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Building Legislative Advocacy Skills in a Rural Community

​A PREVENT Case Study from Ohio


Bringing about legislative change, no matter what the issue, takes sustained and concerted effort by a lot of people. It’s always a “big lift”. In this story of legislative change in Ohio there are three entities that were part of the lifting: two nonprofit advocacy organizations in Columbus OH (Center for Effective Discipline and Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio), the Partnership for Violence Free Families (a community coalition working to prevent violence in the mostly rural west central part of Ohio), and the public. This is a story of connection between each of these groups. It’s a story of small successes, small failures, and one big success. It’s a story about building relationships.

Donna Dickman is the director of the Partnership for Violence Free Families, a coalition of agencies and businesses in Allen county Ohio dedicated to the prevention of family violence through the promotion of violence prevention programs. After 8 years of working to prevent violence in Allen County the PVFF decided it wanted to learn more about “how we could become more effective in advocating for children and how we could then expand our work to encourage others in Ohio to do the same”. Donna and two other partners from PVFF decided to apply to the PREVENT Institute. They also invited two advocates from Columbus to serve on their team—people who understand the state legislative process and how to navigate it—and were pleased when their colleagues from Columbus accepted the invitation. This is the first level of connection that happened in this story: coalition partners from a rural part of the state built a working relationship with advocates who regularly knock on the doors of decision makers in the capital.
During the first part of the PREVENT Institute, the team decided to create a train-the-trainer model to build a constituency of 100 people in Allen County with knowledge of how a bill becomes law and how to do grassroots legislative advocacy. The team developed a curriculum and training materials. They also picked a specific piece of legislation as the model to be used in their trainings: a ban on corporal punishment in Ohio schools. The team identified 10 people who had a natural audience through their work, home or religious life—people who could turn around the information they learned to teach it to others quickly—and invited them to a three-hour workshop on the legislative process and advocacy. The idea was that each of those people would in turn teach 10 more people, resulting in 100 people trained and ready to engage in grassroots advocacy. These 100 people would then contact their local legislators specifically about the proposed ban on corporal punishment.
In the eight months of the Institute, the team created a curriculum that included information on how a bill gets passed into law and specific background facts on the corporal punishment bill. Their curriculum was reviewed by three active or retired elected officials. They had trouble with attendance, but after two trainings, they had 9 trainers who completed their three-hour training and a strengthened connection between the partnership and these active members of the community. While many of the trainees indicated that they didn’t feel ready to start training others on the overall legislative process, several did offer the training; however, they were unsuccessful in getting attendance at their trainings.
While the team struggled to reach the broad audience they had hoped for with their training in general grassroots legislative advocacy, they had more success in the specific work around the bill banning corporal punishment in schools. The team and the trainers trained by the team got many people to write letters on that issue to their local legislators (in a very conservative part of the state), a much smaller commitment than attending a full training. People in the community, many of whom had never before connected individually with their legislators, wrote letters, made phone calls, and some made in-person visits. The big success of this overall story is that the ban passed, one of only 9 bills to do so in Ohio in 2008. Getting this piece of legislation passed involved many people’s efforts over a long time. While there were few if any representatives from west central Ohio who supported the bill, the role of the PREVENT team’s training and grassroots advocacy was clearly stated by Nadine Block, Executive Director of the Center for Effective Discipline.
A lot of the Republicans from up there who didn’t support the bill were increasingly uncomfortable trying to explain why they supported hitting a child with a board. While we didn’t get their votes we didn’t hear any big moaning when it passed either. [The PREVENT team] ... worked to create understanding and advocacy ... to be able to blunt their legislators’ opposition to a ban. (emphasis added) (Team member interview October 2009)
In other words, the PREVENT Ohio team developed relationships between the legislators and both the coalition and the general public such that representatives who previously had vigorously opposed this ban chose to just vote against it rather than actively work against it.
While the team’s original vision of a cadre of citizens trained in grassroots advocacy did not evolve as planned, there were successes beyond the one specific bill. Donna Dickman got partners from the PVFF coalition to actively engage with their local legislators. These coalition representatives met repeatedly with their local state representative, building a relationship with him that will serve as a foundation for future advocacy efforts (even though he did not support this specific legislation):
I kept sending people to him. I don’t think that he changed his vote but he knew where we stood, so the next time something like that comes around he knows what he has in front of him, and we are not afraid to talk to him about it. (Team member interview September 2009)
She continues to bring legislative issues to the coalition regularly, which was not the case before the experience with PREVENT. A stronger relationship has been developed between the advocates in the state capital and the public in outlying parts of the state.
The experience made me more aware of the need to reach out to groups that are sometimes ignored, like the rural/small town coalition ... Those of us involved in advocacy tend to seek statewide group coalitions to advance child abuse prevention because of power and numbers. But, it is sometimes the rural/small town communities whose legislators hold the votes we are seeking in order to change policies. (Team member interview September 2009)
So this story ends well on several levels. The children of Ohio can no longer be paddled in school, and many of the constituents in west central Ohio (both from the coalition and the general public) were involved in advocating for the bill that made that law. Members of the Partnership for Violence Free Families in Allen County engaged enough in that effort to have established an ongoing relationship with their representative; they are also now making legislative advocacy an active part of their regular agenda. And the advocates for two major advocacy organizations in the state capital have a strengthened relationship with the local coalition and an impetus to keep connecting with outlying parts of the state in future legislative efforts. While the PREVENT team’s original vision of 100 trained citizens didn’t happen, the infrastructure of relationships and confidence necessary to participate in grassroots advocacy has been developed. In the long run, they discovered that good advocacy is based in good relationships.

PREVENT Institute 2007 Ohio Team
  • Developed curriculum for and held trainings on the legislative process for the public in north western OH
  • Built capacity of the Partnership for Violence Free Families to engage in legislative advocacy
    • Established relationship with state representative locally
    • Established relationships with advocacy organizations in the state capital
    • Made advocacy a more regular part of partnership activities
  • Helped achieve passage of a bill to ban corporal punishment in Ohio schools

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