by Joseph Kweku Assan, Brandeis University

It was with great pleasure and rapturous excitement when I got to know that I had been selected as one of the recipients of the African Studies Association Advocacy Award for 2018. I travelled to Washington, DC early morning on 30th April 2018 from Boston to participate in the Social Science Policy Conference and Social Science Advocacy Day, organized by the Consortium for Social Sciences (COSSA) as part of this award. I had to leave home at 3.30am to catch my early flight to DC, which did not seem much fun. My last visit on Capitol Hill was back in 2013, as a keynote speaker for a Breakfast on the Hill meeting for congressional members, senior staffers and senior members of government departments, discussing issues relating to African Development. My subsequent visit was also at the invitation of African Growth Initiative, Brookings Institution to discuss issues relating to Africa-US–China relationship which is currently dominating the policy discourse and political arena. My previous advocacy experience prior this has been in England and Ireland, where I was opportune to engage in some advocacy initiatives through the Development Studies Association of UK and Ireland. This is when I was a faculty at the University of Liverpool and also at Trinity College Dublin.

Participating in an advocacy event of this magnitude and style as described and designed by the COSSA conference leadership was not only different for me but quite intimidating to say the least. Nevertheless, I had a resolve and a goal to find ways to participate and engage in national level policy advocacy efforts and programs as a way to advance my perspectives and that of others who share similar views as myself on issues of social justice and collective responsibility for our distant neighbor. I felt this was completely out of my league and considered myself as inadequate to make any significant impact. I was not sure if I had anything to contribute and advocate for. These were amongst the many silent thoughts that came to mind soon after accepting the award by the African Studies Association to represent it these events.

Nonetheless, whilst on the plane to DC, I began to ponder over several of the stories that my students have shared with me regarding their individual experiences and the conversations that I have had with my graduate students on policy development, impact and advocating for what you believe in with respect to policy change. I soon became reassured that I could have a place at this level and also for my students, colleagues, all of whom are staunch advocates of social change and development. The one day conference was a pleasant surprise as I have not met so many social scientists, senior academics and leaders of academic and major social science associations of a country all in the same place with such enthusiasm until then. My experience has been the traditional academic conferences in my field of research. This was very different. It was quite intimidating and nerve racking. These are seasoned scholars and serious people, I retorted to myself! All the same, I somehow felt quite at home.

The conference did not only bring together such eminent organizations and distinguished institutional leaders, it also galvanized a renewed sense of urgency and focus on critical issues that seem to confront the field of social science and social policy today. I was quite struck by the momentum and motivation of the first plenary session as well as its moderator, Prof. Nancy Kidd. The theme of the session was Re-establishing rust in Social Sciences and Data. I said to myself, I wish I had the skills and ability to chair and facilitate sessions like her. Prof. Kidd did not only help to generate an interesting dialogue and debate but also pushed the speakers to delve into pragmatism aspects of the theme of the first plenary. I became focused and attentive to the issues and concerns that were being passionately scrutinized by the panelist on the plenary session.

The panelists examined what social scientists can do to regain and/or boost public confidence and trust in science. Further, the panel sought to delineate the challenges facing Social Science in today’s political and economic environment, and ways to help students, the public, and our representatives to understand exactly what social science education contributes to intellectual, civic and professional development and everyday life. I would have liked to hear more analysis of the international perspectives as well.

The networking session was equally interesting. I got the opportunity to have an extensive conversation with Dr. Edward Liebow, the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association. He invited me to their forthcoming event in Johannesburg, South Africa but the timing and short notice rather made it unfortunately difficult to allow me to accept his invitation. I thought that was rather kind of him and got me to appreciate the company I was in, and quickly disabused my mind of any further apprehensions regarding my new environment and what I was meant to be doing.

The subsequent session on Me Too, Sexual Harassment in Science in the Academy: Perspectives on Cultural Change and the role of institutional leadership was equally provocative and contemporary, given the current debates on this issue. I wish the session offered more with respect to how we could address this concern as well as examine some case studies for our learning. Rather the session seemed to focus on the need for research on the subject which to me is rather late in the game as we need to be working towards solutions and resolutions that will allow all academics, irrespective of their sexual orientation to feel safe and comfortable and be part of a research team.

The Breakout Sessions that followed the buffet luncheon were very engaging and intellectually stimulating, to say the least. I particularly enjoyed the session on Responding to Natural Disasters, which was moderated by Dr. Edward Liebow.  Dr. William Hook of the American Metrological Society and Dr. Brandi Gilbert from the Urban Institute provided excellent perspectives on managing and exploring current issues on natural disasters from an urban perspective. The final session on Post Truth: Communicating Facts, Not Fiction was quite intriguing. The panel examined how the social science community can ensure that sound findings and evidence-based messages rise to the top of national and international discourses. The panelist discussed the new world of information we currently live in and how scientist can effectively communicate our science to the public audiences through power techniques of storytelling, controlling the narrative in a positive way and the use of multimedia in a crowded landscape where everyone seems to be doing the same thing.

