On Feb. 9, Northwestern social work students visited the State Capitol in Des Moines to advocate among legislators and senators. This trip has been happening for 10 years as part the social policy and advocacy course.
Students choose a topic they are passionate about and locate bills in the house to advocate for or against. This trip has historically been in conjunction with the National Association of Social Workers – Iowa chapter which provides a morning training on political advocacy and legislative process.
Dr. Valerie Stokes takes students on this trip because there are some things that can’t be learned in a textbook. This year, the morning training was cancelled due to the pandemic, but the students did not let this stop them. They had become invested in their issues in deeper ways that meant more to them than just a class assignment, so they decided to go anyways.
“I couldn’t be prouder as their professor!” Stokes said.
This year, students advocated on issues related to human trafficking and semi-trucker training, mental health insurance parity, domestic violence and rental lease release, food assistance program benefits not including capital such as one’s car or tractor, autism and law enforcement training, suicide prevention in schools and sexual abuse prevention.
Molly Ryan and Kara Richard partnered up and met with Representative Matt Windschitl. Ryan advocated for the House File 2245 bill to be passed, so out-of-state health care professionals who are licensed in the state of Iowa will be allowed to participate as providers via telehealth. By passing this bill, Iowans will have better access to treatments such as mental health treatment. Ryan not only advocated for this bill, but she also pushed for further action.
“HF2245 is a start, but there is both a shortage of mental health providers in Iowa and a shortage of out-of-state providers licensed in Iowa,” Ryan said.
The requirement of Iowa licensure further limits Iowans from getting the care they need.
“Advocacy is important because it reminds legislators that their actions have an impact on real people. Being face-to-face and sharing personal stories is powerful,” Ryan said.
Kara Richards mentioned how meaningful it was that Representative Windschitl scheduled time out of his busy day to meet with her and Ryan. She talked to him about legislation that would require those seeking a CDL to complete human trafficking prevention training. He was supportive of this bill and expressed similar concern for the issue of human trafficking.
“Advocating is important for all people but especially social workers because policies and legislation determine how we can help people,” Richard said. “The decisions made at the Capitol building and all throughout government directly affect our job. We have a responsibility to be a voice for those who don’t have one, especially when there is inequality and injustice.”
To prepare for the trip, students spend time learning how to find bills, locating their senator and representative, understanding the committee structure of the chambers, creating letters that support their advocacy to leave with their legislators and practice a five-minute persuasive argument in favor or opposition of their chosen bill. This preparation gives students all the tools and confidence to approach their senator and representative in their office at the Capitol.
Through this experience, Elizabeth Olsen realized that you must look to the systemic problem in order bring about real, lasting solution.
“By advocating for change to improve the life of any individual, we are giving voices to the voiceless and seeking change,” Olsen said.
One of the biggest takeaways for the students was that their voice matters.
“I hope students recognize their sense of empowerment and efficacy that they can influence the legislative process and overall that their advocacy matters, no matter one’s age or education level,” Stokes said. “Our democracy offers this grand opportunity to participate in the political process. Being apathetic will never create the change we seek, so we need to get involved.”