Parents Who Change the World

Make Your Own Difference

You don't need to have experienced a personal tragedy to be an effective advocate. Whether you want to fight for food-safety laws, push to increase school funding, or simply have a stop sign installed on your corner, the lessons learned by these families can help you. We asked highly involved parents for their best advice on how to make lasting changes that matter.

- Join forces. Align yourself with a person or an organization that's already involved in what you're doing and knows the history of the issue from a lobbying standpoint. Vandenberghe used her network of friends and family to connect with New York lobbyist Allison Lee, who in turn introduced her to political movers and shakers in the state capital. You can research the Consumer Product Safety Commission website (cspc.gov) to check if there are already laws on the books related to what you want to promote. The Government Printing Office website allows you to search for all existing federal laws enacted since 1995.

- Get confident. "Women have so much self-doubt that they don't have the expertise," says Minneapolis mom Courtney Cushing Kiernat. "I think it's more about stepping up and realizing that what you don't have you'll either learn or find in other people." When Cushing Kiernat spearheaded a tax referendum campaign—a yes-or-no ballot vote—to benefit the Minneapolis Public Schools, the country was deep in the grip of the 2008 recession and she only 18 percent of the voting population had children. "I knew what was happening at my own kids' elementary school, but I needed to hear what was going on in all the other schools in the district," she says. "I showed up at most school meetings and every community meeting I could—an average of three a week for months—and listened." The referendum passed with an overwhelming majority.

- Start sharing. "You have to be comfortable telling your story a hundred times," says Tanya Chin Ross, director of public policy at Safe Kids USA (safekids.org), a Washington, D.C.-based national network of organizations working to prevent unintentional childhood injury. Write your story from your heart and practice in front of people.

- Use social media. Asking your Facebook friends to repost or to retweet on Twitter can make an impact. E-mail bloggers and reporters at your local newspaper. If everyone you know spreads your message, you can see exponential reach.

- Attend public hearings. Don't be afraid to share. Other parents probably feel the same way you do.

- Be patient. Passing a law can take years ."It's difficult to get legislation passed, especially when it comes to child safety," says Chin Ross. "There are competing agendas and lots of other issues, including taxes and budget sessions."

- Stay resilient. "You'll hear 'no' a lot more than 'yes,'" advises Fennell. "But if you are doing something that comes from your own life experience, you have the truth on your side."

- Don't stop with laws. Legislation is nothing without education. Each year since Alec's death, the Nelson family has sponsored Alec's Run (alecsrunli.com) to raise awareness about car safety. Proceeds go to KidsandCars.org and other nonprofits.

Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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