Be a Superhero for Afterschool; Grab Your Cape, Contact Congress

Whether you’re an afterschool administrator or program provider excited every day about helping kids learn; a community-minded partner who willingly donates resources to programs in a local school or community center; or a parent happy to spread the good word about the benefits of a “seamless day of learning,” you’re an advocate for afterschool.

In the month of August, all of you are needed to pump up your advocacy muscles and become a Superhero for Afterschool! (I’m thinking summer blockbuster-quality superhero!) While members of Congress are on recess this month in their home districts, everyday people like you have the opportunity to reach out to their in-district Congressional offices about the issues you care about most. Let’s pledge to make sure that each of Michigan’s 14 U.S. Representatives hear from Afterschool Superheroes like you in each one of those districts.

Your ability to speak up before decision- and policy-makers about the importance of afterschool in Michigan is critical to the mission of the Michigan After-School Partnership (MASP). As the name tells you, we are a partnership of many groups across Michigan that share a common vision. That is, to ensure that all Michigan children and youth have the opportunity to participate in high-quality, after-school and summer programs that support their success through social, cultural, physical and intellectual development.

Without programs like the Boys & Girls Clubs or those funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center programs, where would so many kids from challenged families find the comradery and support they need to pursue their talents at school and beyond? Where would Detroit-area teens attending the C2 Pipeline at Wayne State University get the early career-inspiring expertise in health care professions that holds promise for good-paying jobs? Where would Jackson-area business folks be without the Jackson Area Manufacturers Association‘s (JAMA) afterschool programs and summer camps that expose students to the engineering and technical fields that crave educated workers?  All of these programs were created by community folks who cared about kids and their futures, and were willing to speak up for them.

Many people shy away from the term advocacy because they think it's not something they can do, or that it’s more complicated than it is. From the Latin, the word advocacy means the process by which one uses their voice to speak up in support of a cause or idea. Folks, we have a seriously important cause in afterschool. Afterschool programs have been proven to improve kids’ performance in English and math, keep kids engaged and excited about school, and help kids uncover their inherent passions in a personal talent or potential career direction. They keep kids safe and nourished in the summertime and in the 3-6 p.m. hours during the school year. With Michigan’s educational system in sore need of reform, afterschool programs are poised to help improve literacy and classroom behavior, develop social-emotional strengths and provide STEM experiences.

But here’s the deal. Elected officials need you to contact them and tell them that you care. They can’t possibly be experts on the vast number of issues that cross their desks in a year. But they do rely on true believers like afterschool advocates to educate them on what’s important to their constituents. And they rarely vote against their constituents’ interests. Members of Congress make decisions on funding the 21st Century CLC program – the only designated source of government funding for afterschool in Michigan. This summer we saw Michigan’s share cut by $2 million. Elected leaders want to know that the money they appropriate serve their districts well. Simply, they need to hear from their constituents to know if the decisions they make – or don’t make – have consequences back home.

MASP has continued to work behind the scenes to build support among state Legislative leaders for new funding to bolster the federal dollars that pay for 21st Century CLC programs.  This effort will take many voices and grassroots support to convince state lawmakers that an investment of Michigan dollars in its students is money that’s needed, wanted and well-spent. Contact your Member of Congress and State Legislator and find out when their next coffee hour is, or where you can meet up at an event nearby to talk to them about why you believe it’s important to support expanded afterschool programming. Or, make an appointment in their in-district offices. Find your representative and their contact information here.

When you do meet, be authentic and keep it positive. Use a relevant piece of data from your program to bolster your point – how many families are on waiting lists, for example. But more importantly, tell a story. Lawmakers are like everyone else. They’re moved by the human side of a story, and anecdotes are more memorable than straight facts. Thank them for their continued support, or ask them for new support. Invite them to your program in the fall. Don’t leave without making a request. And don’t forget to build the relationship: Sign up for their constituent bulletin, “friend” them on social media. Getting in touch with a lawmaker is rarer than you think. Many say it’s unusual if they hear from more than 10 percent of their constituency. So change the numbers.  Be an afterschool advocate – or better yet, be an Afterschool Superhero this month!

Teri Banas is the Communications Manager for the Michigan After-School Partnership.