Innovation begins in the public sector and becomes codified in the policy space.
Three years ago, I found myself at California’s Capitol building, testifying on behalf of the Hunger-Free Campus Bill, a piece of legislation I had drafted on my laptop just three months prior. Soon after walking out of the hearing room, we learned the bill was adopted. That meant $7.5 million would be sent to California’s public colleges to help fund programs to provide meals to students facing food insecurity. This legislation has been renewed each year, amounting to a trailblazing $20+ million since 2017. Following its success in California, the bill has been introduced into the state legislatures of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
Of course, there’s more to the story, as 25-year-olds don’t magically get their bills signed into law. The Hunger-Free Campus Bill was the result of thoughtful, intentional coalition-building efforts.
With the Covid-19 pandemic exemplifying the importance of effective policy, advocacy is an opportunity to spur systemic change at a critical moment. Here are tips to consider as you seek to engage your organization in advocacy:
Test and prove your policy proposal. Policy change is often permanent and far-reaching. Show that your policy will have the intended impact by testing your model. This will enable you to have greater free rein to innovate, learn, and adapt your program. By the time you seek state or federal funding/support, you have the model down and some momentum on the ground. We had grown Swipe Out Hunger on 50 campuses, and we had tested many other anti-hunger programs before considering working on policy.
Proceed with cautious optimism. I remember calling on key leaders in higher education for feedback on the bill draft and being met with skepticism that the legislature would actually prioritize funding for a new bill on college hunger. Many of the leaders joined the coalition simply because of our relationship, despite their doubt. My naivete was an asset: I had no idea how unlikely it is to pass legislation. As you are met with pushback, channel the idealism of your youth and remember that if there’s a will, there’s a way.
Take the lead of experts. Our bill’s sponsor, the incredible Assembly Member Monique Limón, became familiar with our work after seeing its impact while she was an administrator at UC Santa Barbara. She invited veteran policy experts from the Western Center on Law and Poverty into our advocacy process, as they knew how to navigate the policy space. The experts took my draft of a bill and made it sound like formal policy. They knew which legislators sat on which committees. They reminded me to thank the legislator for their work after every discussion. Their expertise advanced the bill forward in monumental ways.
Apply pressure. Demonstrate to policymakers that their constituents are watching them, waiting for their action. Policymakers are incentivized to take action for good press and goodwill (i.e., votes) from their constituents. Knowing the attention is on them may be the critical push policymakers need to prioritize your issue. It’s also an effective way to engage your community in your policy work. Organize a letter-writing campaign or record supportive testimonials from your stakeholders as a way to welcome your community into your advocacy work.
Keep your values front and center. Develop your list of values-driven directives. Throughout our process, we kept the experiences of our students as the focus. When the bill suddenly had too many strings attached to receive funds, we pushed back. We knew our college partners hardly had enough time as it was and could not spend their days completing government forms. It is your job to inform legislators on not only the issue but inspire them with exciting progress already being made.
Overcommunicate with your coalition. A policy’s success is almost impossible without a coalition of partners. We involved our coalition of partners almost immediately, and in turn, they attracted additional allies. Engaging partners in the process means that when your legislation passes, your stakeholders will already feel invested and ready to bring it to life––it also means more people with whom to celebrate and recalibrate. You can engage stakeholders by creating a regular pace of information sharing, such as a biweekly update, inviting constituents to testify, and coordinating communication strategies. Building a strong coalition isn’t easy: Always remember to keep your shared mission at the center when organizational politics get in the way.
Not all policy change is legislative. Every time a university adopts a Swipe Out Hunger program, they are not only changing campus policy but changing campus culture. Through campus-level policy change, students can donate their excess dining hall meal swipes to a peer facing food insecurity. Think about ways you may be able to affect a culture outside of advancing formal legislation: Can you update the status quo within your sector with program changes instead of a bill? This may be a great way to test your model before bringing it forward within a bill.
Remember that typically, policy change takes years. The real work begins once the legislation is passed. That’s when you begin the work to ensure the policy actually leads to important change on the ground. Our direct service programs have been impacted by the Covid-19 campus closures, and we have shifted our focus once again to advocacy work. This includes mobilizing our students from across the country to advocate for adequate emergency aid for college students and ensuring that those dollars actually reach students rather than getting lost in a bureaucratic process, as well as pushing for SNAP expansion.
The voices of your community members have been missing from our political system for too long. It’s time to get your plan together and advocate for the policies and resources for which our cities, states, and country have been waiting.
Rachel Sumekh was recently featured in Blue Avocado’s “Against the Current” series. Read her interview here.
Rachel Sumekh is the Founder & CEO of Swipe Out Hunger. The organization is the leading nonprofit in addressing hunger amongst college students. Her work has been recognized by The Obama White House and landed her on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list.
Swipe Out Hunger began in 2010 with a few friends at UCLA. Since, it has grown onto over 100 universities, serving 1.7 million nourishing meals. Its innovative approach allows university students to donate the unused funds from their meal plans to food insecure peers. Rachel helped write the Hunger Free Campus Bill which has since sent $20+ million to anti-hunger programs on campus.