Getting and staying informed about the issues is one of the most important steps of becoming a good advocate and citizen lobbyist.

In today’s society, we are immersed in media information almost 24/7. It’s hard to get away from information at times. How often have you wanted to take a break, get away from the noise, just so you can think?

So it seems odd that I am actually now going to give you some tips and tricks on actually finding MORE information. How can you possibly read and process more information other than what is already thrown at you on a daily basis.

unit 3 getting informed about the issues

Turn off TV and media sensationalist non-information

This is one of the biggest hurdles that we have to overcome as advocates.

This is the most important tip–learning to discern what is a true emergency or large issue and what is media sensationalism, and then convincing others that this is a real problem. Most media outlets have to sell ads to survive. It’s how they pay the bills. And the more people who tune in, the more ads they can sell. So they promote what they know will grab people. And as a result, many issues get media attention that is very disproportionate to the size of the problem. Think of issues that were very large and popular, but when it comes down to it, your chance of encountering that issue was incredibly small: ebola, planes disappearing,

In a study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, eighty percent of the American public said they believe “journalists chase sensational stories because they think it will sell papers, not because they think it is important news. ” Another 85 percent of the public believes that “newspapers frequently over-dramatize some news stories just to sell more papers.” Over 80 percent believe sensational stories receive lots of news coverage simply because they are exciting, not because they are important. Yet, we still buy into it.

Even our legislators buy into this. Here’s an example: Have you heard of Mumia Abul-Jamal? He was convicted and sits on death row for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. His case gets lots of media attention for various reasons. But last year, he was invited to give a commencement speak, from prison via phone, to some small college in New England. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t think he should have been able to do it. But judging by the media’s response…you’d think that this was an incredibly large and widespread problem. So much so, that our state legislators passed a law just weeks after, to prevent it from happening again. Is this a problem? Are we really a state at risk of having all of our convicted felons giving speeches? But this, this our legislators got done in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, since IDEA1975, our state has NEVER had a fair and equitable funding structure for education. Never. Not once in 40 years. And we know that about 20% of all kids receive some type of special education. And various bills correcting the funding structure have been introduced in both our State House and Senate for almost the past 10 years, and none has been passed. So which problem affects our local communities more? But how often do you hear about school funding issues on TV compared to Mumia? And which one was more important for our legislators to act upon? Exactly.

The other piece is that you have to find other in-depth information to read.

Finding information that is relevant to you

Now that you have chosen a passion to devote yourself to and found your legislators, it’s time to start reading up. Thanks to the internet, most of what you need is right at your fingertips and you can even sign up to have it delivered right to your inbox. Your assignments for Unit 3 are going to sign up for several (as many as you think you need) legislative alerts. To start, I would sign up for more than you think you want, and as you receive and read them, unsubscribe from the ones you don’t find that you need.

There are a few different types of legislative alerts. One type is from the legislators themselves. If you haven’t already, sign up for your legislators’ email newsletters. You can also sign up for committee alerts. I am signed up for the PA education committee alerts, so any time any legislation is written, introduced, or being brought to a vote, I get an email. Know that in most cases there will be a House Education committee and a Senate Education committee. Each one usually has a counterpart, so sign up for both. There are dozens of committees so find out which ones that your legislators are on, plus sign up for the ones that are relevant to your cause. For example, none of my legislators are on any committees for Veterans or Aging. But, if those were my causes, I certainly would still sign up for the alerts.

The second type of legislative alert comes from non-profits, foundations or PACs (political action committees) that have formed to support a specific cause. I subscribe to Arc of PA for state alerts and Arc of USA for national alerts. I also subscribe to National Center for Learning Disabilities and a few others that pertain to special education. Most of the time you can just do an internet search for “legislative alerts veterans” or “legislative alerts-women, poverty, children, pets, animals, environment….” you get the idea. Those groups often have paid staff whose job it is to know this information and pass it along. If you are in a union, you probably are aware that most unions send out legislative alerts too. Find non-profits that really speak to you and resonate with you and follow them.

Should I start a non-profit?

I hear this a lot in the special needs community, especially from moms. “I know! I am going to start a foundation that helps with….”

My short answer is no, don’t do it. For three main reasons. One is that there are already a zillion non-profits out there, each one competing with the next to be heard and for donation dollars. I think that your time and efforts are better spent lending your time and voice to an already existing one.

And….do you want to advocate and lobby….or do you want to run a non-profit? Because running a non-profit means you have to have a Board of Directors and you have to fundraise and you have to manage volunteers…is that what you want to do? Starting and maintaining a successful non-profit is no easy task. Again, lend your time and talents to an already existing one and be another voice among many, rather than trying to create your own sea of voices.

The third reason is…many non-profits have a TON to offer you in terms of advocacy help. I have applied and received numerous parent scholarships that have subsidized trips to Washington, DC and other places. I have been to subsidized or free conferences and workshops where I have learned how to effectively advocate and lobby. There are many really good grassroots groups out there that offer this to the average American. So why would you not take advantage of this?

Ok, so now we are setting a strong foundation for you to begin action. Units 1, 2 and 3 are all about building the foundation. So here are your assignments for Unit 3.

  1. Sign up for your Legislators’ emails and legislative alerts. (You should have contact information from Unit 2 assignment.)
  2. Find the House and Senate (state, federal or both) committees that are responsible for this topic and subscribe to those alerts too.
  3. Find several non-profits that align with your cause, sign up for those.
  4. Set up a filtering system in your email so that it all gets dumped in one folder that you can read when you have time. I use Other InBox (OIB) but I think gmail has one too. As your first email from each group/person comes in, designate it to be moved or sorted and then your email service should do it from then on out. I hope that makes sense!
  5. Set up Google alerts for your topic. This will take some tinkering with, to get your phrases perfected. Two of the phrases I get alerts on are “intellectual disabilities” and “special education.”
  6. If you don’t already have them, get a Facebook account and a Twitter account. Follow all of the above people or groups that I have mentioned in 1 thru 4. You can even just Google “US Senators on Twitter” and find a list of all 100 of them, really. Or go to their home pages and look for a link.

I have attached a spreadsheet for you to fill out, if you are a visual person and prefer to see what you are doing, or to keep track.

legislative alerts


Once you have all this done…you just wait and let the information come to you. For me, since it never feels like “work” I don’t mind reading these things. In fact, I prefer it to TV. When I find some alerts or other interesting information, then I go out and look around for more. Now you are in the information gathering phase so that you can become an expert on your topic. Don’t be overwhelmed…it gets easier.


And now we are ready to move on to action! So stay tuned for Unit 4.



Getting and staying informed about the issues is one of the most important steps of becoming a good advocate and citizen lobbyist.
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