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Giving voice to our children: Florida Advocacy Days 2017

Giving voice to our children: Florida Advocacy Days 2017

Conference News Missions and Outreach

Editor's Note: Click here for more information, a brochure, to learn about the 2017 advocacy issues and to register for participating in Children's Week. Deadline for registration is March 15.

A visit to the Florida Legislature during its annual 50-day session in March and April is a peek behind the curtain that can be a dizzying, rapid-fire and sometimes baffling experience. But it also is a vital one.

The Legislature is where the laws and programs that govern our state are made. It is where petitions and ideas are presented to people with the power to make it happen. It is where support is sought for worthy causes. It is where things are set in motion that can be a force for good.

Each year, tens of thousands of "hand art" are decorated by children from across the state and hung in the Capitol Rotunda commemorating National Children's Week. During a past Children's Week, Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter is framed by what is often referred to as the "Hanging of the Hands."

That’s why members of United Methodist churches throughout the state are going to Tallahassee March 26-28 for Florida Advocacy Days. Participants will meet with various state senators and representatives or members of their staffs. They will raise awareness among lawmakers about juvenile nutrition needs and other vital childhood issues.

Some, like Clarke Campbell-Evans, the Florida Conference director of Missional Engagement, have been there many times and consider the journey to be one of the most important things they do.

“For a long time, I felt strongly that the church has a public witness to policies that govern our state,” he said. “We need to lend our voice to the poor and disenfranchised and to take advantage of the chance to catch-up our legislators on these issues.

“And for me, it’s also an opportunity to reconnect and encourage others to make a difference in people’s lives.”

People don’t just show up and knock on doors, though. The meetings with legislators or their staff members are well-planned and focused. It starts with a strategy session about the agenda and what the advocates should expect.

That’s where Trudy Novicki, president and CEO of Florida Impact, is a big help. She previously served as a chief assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County, where she supervised the child abuse and forensic interview units.

She also has served on multiple boards to combat child abuse and sexual predators. Those experiences are invaluable as she guides people through the legislative maze in Tallahassee.

“It’s very important for their voices to be heard,” she said. “Legislators want to hear from their constituents. People shouldn’t be disappointed if they talk to an aide and not the legislator directly. Lots of times it’s an aide who makes up the legislator’s schedule and writes a memo that the lawmaker will read and perhaps put it into action.

“You need to have your bullet points ready because you might not have a lot of time, maybe 15 minutes tops. And when you’re dealing with politicians, don’t just come and talk about an issue. They get that all the time. Tell them what you want them to do.”

Along with addressing the issue of ensuring children in needy homes have access to food, this year's legislative priorities include addressing juvenile civil citations that avoid criminal records and human trafficking, a serious problem for juvenile runaways.

This year, the to-do list will include such things as a juvenile civil citation bill that will give young people who commit a minor offense the chance to avoid a criminal record. They will also address the growing problem of human trafficking, especially with juvenile runaways, and what the state can do to help. Click here for an overview of the Children's Week 2017 bills.

“That is an ongoing issue that started as a faith-based effort,” Novicki said. “We have to get these kids recognized as victims and not just bad kids.”

Another vital issue is the effort with the Florida Department of Agriculture to ensure children in needy homes have access to food when they’re not in school and can’t receive free or reduced lunches.

“In a county and state replete with resources, it is immoral that children go hungry and do not have the resources necessary for wholesome lives,” said Sharon Austin, the Conference director of Connectional and Justice Ministries.

“As many are aware, Florida includes some of the wealthiest and most impoverished communities in the U.S.  These disparities provide us with teaching and learning opportunities wherein we can appreciate the tremendous advantages with which some children begin their lives—and conversely the disadvantages that some children begin and then must confront all of their lives.”

This is consistent with the Wesleyan understanding of “social holiness” which serves as a foundation for the vision of the Florida Conference led by Bishop Ken Carter. He has urged member churches to partner with local schools and agencies to address many of these issues with at-risk children and youth.

“Adequate health care, clothing, school supplies, quality of education, learning materials, extracurricular activities—including physical education and the arts—all lend themselves to an understanding of impoverishment,” Austin said.

“Parents who must work extended hours and two or three jobs, often because of low wages, are parents who are less able to spend as much quality time with their children, as needed and as they would wish.  Meals around the family table, homework assistance and support, celebration of accomplishments in school and bedtime stories, may not occur in the same way in households where families are trying to keep their heads above water. 

Fifteen minutes spent talking with a Florida legislator could make a difference in a child's life. Florida Advocacy Days is about raising awareness to important issues.

“That,” she reminded, “comes with a biblical command.

“Our Christian tradition calls us to follow the mandate of Jesus, who loved children, and taught us to serve each other,” she said. "This year's FAD effort includes an intentional outreach (with limited scholarships) to young adults throughout the Florida Conference to join the conversation with our legislators. The time to hear the vision and voices of young people, is now!"

That means sometimes digging deep into complex and difficult issues that at times can seem overwhelming. It means helping even one child is a worthy goal, as Campbell-Evans learned during previous Advocacy Days by watching the efforts of sister congregations within the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“I just became struck by the fact that there are so many issues that aren’t sexy, and they aren’t consumed in the media. They get ignored,” he said. “This is a chance to have a dramatic impact on the least of these in Florida.

“And then to see the sea of other United Methodists who have gathered there (in Tallahassee) and to join with our AMEC brothers and sisters is very inspiring.”

Part of the preparation work for volunteers involves reading a handbook Novicki has composed about how the Legislature works. The process of turning an idea into law often starts with a simple meeting like the ones that will be occurring during Advocacy Days.

But, Novicki reminds people, legislators during the session are besieged by lobbyists and advocates for other causes who want a moment of their time. The important thing for volunteers is to know how the system works and to have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish.

"This is how you go about bringing something that is in your heart into something that is on paper,” she said. “This where you can make a difference.

“You can’t lose faith in government, you can’t lose faith in God and you can’t lose faith in your country.”

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

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