This new interdisciplinary course featured faculty experts who mentored teams of students working on issue advocacy. The course provided an overview of and training in how to affect public policy through advocacy campaigns, legislative lobbying, federal rule-making processes and more. Through lectures, skills-based practicums and visiting speakers, students gained a better understanding of how social change happens, which factors influence successful and unsuccessful advocacy campaigns, and how to develop and implement advocacy work around a specific issue.
Advocating for Change
Advocating for Change is an experiential learning course that teaches students how to engage in issue advocacy as a method of social change. Students work in teams with faculty mentors to develop and implement an advocacy plan for a particular cause or policy of interest.
Advocating for Change
In the wake of the 2016 election, 12 female faculty members met in January to discuss how they could help more civic-minded students get involved in the political process. The group coined themselves the “positive posse” and talked about creating a class. Melissa Marschall, professor of political science, and Elizabeth Vann, director of programs and partnerships for Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership (CCL), stepped up to co-teach the course. The class was created in six academic units: architecture, the CCL, global health technologies, political science, psychology and sociology. “We wanted it to be open to any type of student interested in advocacy,” Vann said. “We have a diverse class roster from freshmen to seniors, spanning various majors.”
The Power of Personal Narrative
I met the class on an evening that featured two panelists: Carlos Duarte, Texas state director of Mi Familia Vota, and Dona Kim Murphey, founder of Pantsuit Republic. Murphey launched Pantsuit Republic, a network that aims to increase activity in the Texas political process and find ways to support progressive initiatives, as a space to share narratives. “Narrative is a great way to pull people in, and then you can advance your agenda,” she said. “They need to connect to the story in some way. That’s what makes people want to listen. Stories are very powerful.”
Duarte has extensive experience with the power of narrative through Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization that focuses on social and economic issues that impact the Latino community. “It’s challenging, but a few principles still ring true,” he said. “Unless you present a vision of how things can be different, use your narrative to empower and motivate, and create a strategy to get you there, you won’t be successful.”
Student Advocacy Groups
The class was divided into teams focused on a specific advocacy issue. Each team wrote an issue brief with a specific ask in regard to a piece of legislation and presented it to a policymaker; the teams also created a video or podcast that advocated for their issue.
Eli Mensing, a junior majoring in economics and political science, got his first taste of advocacy experience through the class. “All of the work was framed in both accomplishing something outside of class and in an academic setting, which was unlike any course I had taken at Rice,” he said.
Mensing and his team focused on advocating for increasing unaccompanied immigrant children’s access to lawyers in immigration court. “We had the opportunity to sit down with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s legislative aid and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez’s chief of staff to pitch our issue,” he said. “Throughout the class, I learned that advocacy doesn’t happen with large and sudden breakthroughs, but rather through small, incremental changes.”
“We wanted to expose students to how things really work,” Vann said. “They’ve had opportunities to interact with a long list of impressive people. I think the students have learned how powerful networking is and that we’ve helped them to build those networks.” Marschall and Vann hope to teach the class again next fall.