For Valene A. Whittaker, PhD, immigration isn’t an abstract issue. “I’m the child of immigrants,” says Whittaker, who co-chairs the Massachusetts Psychological Association’s Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs, and serves as Boston metro region representative to its board of directors. That identity inspires her advocacy around immigration issues and making diversity a priority within the field of psychology.
In grad school, a professor urged Nicholas Grant, PhD, to focus on both the micro — helping his patients — and the macro — serving the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community as a whole. A former APA congressional fellow, Grant currently co-chairs the public policy committee of APA’s Div. 44 (Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity) and serves as an APA health equity ambassador.
APA Board of Directors Member-at-large Le Ondra Clark Harvey, PhD, enjoyed an APA Minority Fellowship Program lobby day so much that she went on to fellowships at the Center for Policy Analysis and the California State Senate and ultimately became a lobbyist for the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies.
Another aspect of advocacy includes advocating for the profession of psychology. Advocacy is a core function of most associations representing health professionals like physicians, nurses, dentists, chiropractors and physical therapists. All of these professions are actively lobbying on issues affecting these health professionals and their patients. Like these health professional associations, the APA Practice Organization engages in legislative issues and advocacy efforts important to professional psychology, including reimbursement, Medicare, scope of practice, health information technology and mental health parity.
No matter what your cause, try these tips for getting involved in advocacy:
- Follow your heart. How do you choose what issue to focus on? “Decide where your values lie and where you want to spend your time and attention,” says Grant. And don’t be intimidated, he adds. While it can be anxiety-provoking to speak out about an issue or meet with policymakers, you don’t have to be the expert on a topic. “It’s speaking from a place of passion,” he says, explaining that personal experience with an issue can be just as powerful as the latest research.
- Broaden your definition of advocacy. Advocacy doesn’t have to mean lobbying or running for office, says Clark Harvey, pointing to the “citizen psychologist” initiative launched by APA President Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD. “There are a lot of ways to do advocacy in your own backyard,” says Clark Harvey, citing joining the board of a local nonprofit as an example. And remember that every little bit helps. “No advocacy effort is too small,” Whittaker says. While she has visited legislators on Capitol Hill, Whittaker also participates in marches, speaks to the media and sends postcards encouraging state and national leaders to take a particular stance on social justice issues.
- Explore your options. Start your advocacy work at the local level, getting to know the ropes and building a community through your state, provincial or territorial psychological association, suggests Clark Harvey. Check out the fellowship options available through APA, corporations like Rand or even the White House. Or get to know staff in your legislators’ local offices. “They’re often looking for experts,” Clark Harvey says.
- Pace yourself. In the current environment, social justice crises are coming fast and furious, Whittaker says. “Understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says, urging her fellow advocates to understand their limits and practice self-care. “That might mean stepping away from the TV or computer or not posting that comment on Facebook or Twitter and instead focusing on what we need to nourish and rejuvenate ourselves.”
- Get Involved. The Practice Organization has the longest-running and largest grassroots network of psychologists working on behalf of licensed practitioners to protect and promote your ability to serve your patients and the public. Known as the Federal Advocacy Coordinators (FAC), this network includes several thousand psychologists across the U.S., building relationships with members of Congress and their staff and educating them about practitioners and the value of psychological services. The FAC is ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice to support or oppose federal legislation and policies affecting practitioners. To get involved, email the APA Practice Organization.
For more information on advocating for professional psychology, visit the APA Practice Organization website. Also check out the list of APA’s advocacy work on federal policies and legislation advancing human welfare and improving society.
This column is geared toward early career psychologists working in practice settings. "Running start... to a great career" features topics typically not covered in graduate school and includes tips and advice from psychologists.