By Jacob Lesner-Buxton
“Jacob, help me understand I keep coming to you with all these great ideas, and you won’t bring them up to the advisory committees you are on. You keep saying it is not the right time, or the committee won’t deal with that issue. I thought you wanted to make an impact.”
Ah, that was Steve, a man about 60 who is a new California transplant and views me as a power broker in the community. For the past year, he has been giving me suggestions for projects that I could do to improve the conditions of those with disabilities in the county. Although he is passionate about these ideas, I am hesitant to bring them to the committees I work with for a variety of reasons.
First, Steve can be flakey. Often when I tried to work on his ideas, he didn’t get back to me. Another challenge with his ideas is they are often unclear. If I felt unclear about his plan, then chances are the community would as well. The last challenge is that Steve may have overestimated the power of advisory committees to create change.
For those who aren’t aware that many government agencies, community resources, and others have advisory committees made up of stakeholders to provide input into how that program operates. In California, many policies require an advisory committee to be formed at nursing homes, transportation agencies, etc. Some bills require the creation of a new committee to advise on senior service projects or to monitor the implantation of a new program.
About 15% of my work is devoted to sitting on advisory committees or finding others to serve on them. In my experience, the role of the advisory committees varies greatly. Some committees meet regularly and take community input seriously. Others feel like carefully staged press events that happen two or three times a year.
Steve had the impression that I had carte blanche to bring his ideas to the different advisory committees I was sitting on. In reality, my experience on some committees is akin to being a wedding planner who is restricted to only making suggestions about the centerpieces on the tables during the reception.
Recently, I was recently told that a topic I wanted to bring up as chair of a committee was inappropriate. County staff seemed to have the final say over what my committee and other advisory committees could discuss. I am sure I could have protested this decision, but it would take up much energy. Plus, I could get this issue addressed in other ways, such as starting a letter-writing campaign or getting a bunch of people to show up outside their offices.
People seem to see advisory committees as the end all be all or they think they are a complete waste of time. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
Some of my disability rights advocate friends began planning for a particular advisory committee meeting two or three months out. They were convinced that if they could get a large crowd to an advisory board of an agency that deals with home care, the problems in that office will cease. As someone who has been to many advisory committee meetings, it’s hard to imagine this kind of success. It’s almost impossible to have a frank discussion about the department’s deficiencies in this – or, indeed, in any advisory committee I’ve been part of.
My friends will have the courage to speak their mind during the meeting, but there is a good possibility that someone in the committee will try to silence them. I have noticed that on many advisory boards, some members feel a duty to defend the organization’s actions. This is understandable since some of these members communicate regularly with the department they advise. They might see things differently than the public. However, I have seen instances where the zeal to defend systems has prevented necessary conversations from happening.
For instance, about five years ago, I participated in a focus group hosted by a committee that advises the California government on policies affecting those with developmental disabilities. At the beginning of the meeting, an advocate for families with disabilities started to testify about the issues affecting her community. After three minutes, the chair of the committee stood up, put her hand out, and said, “That’s it. I am not going to listen to you criticize our services for two hours.”
While I could understand if the chair asked the women to make room for others to speak, there were only five members of the public present. Furthermore, none of the others at the meeting seemed to have the urge to speak. The chairwoman’s outburst changed the tenor of the meeting.
Instead of discussing the problems affecting those with disabilities the focus group only made small talk about family and the weather in Santa Barbara.
I wonder if the chair decided felt obliged to defend the work of California institutions to further her career. If so, she may have been off base. Unless the meeting room was bugged, I don’t think someone from the governor’s office would have heard about the session. And, if the governor at the time heard the woman criticizing his policies, I doubt he would have cared.
Once I was interviewed by this Governor’s staff about an appointment to a committee and they asked me to share my honest feelings about him. Despite sharing my frustration at his policies, I was still appointed to that committee.
I am often critical of who gets picked to be on what committee, as well as those who feel the need to defend government officials. My colleague from a different organization got chosen to be on a committee that addressed the needs of people with intellectual disabilities. Although I respected the person’s advocacy, there were dozens of others who I thought might be more be appropriate for the committee.
I notice that some people, including myself, tend to collect advisory committees like baseball cards. And, I have seen a hint of resentment among some advocates who see the same faces on every committee. It might sound like I am looking for brownie points, but I would happily give up on my seat on many of those advisory committees. I believe that my voice is not unique, and thousands of others can bring what I can to the table. However, I know many other disability activists, particularly people of color, who I believe have unique voices and should be at those tables.
And there are others who feel their voice is more effective on the street than in a conference room.
It’s critical that those on advisory boards be honest with the public on the reality of what that committee can do. When Steve comes with an idea, he isn’t happy when I tell him that I won’t be taking it to the Committee. He isn’t happy about the ideological sacrifices I make to pay my rent or keep food on the table. Still, he has a right to understand my thinking. Maybe there will be an issue where I am willing to do a type of advocacy that will put my job on the line.
In the meantime, Steve and others should understand that change has been created in spaces other than the conference room at 3 pm on the third Monday of every month (excluding December).
If I suggest that a client picket the agency I work for, I might be putting my job at risk. But, I can refer that person to someone who could teach them how to advocate in a way that I can’t. If directing clients to others for advocacy advice is not an option, I could downplay the significance of my own advisory committees’ power.
The best way I have heard advisory committees described was from two people who worked at different agencies a hundred miles apart. They both told me that there was an advisory committee at the place where they worked. However, neither knew what the committees talked about when they met. They said that if I was interested in making changes, they could try and get me information.
These people hit the nail on the head when it comes to many advisory committees. If these advisory committees really created social change, then employees who are active in their workplaces would know more about them. These people’s ignorance about the committees shows how many advisory committees are seen as a legal requirement rather than a catalyst for change
It may appear that I am bad-mouthing the advisory committee in this article. However, they provide insight into how government works and allow the public to see those who are running these systems. If you know what is possible to achieve and have limited expectations, some of these committees can move the needle a few inches towards social change, especially when paired with other social justice work.