Andrews. I was amazed at the way these staffers focused, their level of interest in the issues we brought forth, and their appreciation of being educated on them. I must admit that I was also impressed with their youth, as no one on Capitol Hill looks to be over 25 years of age…
The message we consistently heard throughout the afternoon, was how vital it is for them to hear from the constituents they serve. We were told that Washington is an insular place, and the issues come alive when we present in person. The stories of the services we provide, the people we serve, and the outcomes we achieve bolster their efforts to advocate for the policies that bring the needed funding and supports.
A byproduct of this experience is the rapport one develops with colleagues, within one’s own system, and throughout the United States. I had conversations with executives, staff and lay leaders from all over the country, and discovered that these missions are breeding grounds to share and generate new ideas, discuss creative programs and develop professional contacts.
Day three was equally compelling, as we were briefed at the White House by officials who are experts on the economy, innovation and health care. I must say though, that the coolest part of day three was seeing the President’s motorcade pull out of the White House. I could barely contain my child-like enthusiasm.
So what is my novice impression of an advocacy mission? My takeaway is quite clear and simple: It matters that we participate in the governmental process. We make a difference, and when we are part of the system, our voices are heard. I would strongly encourage anyone who has an interest in being part of the April 25th mission to D.C. to become involved. Do not worry about your level of experience or whether you will have something to offer. Just by being there, you will be educated, you will educate others, and you will bring back something of tremendous value to our Jewish and broader community.