When my daughter started kindergarten, I offered to be the legislative chair for her elementary school PTA. Although I had been a litigator prior to staying home with my children, I felt out of place. I kept quiet those first few months until we learned our school board planned to cut the arts. Selected to speak before the board, I arrived with my written speech. With legs shaking behind the lectern and my voice quivering, I began. When a school board member smiled at me, I instantly relaxed and found the courage to forge on. Thus began my journey as an advocate.
As the years passed, I found my voice and my passion. I learned quickly that our school board did not always have the power of the purse nor did it originate all the various policies; many came from our Board of Supervisors or the General Assembly. I learned the players and studied the issues. I wrote articles in our parent newsletter, organized forums, and began writing letters to the editor. And I spoke: attending town halls, testifying at hearings, and meeting with elected officials. When a group of parents blocked our first-year high school students from accessing two books, a group of us formed the Right to Read. We spoke passionately at school board meetings and made it a campaign issue in the Board of Supervisors race. Our efforts paid off: we helped elect a candidate who did not agree with censorship and changed the policies of our school system.
On April 16, 2007, my family lost a very dear friend in the Virginia Tech tragedy. My advocacy refocused and I carefully cultivated relationships with legislators at the state and federal level on both sides of the aisle. I scheduled meetings with them and members of their staff. I drafted language for bills I wanted passed and asked legislators on both sides of the aisle to sponsor them. I then arranged to meet with committee members or wrote to them to encourage them to pass the bills out of committee. I traveled to testify at subcommittee and committee hearings. I learned the art of compromise as opponents fought back, but I never yielded on the core reason behind the bill. Even when bills went to conference committee or were in front of the governor’s desk, I negotiated and pleaded. Sometimes I lost, but many times I won.
Advocacy is hard; at times it is exhausting and disheartening. But it is one of the most exhilarating things I have ever done. I know that because of my efforts and those of my colleagues, laws have been passed and policies changed that have made a difference in the lives of many. What is so beautiful about this country is that we can speak up and we can write to others. Everyone can make a difference. You just have to take that first step.