by Kristine Breese
Well, there’s a reason it’s called “social work.” That’s what a few dozen master’s of social welfare (MSW) students from UCLA’s School of Public Affairs learned during a recent trip to Sacramento. They headed north to participate in the annual “Lobby Days” effort organized and supported by the state and local chapters of the National Association of Social Workers.
“It was fun,” says MSW candidate Ahmanise Sanati, “but it was also a lot of work. We prepared for months, studied up on the issues and laws that we wanted to advocate for, figured out which legislators we wanted to talk to and then had to rehearse and practice to make our best impression.” Sanati was the 2010 student coordinator for the trip and also helped organize fundraising projects to cover costs, such as transportation, snacks, paint and poster board. “We had bake sales, sold t-shirts, you name it.”
(Photo: Ahmanise Sanati, Lobby Days organizer)
It’s a far cry from the tony, wing-tipped world of “K Street,” the thoroughfare in the nation’s capitol home to many high-priced lobbying firms. “The official name of the project has changed to ‘Legislative Day,’” Sanati reports. “I guess lobbying got a bad name.” She says she thinks people shy away from the word “lobby” because it has gotten a bad rap as a way that people horse-trade for votes, but she’s seen first-hand that lobbying is, in fact, the very stuff of democracy.
“We have to speak up on behalf of our clients and our future clients. Not only do we need to help them when we’re working with them one-on-one, we have to help change and impact the larger system so that it’s not stacked against those who are most vulnerable. Lobbying is simply telling the people we elected what we think.”
Sanati’s classmate and colleague, Sheila Modir, a first-year MSW student agrees. “Whether you’re in interested in ‘micro’ or ‘macro’ social work, all of us must be advocates.” Modir explains that ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ are distinct and important terms in their field of study, and that students declare whether they’re going to be pursuing work with individual clients (micro) or policy-making (macro) as early as when they apply for admission. “But either way, we all need to know how to do this. Really, all Americans should know how to do this.”
Modir says she heard about the opportunity early in the year and was further convinced to participate after a course on the history of social work. “It got me thinking, ‘who were the people that worked on some of our most important laws, who were the ones that fought for funding for our most important programs?’ I realized it was probably someone just like me.”
In fact, the Lobby Days crew can already point to the success of their efforts. Less than a month after their trip to the Sacramento, all three bills that they advocated for in meetings with lawmakers had moved successfully forward.
Says Renee Garett, another student and lobbyist, “It was amazing and extremely inspiring that they (the lawmakers) actually listened to us, but they did and it felt great.” Garett will be assuming the lead coordinating role for “Legislative Days” next year, following in Sanati’s footprints. She says the experience has already changed the way she views her studies—and the work she plans to do after graduation. “I think a lot of us came to school thinking this job, the work of lobbying and policy-making, was someone else’s responsibility. But now we know it is ours. Not only do we speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, we also speak up for ourselves and our profession.”
(Photo: Sheila Modir, second from left, with fellow MSW students.)