How to become a policy maker...or at least an influencer?
May 18, 2014 6:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm 46. I've been a stay at home mom for most of the last 11 years. I have an undergrad in Religious Studies (Ethics focus) and a Masters in Library Sciences as well as a MS in Education, Counseling. I want to get involved in some type of higher-level policy work. I'm interested in both education and women's issues, specifically pro-choice abortion issues. I've done volunteering in both areas (PTA, and Planned Parenthood, for example). While it's valuable, I don't want to be a room parent or walk people into a clinic. I want to be involved in fighting for rights and supporting laws in a more meaningful way. How does one do this? Does it take more schooling? A political career (not interested in running for any local positions)? A law degree? I know I need to choose an area to focus on, but I'm gathering information right now. Any ideas are welcome!
posted by bluespark25 to Law & Government (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
How about serving on a non-profit board or local advisory council?
posted by Schielisque at 6:53 PM on May 18, 2014

I don't know if this would be meaningful to you, as it doesn't directly address the issues you want to work on, but part of the reason that conservative Republican politicians have come to dominate the "heartland" of the US is by dominating local politics at the grass-rootsiest level. For instance by stacking local school boards. You would be a SHOE IN as a school board member, and it would be a real service to your community where your liberal politics would have a direct impact. Even though it wouldn't so much be on pro-choice/abortion issues specifically. Then again, does the school board dictate sex ed standards? Might be worth thinking about. What if you could keep Abstinence Only out of your town's public school system?
posted by Sara C. at 6:53 PM on May 18, 2014 [25 favorites]

Before you were in your mid-thirties, what did you do?
posted by Houstonian at 6:56 PM on May 18, 2014

My boyfriend was recently elected as a precinct executive where he will help dictate the platform and candidates for our county's Democratic Party. He'll also be responsible for getting out the vote in our precinct. I would consider something like that before rejecting running for local office, which is really where a lot of these issues are shaped.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:00 PM on May 18, 2014

Talk to the higher-ups at the organizations you volunteer at to see how they do advocacy at the state level* and ask how you can help. You have the advantage of living in a state capital, so see what you can do to get involved in the state legislature. Getting a job as a legislative assistant is a huge "in", but the only way I know of people doing this is through connections or policy school (I'm sure there are other ways, I'm not an expert).

If you're seriously serious, Bloomington has an excellent, top-rated policy school with a 2-year master's in public affairs program. This is waaaaaaaay cheaper than law school, and you can tailor your study to policy development at the state level. You should do a campus visit to learn more if you're interested. They have a branch in Indianapolis, but I have no idea how good it is.

*as far as I know most abortion policy today happens at the state level
posted by Ndwright at 7:12 PM on May 18, 2014

A couple of different routes, some of which I've taken:

-- graduate school, specifically a public policy or public affairs degree. Much better than a law degree for a policy position, if you want to do this for a job. Not necessary, at all, to do this work, but most useful if you want to get a paid job doing this.

-- get involved with your local political party. Is there a county organization or club or specialized group you can join and contribute to? Working on a campaign is a good way to get to know your local players and for them to get to know you.

-- find a political or policy group to be a part of. League of Women Voters? Any vestiges of Organizing for America left in your area? Talk to your local Planned Parenthood -- do they have a Planned Parenthood Action organization in your state that you could get involved with? ACLU is another good one. Go to their state lobby day or conference if they have one in your state. I don't know what they're like in your state, but the Friends Committee on Legislation in mine depends a lot on educated citizens to get their work done.

I will also heartily recommend Wellstone Action's trainings, if any of them speak to you and are accessible.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:41 PM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Looks like your local LWV has a work group looking at education policy.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:45 PM on May 18, 2014

An advanced degree is probably not worth the time or effort. When I ran campaigns I accompanied candidates to hundreds of endorsement meetings. The people in the room with us representing the endorsing organization ranged from people with PhDs to bright eyed 20 year olds. If you go to an organization like NARAL and tell them what you are interested in they will find a place for you.
posted by munchingzombie at 7:46 PM on May 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions! I'm off to do more research. I wasn't even sure where to start so these are helpful.
posted by bluespark25 at 3:33 AM on May 19, 2014

I bet the folks at Moms Rising would have some advice for you. A friend of mine works with them, memail me if you'd like me to introduce you.
posted by instamatic at 3:42 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

My sister volunteers at both NOW and Planned Parenthood in her state and spends a lot of time both preparing testimony and testifying before the state legislature. As it happens, she has both a swanky unrelated BA and a law degree (but is not a practising lawyer) but I don't think that actually made any difference. If that kind of volunteer role is something that interests you, or you would like to talk to her about how she landed a volunteer role that was not stuffing envelopes, I'd be happy to put you in touch if you send me a MeMail with your email details.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:28 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

In the meantime, consider volunteering to help the Mayday PAC ( an ambitious attempt to drastically curtail the corrupting influence of big money on national elections. It doesn't directly address your specific areas of interest, but I'm pretty sure that a political system that allows a tiny number of wealthy organizations to dictate what happens in our democracy is anti-democratic and, thus, worth fighting to change IMHO.
posted by Bella Donna at 5:21 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you actually want to get paid to be a Policy Analyst or Policy Director at an organization or government you'll need to have a lot of experience in your selected issue (gotten through volunteering or working on issue campaigns in that area) or a graduate degree in public policy with an internship under your belt.

