Diving deep into federal advocacy

This September, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) will again be providing the opportunity for community college presidents, government relations directors and other campus administrators to immerse themselves in federal higher education policymaking at this year’s Advocates in Action. The two-day meeting will be held September 16 and 17 at the Royal Sonesta Capitol Hill and in the Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building.

The meeting will be packed with presentations by influential Washington policymakers, including members of Congress, and Biden administration officials.  Well-connected advocates will also make presentations, along with pollsters, members of the media, policy analysts, and other higher education players. Attendees will have the chance to engage with the speakers and each other, as registrations are deliberately limited to maintain a more intimate setting.

Past participants of Advocates in Action share their views about the value of attending the meeting and what motivates them to circle the dates on their calendar each year.  

Speakers for the moment

Federal policymaking involves a lot of devilish details. Arlen Harris, legislative director at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, knows that being aware of those details strengthens an advocate’s message and approach. It’s part of what brings him back to Advocates in Action year after year—to hear from those in D.C. who are not only meaningful to the moment but are the moment.

“Last year we heard from Dr. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), and listening to their viewpoints, I found that they really agree on a lot,” Harris said. “It’s the nuances that separate them on a few things. Knowing that, we can bend that needle towards positive things for community colleges for the future.”

This year’s lineup of speakers will be no different. In addition to sessions with members of Congress and key congressional staff, attendees will also get the chance to hear from Kevin Carey, vice president of education and work at New America; Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, higher education reporter for The Washington Post; David Winston, strategist, pollster and election analyst for CBS News; and Brendan Buck, communications strategist and political analyst for MSNBC and NBC News.

Advocates in Action is geared towards community college leaders with a strong interest in public policy, and the programming is more in-depth than what can typically be found elsewhere. Tim Sheehan, vice president of government and community relations at Salt Lake Community College, said he regularly hears updates on what’s happening in Washington at other meetings and conferences, but none are as comprehensive.

“I feel like when I leave there aren’t any topics we haven’t discussed,” Sheehan said. “Every year, I have taken slides from the speakers and shared it with my cabinet and executive leadership team as background.”

Connecting with colleagues

Attendees of Advocates in Action hail from community colleges located in all parts of the country. Sheehan said that he usually gets to see some of his colleagues that he doesn’t see elsewhere, and he finds it helpful to “compare notes.”

Claire Rosacco, vice president of government relations and community outreach at Cuyahoga Community College, agreed that being able to talk shop with those from other institutions across the United States is an added benefit of attending the meeting.

“Like anything else, I think when we can be with peers to discuss issues, it allows us to be more educated on what’s happening around the country related to those issues,” Rosacco said.

Putting advocacy to action

An essential component of Advocates in Action is the opportunity for attendees to become more directly engaged with federal legislation and to assist in advancing the national community college agenda. Participants are highly encouraged to set up meetings with their members of Congress, which the agenda is structured to facilitate.

“Regardless of where you are, making the trip to DC to see [your congressional delegation] in their office is meaningful for them and reminds them who they’re working for,” Harris said.

Advocates will be well-equipped for Capitol Hill meetings with useful background and context from the first day’s speakers, as well as briefing materials and talking points on issues specific to community colleges prepared by AACC’s Office of Government Relations.

Although the legislative environment in September is difficult to predict at this time, AACC expects that advocacy will be necessary for fiscal year 2025 appropriations, workforce Pell Grants, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and the Farm Bill.

Registration for Advocates in Action is $385. The deadline to reserve a room at the Royal Sonesta Capitol Hill in the event’s room block is August 26.

About the Author

Alexis Gravely
Alexis Gravely is a legislative analyst at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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