I found the celebration on the rooftop quite refreshing as I was able to network and socialize with other conference participants whom I had not been able to talk to earlier. I considered the networking dimension of this conference to be one of the most valuable platforms and would hope that more time would be provided for such interactions in the future. I made new friends and was able to talk to several delegates about my research and our new research of Center on Global Development and Sustainability, at the Heller School, Brandeis University, which focuses on research with impact on policy and practice.

Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill

The advocacy day started with a nice breakfast. Participants from the same state were sat at the same table which made it easy for me to meet my advocacy mates. I considered myself fortunate to be in the same team with Emily Burlij from Boston University’s Advocacy Office in DC and Dr. Kelly Greenhill, from Tufts University (Political Science) and Harvard Kennedy School. We got to introduce ourselves and quickly got acquainted. Being new at this, I was very nervously attentive during the orientation and training session and tried to take in as much information from the presenters and review sessions that preceded our departure to the Hill. Emily was our natural leader given her extensive experience in this field. She is brilliant.

The day went by rather quickly and I became more and more confident and interested as we progressed from one representatives office to the other. It was not difficult after all, rather it felt right and satisfying, to be exact. The staffers we met were equally enthusiastic and seemed pleased and ready to meet us. Emily encouraged us to share our stories whilst we engaged with the core issues that each representative seems to be working on. That was very reassuring for both Kelly and I. Given my personal experiences and upbringing in Africa as well as my close working relationship with local and international students at Brandeis, storytelling comes naturally to me.

Our first stop was at Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office where we were met by her staffer Mr. Ricardo Sanchez. He had a very pleasant disposition and eager to hear our mission to the Hill and to the Senators office. We had a very good conversation about the issues the Senator is working on, shared our desire for the senator to continue to advocate for further budgetary support for the Fulbright Program, NSF funding and the environment. As a recipient of an NSF grant herself, we wanted to remind the Senator of the importance this program in pursuing social science research. We informed Ricardo that Title VI programs, including Fulbright-Hays, were level funded in FY18 at $72.164 million. $7.1 million of that was allocated for Fulbright-Hays. In FY19, the higher education community is requesting $76 million for Title VI programs, although no specific recommendation for Fulbright-Hays. I shared the story of our Fulbright scholars and how the program has practically saved the life of a scholar at risk from Africa. He seem much moved by the story and the impact the fellowship has made in an individual’s life. We basically asked Ricardo to tell the Senator to keep fighting and with a bright smile he said ‘Senator Warren will be very pleased to hear that. This seems like an unusual request’. I believe that is something she will remember’.

Our next stop was at Senator Markey’s office where we were met by Mr. Andrew Zack and Dr. Mary Shultz. Our conversation focused on the importance of technological innovation for development and I talked about the rising youth unemployment globally, especially in developing countries. I stressed the importance of youth employment programs and how technology could be harnessed for employment creation and entrepreneurship within international development. Both Kelly and I offered to help with any research or information that will allow them to further this course.

At Representative Katherine Clark’s office we were met my Ms. Diana Rudd, a very sharp and very enthusiastic staffer who shared in detail the work Rep. Clark is doing to address the opioid crisis. I talked to Diana about the unfortunate impact of this crisis internationally, particularly on young people in Africa and how the importance of including an international dimension to the current efforts of the Representative will make a significant impact globally. I explained that many African countries have begun to see similar negative impact of this problem but do not have the resources to fight it. I also referred to the World Health Organization’s Social Determinants of Health policy program and the need to look at the internal implications of Rep. Clark’s efforts. This was very well received by Diana. We finally visited Representative Michael Capuano office and had an equally engaging conversation his staffer, Mr. David Schutt.

All in all, it was a very fruitful day with exhilarating discussions and reflections, looking at what we do as social science researchers and how it impacts on social policy in the US and globally. The process actually offered me the opportunity to carefully reflect on the importance of my own research and that of my colleagues at the Heller School. I pondered over how we can possibly change the world. In my own scholarly area of Political Economy and International Development, I was able to quietly realize the enormity of the task and at the same time consider the immense benefit that my research can offer.

I always felt policy officials either have all the answers to social problems or are not interested in empirical findings from small scale and small sample studies, especially when it comes to issues relating to household economics and the poor in deprived and marginalized groups. Nevertheless, talking to the four congressional staffers and listening to them discuss the impact the stories I shared from my research at our brief advocacy meetings have had on them and how they relate to the different policy issues they are presently dealing with made me change my mind. I came away from the Social Policy Conference and Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill reinvigorated with a renewed resolve to continue what I am doing as a social policy researcher, given its immediate capacity and potential to change the lives of many.