Amy Roark is a member of the Poverty Reduction Work Group Steering Committee, the Campaign for Cash, and many other groups working to advocate for low-income Washingtonians. In this blog post, she shares her story of becoming an advocate.
As a person who has given testimony over 15 times, I still get nervous to stand up in front of lawmakers or even speak to them remotely. I am not a public speaker; I am just a citizen trying to use her voice to make an impact. It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to tell our state’s decision-makers about what is important to you. Hearing your experience, perspective, and values can open a lawmakers’ mind and convince them to advocate for good policies. It can also change how they interact with community members and create better working relationships with people who are in poverty or are part of a marginalized community. Legislators look to you to be the expert in your life, which you are!
We also often think that one voice doesn’t matter – but it does. Speaking out on an issue can not only make a difference for you, but for others in a similar situation. I often advocate for parents and caregivers as well as children, and many parents do not have the time to attend the things that I attend and advocate for themselves.
Giving testimony on bills that are working their way through the legislature may seem scary, but it can be empowering. It makes me feel good. I have spoken on many different topics from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to prison systems and each time it leads me to be more of an advocate in my daily life, in my children’s lives, and in my community. There are so many things you can advocate for – more services for people with special needs, support systems to help people leaving jail, cleaning up the sides of the road–Whatever you choose to advocate for, your story matters.
My Journey as an Advocate
I first gave testimony in 2011 after I received a flier in the mail about a listening session held at the YWCA. It said something about the 60-month lifetime limit for TANF and asked, “Tell us your story.” I was not sure what to expect but I knew I had a story to tell. The listening session was hosted by Poverty Action Network. This is when I met Poverty Action’s director, Marcy Bowers. She told me that my experience with basic needs programs was valuable and how important it was to put human faces on these programs. I could share first-hand in a listening session how the policies in place were hurting people instead of helping them. Her team helped support me to not only brainstorm and write my testimony, but also to find a way to attend the hearing.
Shortly after the listening session I gave my first testimony on TANF. I had been on TANF before but was no longer eligible because of the 60-month lifetime limit. I couldn’t even afford the essential everyday things necessary for good health including women’s sanitary supplies! When I arrived in Olympia for the testimony, Marcy was there. She was awesome, and she made me feel important and valued. I was nervous, but I just reminded myself that these legislators are people just like you and me, they just have a title. When talking to them, it was helpful to remember that they work for us.
When we got to the State Capitol the atmosphere felt a little like a mix between a college campus and a courthouse. The hearing room was set up sort of like a courtroom but instead of a judge in the front of the room, it felt like a jury. When they called my name, I went up to a desk sort of like the one where an attorney sits in court (talk about intimidating for your first time!) I was given only 2 minutes, and I talked about how I know this stuff first-hand and that I bring information to organizations and the state that they wouldn’t hear without someone like me. I am willing to tell hard truths to lawmakers, agencies, and schools. My experience could help change the laws that have made it even harder for me to get ahead, but I do it because I care, and it makes me feel empowered. I shared that I believed that for our state to have the best policies, and ones that will work for marginalized people, our voices need to be at the table and valued.
After that testimony, I decided to get more involved in something dear to my heart, children’s education and support issues. As a mother of four, all my children had been in the Head Start/ECEAP preschool programs, so I decided to join the policy council through Education Opportunities for Children and Families. It was a way I could give back and say thank you for all they have done for me over the years. Then just a year later, I became a Parent Ambassador for Washington State Association for Head Start/
In 2017 I went to Washington DC with Child Care Aware of America which was my first time advocating at a federal level. I then joined the Poverty Reduction Work Group (PRWG) Steering Committee. Being on the PRWG motivated me to join a Community Action Advisory Board in Clark County, and then the Transportation System Sound Board (TSSB), I am the Chair of the Resident Advisory Board (RAB) for the Vancouver Housing Authority, have done voter out reach for WSA a few times over the last few years, am doing outreach for the Working Families Tax Credit, and help update the Early Learning Coordination Plan (ELCP). I am also a part of the Parent Leadership group for the Vancouver school district, joined the Washington Family Fund Steering Committee, and most recently I have become a member of the Child Support Work Group for the state of Washington. I am trying to join as many boards as possible because I feel it gets me heard even more. Some of this work also generates an income.
