IU School of Public Health students become lobbyists for a day

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Fourteen graduate students in Indiana University’s School of Public Health-Bloomington transformed into lobbyists Feb. 8, advocating on behalf of March of Dimes. After a briefing by the national March of Dimes governmental relations chair, the students spent three hours at the Indiana Statehouse, arguing for an increased state tobacco tax and fielding questions from legistlators.

Group pic

Beth Meyerson’s class pose for a photo at the Indiana Statehouse. | Photo courtesy of Beth Meyerson.

Beth Meyerson, assistant professor of health policy and management, created a course, Public Health Policy and Politics, hoping to break the barrier between classroom learning and real-world advocacy.

“I am a believer that the community is the classroom, especially for public health, because our work is about real-world problems that are in themselves great learning opportunities,” Meyerson said. “In the case of our class, it is not enough to talk about how the health policy process happens or how advocacy coalitions are formed and work because students won’t have a feel for it until they themselves experience it.”

Once at the statehouse, the class received brief instructions from a March of Dimes representative on how to speak clearly and concisely with public officials. Then, split into small groups, they met with their district senators and representatives to advocate on behalf of the March of Dimes’ maternal health policy agenda.

The students focused on maternal health goals, including an increase in the state tobacco tax to $1; the creation of substance abuse prevention and cessation programs for pregnant women; and the improvement of access and data confidentiality for pregnant women seeking prenatal care who fear criminal prosecution.

Julius Lee, a first-year master’s student in the School of Public Health, found the lobbying effort rewarding.

“The beauty of this opportunity was the exposure to the democratic process,” Lee said. “We served as a proxy for mothers affected by these public health policies. We became their voice and their hope for better health benefits.”

Meyerson's class

Pictured from left to right: IU student Grace Yeboah Asuamah, Representative Vernon G. Smith–D. Gary, and students Angela Onsongo and Julius Lee. | Photo courtesy of Julius Lee.

For Olivia Western and Chris Owens, both first-year master’s students in the School of Public Health, interacting with state legislators offered eye-opening insight into the power of local lobbying and advocacy.

“The process isn’t what I expected,” Western said. “I didn’t expect the legislators to be so friendly and accessible. We watched some discussion from the gallery and noticed a light-hearted mood, even some joking between parties. I learned that our legislators are very open, maybe even eager, to hear about what the public wants to see in law.”

In a hyper-partisan political climate, the sincerity of the legislators surprised Owens.

“I expected to speak exclusively with their staff, so I was surprised we spoke with both the senator and legislator,” Owens said. “They noted their lack of awareness with the issue and spoke candidly about their dilemma. You could infer from their facial expression and speech that they would consider looking at the issue more, or at least asking their staff to do more research.”

The students will participate in future fieldwork and health policy communication experiences this semester, including writing briefs on Indiana’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights legislation to present at future hearings.

Meyerson said no amount of classroom discussion can replace direct engagement and communication with legislators and policy engagement.

“There is a certain pattern to public policy engagement. Think of it as a jump rope game,” Meyerson said. “You can watch it from the sideline and get instruction about how to do it. But it won’t be until you get in, trip, get back in and jump successfully that you really learn something.

“We want and need to train public health professionals who will make change for the health of communities. Doing so requires their policy engagement. It’s not rocket science; it’s jump rope.”

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