by Emily Riley, University of Kansas
I, like many Americans, have a rudimentary understanding of how the American government functions, but I had certainly never visited a Senator’s house or advocated for any topics on such an important stage. In fact, due to my research with women in Senegalese Parliament, I am probably more familiar with Senegalese politics than our own. So, when I heard about the opportunity to visit the Capitol and participate in the advocacy day for the National Humanities Alliance, I jumped at the chance. It turned out the NHA conference was the same week as the Coalition for International Education’s Capitol Hill advocacy day and with the generous award from the ASA, I was able to attend both events. By the end, I felt like I had really gotten the hang of it, and even became familiar to some of the staffers as I had meetings in the same Kansas legislators’ offices twice in a span of three days.
When applying for a travel award to attend the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) to represent the ASA and the University of Kansas, I was unsure of how to pitch my potential impact. I had just moved to Kansas months earlier and I was uninformed of who the Kansan representatives and senators were at the time. I was however, confident in my ability to speak to the importance of Title VI programs as well as NEH grants. Having transitioned from being a recipient of various Title VI grants as a doctoral student, to landing a new job as an administrator of Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships for the Kansas African Studies Center at the University of Kansas, I had a new appreciation for the struggle these programs face and their enduring relevance. But, when looking towards advocating for NEH and Title VI funding on Capitol Hill, I thought to myself, “how do I make such things as international education and area studies and NEH that are so personally evident to me, pertinent to a neutral if not resistant audience?”
The first part of the week was meeting with NHA staffers at a hotel near the Capitol, who worked locally in D.C and had worked for months in anticipation of representatives from most states to participate. On Monday, March 12th, we heard from the president of NHA and others about the state of the association that seemed more positive than I would have imagined in an environment that seems completely hostile – from the outside viewer’s perspective – to the arts and select sciences. Since I was new to advocacy work, I attended the New Advocates Training where we were given packets with information outlining the voting history of specific state legislators in regards to NEH funding. They also contained talking points for meeting with staffers and the specific funds and voting measures we were “asking” of them. It was like learning a new language, trying to understand all of the jargon the “ask”, the specific amounts we hoped to be included in the federal budget for our concerned programs. For example, NEH was asking for $155 million to fund all NEH national programs for 2019, and Title VI was asking for “flat” funding, meaning the same amount as the previous fiscal year of $76 million. The President’s budget proposes to cut Fulbright-Hays completely and greatly defund Title VI and most humanities and arts programs. Luckily I was told that his budget is seen as more of a suggestion and that Congress comes up with something much different. As advocates we were also encouraged to ask for the Congressperson to sign a “Dear Colleague” letter, a co-sponsored proposal from their fellow representatives that with their support would be given more weight and visibility.
The day on the Hill was thrilling! Walking down the vacuous hallways passing American flags and large wooden doors with plaques to the side displaying the representative’s name and state. We were greeted cheerily by young staffers asking if we would like coffee or tea while we waited. I was fortunate to be paired with the historian Bonnie Lynn-Sherow from Kansas State University who founded a program with the contributions of NEH, called Lost Kansas Communities, a digital project that employs undergraduates to work with small town historical societies in Kansas to record the memory of their town and its inhabitants. Between the two of us, we connected with staffers who were alumni from both schools, those who worked with Representative Yoder, Jenkins, and Marshall as well as Senators Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts – both on the Appropriations Committee determining the budget – and told them stories about helping struggling Kansas communities and giving opportunities to Kansas students to learn about their home state and gain experience. Dr. Lynn-Sherow brought purple fidget spinners with the K-State logo on it to give to the staffers and I made a mental note for next year to bring a similarly popular item. On my end, I promoted our NEH funded project Migration Stories: Africans in Midwestern Communities that tells a different story of Kansas experience, one that I explained painted a picture of migrant struggle and host accommodation in many ways. We found the key to advocacy was to speak to one’s sense of shared humanity as much as arguing for the economic impact these programs bring.
When it came to advocating for Title VI and Fulbright, I took a bit of a different tactic. Accompanied by Abby, a seasoned advocacy member who works for the American Political Science Association, she allowed me to speak to the history of Title VI to the University of Kansas and its impact on students’ employability, global citizenship, and ambassadorial role around the world. Thank goodness she then remembered the other logistics of asking them to reauthorize the Higher Education Act and in turn fund Title VI programs such as the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships for students to take world area focused courses and languages, National Resource Centers (NRC) such as the Kansas African Studies Center, and other programs having to do with International Business Education and Overseas Research Centers. The state of Kansas is like many Midwestern states, largely rural and controlled by conservative policies and lawmakers. I was nervous to the reception I might find on the Hill given this fact, and so the NHA and CIE members helped me envision a way to demonstrate the relevancy of teaching African languages to Kansan students, especially those at one of the various military stations throughout the state. Our Center has had a longstanding relationship with military personnel needing training in Arabic and I found it an effective strategy to outline the links between military readiness and effectiveness and language training and area studies expertise. They were also very interested to hear our new efforts to reach out to community colleges and smaller universities around the state that may not have the resources or access to language courses by investing in online Kiswahili and Somali classes.
I would like to thank the ASA for such an enriching experience and urge those who can to take advantage of it next year. It boosted my understanding and appreciation for how government functions and the central impact we as citizens have to raise awareness and tangible outcomes for causes and programs that we already know to be valuable. As academics and as educators we are primed to find ways of engaging our audiences so that they can gain the most from our insight. Why should advocacy be any different?