You might be thinking that as one person your opinion won’t count, but one voice CAN make a big difference. For example, an advocate for the Deaf community and myself served on a transportation board together and I had brought to the board’s attention that we needed to provide people with bikes, scooters, or skateboards as some sort of way to make other people aware that they are coming like a bell. My advocate friend said, “What about the deaf? We can’t hear bells, but we CAN see flashing lights.” This information was valuable to the board members. Without his lived experience we might not have thought of a flashing light for the people that are deaf or hard of hearing.
This legislative session I am working on the Nothing About Us Without Us Act (HB1541), which makes it so that people who have lived experience about a bill issue are at the table giving advice and helping to make decisions. I have given testimony on this bill to relate that serving on boards and committees has changed my life and has given me a way to impact the systems in place that have kept me from thriving and to help others who are struggling. I am also adding to my testimony that being involved also gives me something to do and as someone with mental health issues, it creates stability and keeps me on track to better overall health. Lastly, doing something good for my community matters to me.
I want to tell my personal story because I know lawmakers might not have heard the things I have to say. You never know, it might be that one conversation that may be the game changer for their decision. When we are born, we are each not given the same tools and support; Some people are born with 2 parents while others with only 1, Some may be wealthy and own a home while others stay with others and live paycheck to pay-check or day-to-day. It’s these intersections of where we are from and our access to the different resources that make the policy process inaccessible. However, if you don’t take part then it allows the opponents to control the narrative that our lawmakers are listening to.
My Tips on Giving Testimony
My first time giving testimony, I did not know the first thing about how to speak in front of a lawmaker, let alone a room full of them! I learned though that if you follow a few steps, it can make your experience easier and make your statement really stand out and be heard.
- Find out about your legislators. Learn all you can about your Senators and Representatives in your district: https://app.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder/
- Write out what you want to say. Include what the bill number, and whether you are PRO( for) or CON (against), your full name, any organizations, or groups you represent or if you are a concerned citizen, and why you thought it was important to speak. Practice this repeatedly and time yourself! Poverty Action Network can help you prepare and practice your testimony, too – reach out to us at email@example.com if you want help drafting testimony!
- Know about the scenario: if you are testifying in person, you’ll want to know what the room is like, what might go on in the room, who might be there, how long you have, and the sequence of events.
- Learn the formal way to address your legislator. Begin by introducing yourself to the Chair and the committee and state your purpose. You can call members of the Senate, Senator and members of the House, Representative.
- Get support from someone you trust to walk through what you’re going to say.
- Speak from experience and choose to give testimony on bills that matter to you. I’m not going to testify on a drinking water bill, because I don’t know enough about that. But I will testify on a child support bill because it relates to my lived experience and issues I care about!
- When you speak, be concise and make sure that you speak clearly and loudly. Practicing is helpful, because you usually only have 2 minutes (or less!) and you might not have time to say valuable information if you get cut off mid-testimony. Remember it is your story, you cannot fail if you tell your truth!
- Stay calm – you got this!
You can do it!
Remember, only you can tell your story. With all the stereotypes about poverty, would you want anyone else to tell the hard truths of the obstacles and barriers you have had to experience? We need our politicians to hear from people who have actual experience with the day-to-day life of not having enough to get by, and to have that story resonate with others who are able to create the necessary changes. The impact on others could be tremendous even if it feels minor to you!
When you give testimony, be real! Be yourself! For me, giving testimony and other ways of sharing my story have been a kind of self-care practice. It’s like journaling. It is also a relief after I say what I came there to say, that I have completed what I set out to do. Sharing my story has made a difference for myself and others, which is why there is no going back for me. I sometimes think of my favorite quote related to public speaking and advocacy:
“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning”Maya Angelou