Engaging Elected Officials

Engaging Elected Officials

It’s not too hard to find youth eager to conduct street marketing stunts to draw attention to Big Tobacco’s bad acts. It isn’t even a stretch to find youth willing to present to adult audiences or perform a TV interview about a tobacco issue that they are passionate about.  But convincing a youth leader to speak to elected officials can take some arm twisting.

Like most things, youth need to know why it is important to the cause, what’s in it for them and how to succeed.   This blog is dedicated to answering those three questions.

Why is it important to the cause?

Most youth advocates understand the long term sustainable value of policy change. Working toward policy change requires relationships with decision makers and community influencers. Youth advocates are the best candidates to build these relationships because they are the primary benefactors of policy change.

Relationship building starts at the onset of your policy advocacy efforts. Youth should be involved in data collection and community surveillance. One example of data collection is conducting key informant interviews. The interviews offer an opportunity to build a positive rapport with an elected official while gaining perspective on their level of support for proposed policies.  They are a great way to introduce youth to the decision maker and the decision maker to the issue.

Another non-threatening way to build the youth-decision maker relationship is regular meetings to provide success updates. These can be individual face to face meetings or short presentations at council hearings. Taking time to share successes and goals positions the youth as a resource in the community.

To culminate the community mobilizing efforts youth have led, it is critical to empower youth to make the policy ask with elected officials. Youth will stand a much better chance of gaining support when they have laid the foundation of a working relationship with elected officials over time, have problem solved together and achieved a shard goal for their community.

What’s currency does it yield for the youth?

It’s completely valid for a youth to ask (or at least think), “what’s in it for me”?  Well- beside knowing they have changed the tobacco landscape for generations of kids. We ask youth to invest their time and talents on tobacco control. With so many competing priorities, we need to deliver some tangible returns.

Youth currency can come in a variety of forms…community service hours, project based learning units, senior projects, professional mentoring opportunities, college portfolio development, scholarship and award opportunities. Be attuned to what your youth wants to be successful in life. Then, try to find ways to contribute to their long term goals.

How can we make their encounters successful?

We want youth to be confident and equipped so that their efforts yield success.  This will make them come back for more.  The art and skill of public speaking comes from practice.  All kinds of practice.  It starts with knowing the key messages.  As youth are able to communicate those key messages in various settings- community events, presentations, letters to the editor, etc.-they will internalize it.  Even with loads of practice, it can be hard to start those conversations with decision makers.

To help you build your message, I developed a simple tool. Feel free to use this to build on common ground and set a tobacco free future with your elected officials.

Message Builder Tool

Erica Olmstead's journey with youth advocacy and tobacco control began as a youth advocate in New York with the Reality Check program. Over the past 12 years, she has continuously focused her efforts on empowering youth to advocate against corporate tobacco, first as a youth advocate, later as a Reality Check Program Coordinator and now as a member of the Youth Advocacy team at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids in Washington, DC.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *