Arkansas MS Activists Play Crucial, Year-Round Roles in Legislative Process
- MS Activists Move Forward with Purpose
- Taking Action at the 2012 Public Policy Conference
- Arkansas Activists in Washington DC
You may have heard the saying “all politics is local”. This means that the concerns of citizens and the issues that affect their everyday lives can have a strong influence on the legislative process.
An MS Activist is someone who is willing to talk with their representatives in government, tell their personal story of living with MS, and discuss the legislative issues that are priorities to them. Those who are willing to take on this role can play a critical part in supporting legislation that creates positive change for those living with chronic illnesses. Their input can give lawmakers valuable perspective on how public policy will impact their ability to cope with MS and live full and independent lives.
While the Arkansas legislature was getting under way in January, Arkansas MS Activists were also preparing. The 2013 Arkansas Public Policy Conference (PPC), held in Little Rock, brought together 30 people from across the state that are committed to being a voice for MS through advocacy efforts.
Arkansas MS Activists who attended the 2012 Arkansas Public Policy Conference
participated in an activist training workshop, led by advocacy expert Joe Gagen
Joe Gagen, a nationally recognized advocacy expert, led an advocacy workshop and training session designed to instruct participants how to interact and cultivate working partnerships with those who represent them in government. Part of the training was also dedicated to the value of sharing a personal story of living with MS, a powerful way to illustrate the challenges of the disease.
MS Activists met with Rep. Charlie Collins (R-89) in the rotunda of the capitol building to discuss accessible parking and other issues of concern for people with MS. From left to right: Rep. Charlie Collins, MS Activist Sarah Olsen,
NMSS Regional Activism Coordinator Claire Mitchell, and MS Activists Ingrid Van Eps and Teri Naylor.
Later that day conference attendees gathered at the state capitol to put their skills to work. Despite the fact that both the house and senate unexpectedly adjourned early, many productive meetings between activists and members occurred. During these meetings some legislative members revealed that they also had a personal connection to MS. Interactions such as these are important first steps toward creating a productive working relationship between activists and the Representatives and Senators who represent them.
One of the discussion topics addressed during the meetings was accessible parking, an issue that is especially important to people who are living with MS. This year, activists partnered with the Arkansas Spinal Cord Commission on their campaign to help spread awareness. More than 300,000 people in Arkansas have been issued a permanent handicap parking placard, but the general public often misunderstand the rules surrounding their use. For Arkansas citizens who are living with MS, having access to handicap parking spaces is allows them to freely go about their daily business. MS Activists found their state legislators open to discussing this important issue.
Jennifer Godwin, Government Relations Committee (GRC) Co-Chair from Little Rock, had this to say about her experience, “The hands-on learning we received from advocacy expert Joe Gagen prepared us well – many of us sat down with our state legislators and shared the urgency of our issues. The lawmakers, in turn, were receptive.”
Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe met with MS Activists and NMSS staff during the 2012 Public Policy Conference. From left to right: MS Activist Ruth Ellen Epperson, NMSS Programs & Services Manager Brooke Smith, Gov. Beebe, MS Activists Sarah Thomas and Nancy Lowe, and NMSS Development Manager Lisa Finkbeiner.
The meetings that took place at the Capital that day between MS Activists and their representatives laid important groundwork for relationships that they will continue to build on. For many of the participants it was their first time to interact with their legislators, and their successful efforts will go a long way to prepare for the 2013 legislative session and the pursuit of MS priority bills.
Arkansas GRC Co-Chair Julie Cawthron, discussing MS priority issues
at the 2012 Public Policy Conference in Washington DC
In March, Arkansas MS activists travelled to Washington DC participate in the National MS Society Federal Public Policy Conference. This annual conference is attended by activists and National MS Society staff from across the US to focus on the MS priority issues being considered in the federal government. MS Activists and GRC members Julie Cawthron, Jennifer Godwin, and Doug Coy attended to represent the state of Arkansas. The conference program included a variety of presentations, panel discussions, and workshops on advocacy and federal issues to prepare MS Activists for meetings on Capitol Hill with their congressional delegates and staff.
The issues addressed during the meetings included renewed funding for the Lifespan Respite Care Program—a program to help friends and family caring for a loved one living with a chronic illness; and funding for ongoing research initiatives through the National Institutes of Health and the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP)—high risk/high reward research focused on veterans that have been diagnosed with MS.
Activists also discussed the MS Caucus, and those legislators who had not yet joined were invited to consider doing so. The MS Caucus is a group of dedicated members of the U.S. Congress who seek creative solutions to the challenges facing people with MS and their caregivers.
Activist Jennifer Godwin found the experience worthwhile, “I can't tell you how inspiring it was to see the full force of our activism on the Hill in March during the National Public Policy Conference. It truly is our relationship building with one another and with our elected officials that puts our goals within reach. Our meetings with congressmen deepen our connection, and ensure that lawmakers know the names and faces and stories of this terrible disease”
As the 2013 Arkansas legislative session draws near, it will be especially important that MS Activists from across Arkansas continue to be involved in these ongoing efforts to implement public policy that will positively impact people living with MS.