by Preston Peck, Toxic Free NC
Many pressing issues facing today’s ever-changing regulatory atmosphere leave consumers, growers, and other “agtivists” questioning, “What is the most important issue facing our food system and how I can make an impact?” The first thing to recognize is something my mentor told me: “Advocacy is an art, not a science.” Nevertheless, I would like to offer some broad suggestions to agtivists on effective issues-based advocacy and communications based on my experience working on Toxic Free NC’s agriculture-related campaigns, especially our fight for the Pollinator Protection Act.
Know your issue and your strategic entry point
Many times people try to know a little about a lot without diving deeply into an issue. I encourage people to learn, research and talk to as many people affected by the issues as possible. Getting a firm grasp on the issues, BEFORE reaching out to decision makers is crucial. Sustainable, effective policy decisions start from the grassroots, and if we are to create policies that benefit our communities, we need to fully understand how policy decisions will impact multiple stakeholders.
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It is equally important to understand political context. What works in California will not necessarily work for the Carolinas. I saw this most recently through our work with the Pollinator Protection Act (HB 363), introduced this legislative session in the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA). This bill would restrict the sale and use of neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics) to licensed pesticide applicators, farmers, and veterinarians. Prior to the introduction of this bill, I worked with legislators and other decision makers to educate them on the harmful effects of pesticides, relative to the perceived benefits. Specifically, I concentrated my efforts of neonics because they are the most widely used pesticides in the world. This chemical class was hastily brought to the market in the mid-1990s, so the science is just now catching up to how they are being used.
The bottom line: know your issue and think creatively about how it impacts your community, then leverage that for sustainable policy change.
Pollinators are getting a lot of attention as the USDA continues to publish information about declining honeybee populations. Pollinators (including native bees, birds, beetles, etc.) contribute more than $29 billion to our agricultural system every year. Agriculture was an $84 billion industry in North Carolina in 2016. These factors, along with similar legislation being introduced and passed across the U.S., allowed for a strategic point of entry to engage legislators about the importance of a bill like the Pollinator Protection Act.
Cultivate champions and know who can give you what you want
Build relationships with decision makers now. I cannot stress this enough. The process of getting a good idea into policy is long and arduous, and you will need people directly involved in the decision-making process to help carry your issue. These people may be legislators, council people, agency heads, or others in a decision-making position. If you are unsure where to start, begin building relationships with council people, county commissioners, or state legislators that represent your district. These folks need to hear from you, as they cannot know everything about all the issues that matter to you. Let them know how you feel, that you are paying attention, and holding them accountable.
Equally as important as cultivating champions is to know exactly who can give you what you want. My mentor also used to joke, “Who is your target?” and if anyone said, “government”, then they had to go sit in the corner.
It is extremely important to have a firm grasp on the process of policy development at whatever level you are working, so that you are being efficient and effective with your time. That being said, it is also important to think about secondary and tertiary targets, those who influence your main targets. Think about their golf buddies, family friends, religious leaders, etc. These people are not necessarily involved in government or in a position to make decisions, but they greatly influence the perspectives of those that you are trying to influence.
In the case of the Pollinator Protection Act, Toxic Free NC worked with the NC Pesticide Board, which is the regulatory authority on pesticides in North Carolina, for more than two years, educating those seven members on the impact of neonics on North Carolina’s waterways, aquatic species, and pollinators while simultaneously building relationships with state legislators. When the Pesticide Board refused to take action, the advocacy strategy pivoted and leveraged relationships that were built in the NCGA though years of educating legislators on issues relating to pesticides. This allowed the bill to be introduced with bi-partisan support and 20 bill sponsors during the 2017 Legislative Session.
It’s not just legislators or city council people that you will need on your side. You will also need a strong communications plan to help spread awareness and build support.
Define and build your narrative
A strong communications plan is essential to any successful advocacy campaign. There is a tool in policy advocacy that was developed by the Center for Story-based Strategy called The Battle of the Story, which forces advocates to think about their issue in the frame of telling a story. This is crucial as most decision makers and the general public will not be as informed as you are on the issue. Telling a strong story is essential to involving your local media. Relationships with reporters and news media can help amplify your story as well as help to define the narrative that you want to tell.
When developing your story, think about your messengers, the spokespeople for your issue. Identify relatable experts that can speak confidently to the issue, but also convey the importance in a way that is digestible and trustworthy. When developing messengers, think about a diverse group of people that can build a case for your policy initiative from multiple perspectives. You never know what sort of support you will need to garner from decision makers or what their backgrounds might be, so it is important to have a wide array of options in your communications arsenal.
Farmers, beekeepers, health advocates, mothers, children, and many more supported the Pollinator Protection Act and thought it was a reasonable step forward on curbing the unknown, long-term effects of neonics on human and environmental health. Every storyteller played a role in messaging for support of the bill. Also, I worked with reporters at local papers across the state for many months leading up to the introduction of the bill to place editorials, opinion pieces, and other articles in outlets with a wide, diverse readership. This allowed people to become familiar with the issue prior to the bill being introduced.
Enjoy the process and be creative
Advocacy can be hard work, no doubt about it. However, the policies that are put into place by the North Carolina General Assembly, or in Washington D.C. affect us on a daily basis whether we notice the direct impacts or not. It is crucial to stay informed and take action on issues in addition to signing online petitions. Although policy development is serious business with serious effects, advocacy efforts can allow you to connect in a meaningful way with your community, bring folks together, and develop sustainable policies from the ground up.
Know your issue, know who can give you what you want, passionately tell your story while allowing others to tell theirs, be creative with your strategy, and celebrate your victories, no matter how small you may think they may be!
Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, The Pollinator Protection bill did not make crossover this year, which means the General Assembly will not consider it in this legislative session. But, Toxic Free NC is currently exploring study options within the Environmental Review Commission to be put in the House version of the budget. It’s an up-hill battle, but they are not giving up. To get involved, visit their website: Toxic Free NC.