As we near the end of the inaugural year of the Grassroots Leadership Program (GLP), the participants are preparing for their final presentations and putting the finishing touches on their toolkits. The GLP, as you may recall, launched in 2011 in response to the growing need for training and resources to help international educators address public policy challenges they face in their states and communities.

As the participants are hard at work winding up their activities, they are reflecting on the many successes they’ve had over the past year. In the below post, participant Rebecca Bacon from the Georgia Institute of Technology explains how she was able to be an effective advocate despite being a self-described introvert.

Rebecca BaconBy Rebecca Bacon

When the word “advocacy” comes up, it often conjures either images of large groups of people crowded in the streets with signs and megaphones, chanting about the 99%, or people in suits carrying briefcases, rubbing elbows with politicians on Capitol Hill. For an introvert with a natural aversion to crowds and networking, both of these scenarios can be extremely intimidating. However, when you break it down, advocacy is not only about protests and Capitol Hill, but is rather about building relationships and talking about something you’re passionate about to people who can help make a difference.

For the NAFSA Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program (GLP), I have been looking into how the 54% reduction in funding of the state-based Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship program from 2010 to 2011 has adversely affected undergraduate students in the state of Georgia who wish to study abroad. I was a little overwhelmed at first to take on such a wide-spread topic with a state-wide focus. As an introvert, I struggled with the vision of rallying the masses and needed to find a more practical approach for my efforts.

Through the GLP, we broke down our issue into more manageable chunks: statistics that supported our issue, metrics to help us gauge progress, stakeholders/groups affected by our issue, and targets/individuals that might have a significant impact on our issue. By breaking down the steps and focusing on one-on-one interactions with people who could potentially help me in my pursuit, I found that the skills of practice and preparation that I had already developed to accommodate my introverted nature worked wonders.

Planning out interactions, for example, by e-mailing someone to check their availability to speak on the phone, has helped so that I have a period to prepare myself. E-mail in and of itself is a great tool that I use to pull thoughts together and explain initial intentions before speaking face-to-face or on the phone with someone.

Another skill I found useful was using connections that I had already established.  Oftentimes a colleague or acquaintance already knows someone in a department and can act as a liaison for the initial introduction. For the GLP, I knew that I had to get a hold of someone in our government relations office to make sure they were aware of the project I was working on, get permission to speak about statistics and issues related to our institution, and just generally be connected with that office for future needs. One of my former colleagues had been in the NAFSA State Whip network, so I reached out to her to see who she recommended I speak with. She put me in touch with someone in federal relations, who then referred me to the Executive Director of Government and Community relations who oversees our institution’s state outreach efforts. This process of referral gave me a solid foot in the door, and the comfort to know I had reached the right person.

For someone of a more extroverted nature, this process of referrals may seem like a bit of a waste of time.  However, for any introvert, or anyone for that matter, using the phrase “So-and-so recommended I speak with you about X” can be a good way to mitigate the feeling that you are cold-calling someone, and help to establish a meaningful connection with someone new.

Since my work with the Grassroots Leadership Program, I have been able to maintain a connection with our Government Relations Office and make it a point to keep them updated with the progress on my project, and other issues in the state.  Follow up is essential for any relationship, especially with advocacy efforts, so setting reminders and scheduling out some time to follow up helps me keep on track and not let too much time slide by.

Through my new connections, I have found that international education is highly valued by the Chancellor of our state’s university system, and that even though the state budget is tight right now, preparing our students to be effective citizens in a global society will remain as one of the key missions of our university system. Advocacy is a process, and as I continue to build a community of support around funding for international education, understanding stakeholders’ alignments on issues help me to be informed and prepared when establishing new connections.

I think it’s important for people of varying social abilities to consider advocacy as just another social interaction for which they can use the same planning and preparation approach as they would with any other professional or social communications. Face-to-face meetings are essential, but one can start small by simply talking to his /her colleagues and move on from there. You never know who you might end up rubbing elbows with, and by taking small steps, you can reduce the social anxiety and increase the fun of meeting new people and provide you momentum for supporting your issue!

Rebecca Bacon is a NAFSA member, trainee in the Connecting Our World Grassroots Leadership Program, and advocacy subcommittee member of the Georgia Association of International Educators. She coordinates the undergraduate degree-designation program, the International Plan, at Georgia Institute of Technology, which focuses on developing students’ understanding of how their discipline is practiced in an international context and enhancing their ability to function effectively in multicultural environments. Earlier this year, she wrote a post for the NAFSA blog on “The Importance of Staffers.”