If you just want to make a difference and see where it leads you, then definitely start volunteering. But, keep in mind you're probably not going to start out drafting white papers for an organization. You'll table at events, make calls, canvass, stuff some envelopes, clean up the office, etc...

People in politics take that kind of dues paying seriously, so it will help you in any future goals.
posted by brookeb at 7:12 AM on May 19, 2014

I'm 46. I've been a stay at home mom for most of the last 11 years

To be blunt, you stand a next-to-nothing chance of being involved more than a volunteer. That's the reality with the type of social activism you seek.

There are many moms, women, dads that in the middle of their lives wake up one day and decide to make a difference.This is great. However they also tend not to do the first level "grunt work" and work their way to meaningful positions of difference making. Meanwhile there are thousands of young men and women working the trenches as youth for years and working their way to positions of authority within social activism. You can't shortcut them and it's also not the way social activism works in the current modern age.

I would suggest pick an individual you admire within your locality, and support him or her with your time, money, or your ability to raise money.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:39 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would look for workforce re-entry programs in your area - the kind aimed at professional women returning to work. You don't say whether you seek paid or unpaid work. It may not matter for some of these programs and it may well be that your ultimate goal is to gain paid employment, perhaps even as a freelancer, consultant or part-time employee, if you do not wish full-time work. You could still use this planning and mentorship to find volunteer work that better leverages your experience.

I assume you did something - paid or unpaid - before you were 35. You also have degrees - does that come with RA or TAship experience? Could you create a personal inventory of your skills and experience?

I disagree that it is too late to move over to meaningful policy change. I have seen many people make a move in their 30s, 40s and even later. With your education and I assume volunteer experience (PTA?), you would be an asset for many organizations. Your local political representative might be willing to meet with you. I find local politicians' officers a good place to start networking or asking for leads for programs.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 8:17 AM on May 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with Sara C. about running for school board.

Or, identify an organization in your area like this one in Chicago that hires people on a part-time or intern basis and allows you to work on some projects.
posted by BibiRose at 8:39 AM on May 19, 2014

To be blunt, you stand a next-to-nothing chance of being involved more than a volunteer. That's the reality with the type of social activism you seek.

This is really unhelpful and unkind. The poster knows there is a process to get to the high level positions, and is wondering how to make that first step. She has done some ground level volunteering and is now asking how to take it to the next level. She has been involved to varying degrees over the last few years, and is probably now reaching a period of her life where she has more time to give to her own projects beyond rearing children. She has many applicable degrees, recent volunteer work, and a targeted area where she'd like to best put her efforts. Based on what I know to be true for dozens of women who have phased out of SAHM life and into public life, they have extremely amazing capacities to work with different people and Get Shit Done.

I'd also suggest building up a platform and local politics. There is SO much to be done at the level of towns and counties and can have an INCREDIBLE impact on how resources are spent and how policies are enacted.

I'd suggest making a list of 5-6 women who seem to be working in your local area on topics close to your heart. Email them and invite them out for lunch (or quick coffee) to talk about your own desire to get back into the game. Ask them to help you with your resume or to let you know of how you might best use your talents in the short-term, medium-term and long-term. Ask them if they have seen recent jobs -- even those that were filled -- that might have been a good match for you. Don't be afraid to get involved with an upcoming gala or other fundraising venture - it will put you in touch with some of the bigger mover-and-shakers and let you get your foot in the door.

Go for it!! Best of luck to you!
posted by barnone at 10:06 AM on May 19, 2014 [13 favorites]

Elizabeth Warren was a SAHM for at least 3 years, and worked from home for several years after that, on the mommy track - and that was back in the '70s. You might also have heard of Nancy Pelosi? Former SAHM too who, until her youngest reached a certain age, had never done more than volunteer on local campaigns.

A friend of mine spent about the same time as a SAHM; at 35 she cofounded an organization that made a big impact locally; she later was interviewed for a national publication. This then leapfrogged her into some high-profile positions at a NASDAQ company. She didn't have two master's degrees, like you do. In fact, she didn't have a college degree.

Nothing says that you can't found your own organization or initiative, that you can't write an important book (tons of writers are former SAHMs and dads!), or create an amazing website, video documentary, or app that changes the conversation. Web 2.0 offers some opportunities to work on these things far outside the local area (which I agree should still be your first stop to learn and talk more with present leaders).
posted by mitschlag at 10:15 AM on May 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Adding to the inspirational list: Patty Murray went from preschool volunteer to member of the school board to Chair of the Senate Budget Committee (I might have skipped a few steps).

There are plenty of women who were full-time parents, or fully seeped in parenting, for several years who then went on to powerful positions.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:12 PM on May 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know this is late, but I wanted to add another one - Diane Rehm, of the Diane Rehm show on NPR. Apparently she was a homemaker and mother, and not very happy, when she transitioned into volunteering at the local radio station. All these years later, she is still married to the same man, her children are grown, and she's a fairly famous radio host.
posted by mitschlag at 9:00 AM on June 3, 2014

Here's a recent article on the founders of MomsRising and other stay at home moms who later went on to become politically influential.
posted by instamatic at 6:44 AM on June 24, 2014

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