Advocacy Corps Teaches Students to Enact Social Change

Since fifth grade when I was denied the ability to play football on account of my gender, I’ve identified as a feminist. In high school, I realized my passion for film and social justice intersect, and I began using film as a medium for spreading social justice messages. The rise of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the outrage at #OscarsSoWhite in 2015, proved the importance of the films I wish to make, but also highlighted the need for me to do proper research to tell stories with narratives different from mine as a white woman.

After the 2016 American Presidential Election, I felt compelled to become more directly engaged in advocacy work alongside tackling issues through my filmmaking. I enrolled in the Advocacy Corps, a two-quarter long program offered through Leadership Development & Community Engagement at Northwestern that teaches undergraduate students advocacy skills to better enable them to make positive social change in their communities.

 Advocacy Corps members visit the Illinois Statehouse for Advocacy Day

Advocacy Corps members visit the Illinois Statehouse for Advocacy Day

Students in the program learn about the realities of making change in political systems through a proven curriculum and hands on experience with Chicago and Evanston based advocacy organizations. In the past, students have focused on issue areas like affordable housing policy, women's healthcare, education reform, immigration reform, and mass incarceration.

Last year, I worked with a group of students on reproductive rights. We worked closely with Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Illinois chapter to get House Bill 3215 passed in Illinois. HB 3215, or the “Learn with Dignity” Act, mandated that feminine hygiene products would be provided in public school bathrooms.. Many students are forced to miss class to go to the nurse or miss school completely if they do not have access to such products.

I spent time calling elected members in both the Illinois House of Representatives and the Illinois Senate to convince them to vote in favor of the bill, as well as hearing out any issues they had with the bill. I got to communicate with Planned Parenthood Action Fund about issues I was running into, how we could improve the bill, ways we could strengthen our arguments, and the general process of getting a bill passed.

One of the most memorable parts of this process was getting alerted of the bill’s passing by a representative that I called. I remember being on the phone, ready to state my case, but instead was met with congratulations, even though the representative stood against the bill. It was immensely rewarding to see the bill had actually passed.

I found the process of calling legislators to get House Bill 3215 passed incredibly valuable. Understanding polarization stood out as the most valuable lesson from this experience. When legislators disagreed with me, it was rarely as simple as “we don’t agree with the work you’re doing” or “we’re against women’s rights.” Some representatives disagreed for purposes of budget, some aligned their values differently, and others simply did not believe it was necessary to provide these products.

Despite many frustrating phone calls, I gained confidence as an advocate through the process of calling representatives. This helped me understand the power I have as an advocate and the difference I can make as an individual. Even if I failed to change a representative’s mind, I found myself able to engage in productive dialogue and exchange valuable ideas.

As an advocate, emotion proved to be an incredibly valuable tool when used appropriately. My group members and I used emotion in explaining the importance of this bill to us - former high-school students who dealt with having to go to the nurse’s office, missing class, or simply feeling embarrassed having to excuse ourselves from class when on our periods. These emotions made our arguments more effective and personal, so much so that one representative talked about her conversation with us in her statement on the House floor.

I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to strengthen the skills I learned in the Advocacy Corps by working with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund to engage in actual advocacy. The experience of being in Advocacy Corps was so valuable, I stayed in the program as a student facilitator this year. This experience has been incredible thus far, and I now find myself able to help others understand advocacy. Thanks to Advocacy Corps, I better understand current issues and know that I can make an impact on social policy.