As a long-standing social justice advocate and lobbyist, I have been asked by others how to be an effective advocate in the halls of Sacramento or our nation’s capital. I was recently reflecting on this upon my return from Washington, D.C., where thousands of community health center advocates descended on the Hill to advocate on issues important to community health centers and the patients we serve – including the reauthorization of our federal funding for the next five years. Community health centers have a very successful track record of securing bipartisan support both in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. The importance of our advocacy and our successful track record got me thinking about what makes our organization and our members’ such successful advocates for the health center movement. I’ve outlined five fundamental things I think are important in being the best advocate you can be and I will tell you how they relate to my own experiences.
Know your subject
One of the soundest pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten, and continue to pass on to others, is to come prepared with knowledge in a given area and have the research and/or data to back it up. If you have the information and the proof to back it up, you are that much more credible and become a valuable resource for people in the future. Whether you are meeting with a city council member or a member of Congress, the same rules apply – know your stuff! While community health centers are burdened with significant data requirements from federal and state government and health care payors, one of the great advantages it affords us is that we can tell our story – including how many patients we serve, their income, ethnicity, insurance status, and languages spoken, among other important data points. This is powerful data that helps us build our case with elected officials.
Strength in numbers
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, there is nothing more powerful than having a large number of people united in their advocacy on the same issue at the same time. Even though coordinating a trip out to D.C. or a lobby day in Sacramento is challenging and cumbersome, showing up and making your voice heard en masse, is a great way to have an impact. California health centers continue to show up in great numbers to D.C. for national advocacy efforts led by the National Association of Community Health Centers. Year after year, California has the largest delegation. We show up because it’s important and we know that size does matter when you are wanting to get your issues to the forefront with decision makers. There truly is great strength in numbers when it comes to advocacy.
Coordination is Key
Building on your strength in numbers is ensuring coordination between everyone involved. Here in California, that means working with both our regional consortia and individual members, as well as our national association to make the splash that we want when we show up in D.C. and Sacramento. Managing our meetings, coordinating handouts, ensuring we know who will be talking about what, and building off of trusted relationships in a coordinated way are all important components of successful advocacy. If you go into a meeting with ten people, there should be a plan in place so that everyone understands the goal of the meeting, who will take the lead, who will present on issues, and so forth. Also, if it is a large group, the data used should be consistent and the “asks” should be consistent (although both may vary depending on which side of the aisle you are engaging with). Coordination is key.
Quality is as important as quantity
While the sheer number of people advocating with you is important, having the right people is also significant to your efforts. When advocating for health centers, we often ensure we have providers and consumer board members (patients) there to tell their stories first hand – in addition to health center leaders and staff. Hearing from those on the front lines and hearing from patients that directly feel the impact of policy decisions is very powerful. Never underestimate the effectiveness of who you involve in your cause. One thing I have come to realize is that for our cause, doctors and patients are some of the most effective spokespersons in front of policy makers. Who is the most effective spokesperson for your cause? Make sure they are front and center.
Build and foster relationships among diverse groups
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in nearly three decades of doing this work is the importance of building and fostering a diverse set of relationships along the way. Join coalitions, network with like-minded individuals, go out and march and rally with others to build a successful network of advocates that can help you in your efforts as well. Also, step outside your comfort zone of like-minded individuals and reach out to beyond your base to build broader alliances and seek wider support. We are so fortunate to have built such strong ties to both our national organization – the National Association of Community Health Centers- as well as our Regional Associations of California (RAC) which join us in fighting at the local, state and federal levels. Going outside of the health center world and partnering with other allies in health care and beyond is equally important. The broader the coalition that supports your issue, the more likely it is that your issues will be paid attention to by policy makers. For community health centers, having relationships on both sides of the aisle has been key to the success of our advocacy and it has required fostering and developing relationships among a diverse group.
At the end of the day, all of these factors play an important role in successful advocacy. At CPCA, we are fortunate to have dedicated staff and resources to facilitate our advocacy efforts. But I have certainly been involved with smaller advocacy groups that have less staff or are volunteer-based. These organizations are able to put together successful advocacy programs as well. Whether you are a single person, a group of volunteers, or a large organization – I hope you find these tips helpful in becoming the best advocate you can be for your cause. And above all else, being passionate about the issues you are advocating for is probably one of the most significant pieces of this work. Not only will your passion shine through when you speak about these issues, it will also keep you going when you get knocked down –which trust me, will happen from time to time. As long as you believe in what you are doing, are passionate in your convictions, and stay in it for the long haul, you can go far.
There is nothing quite like a young professional with potential, high aspirations and a yearning to make a difference. But how do you turn aspiration into opportunity, and then turn opportunity into success? I recommend these five tips for young professionals of promise looking to turn their dreams into reality:
Listen and learn: I know that you’re well educated and have a lot to offer in the workplace, and I understand that sometimes your older colleagues might seem to you like old-fashioned digital dinosaurs. But your more experienced colleagues have a lot of wisdom to impart. Take the time ask questions, share ideas and learn from elders and superiors what has been their formula for success. It might not end up being the exact path you take, but you can always adopt some of the strategies of those who went before you into your own journey.
Work on weaknesses: The sooner a young professional identifies their weaknesses the sooner they can start addressing them head-on. Once you’ve identified your blind spots, you can work to improve upon them, or even surround yourself with folks whose strengths complement your weaknesses, and vice versa. It is always a positive to know what’s missing from your tool box. Because then, you’ll know how to make steps to fill the gaps.
Charting your path: From the outset, you’ll want to be strategic about where you want to end up and mindful about what you need to get there. Be intentional about your career, learn what kind of leader you are early on, and start plotting the steps to achieve your dreams as soon as possible. The clearer the goals you set for yourself, the more likely you are to reach them.
Financial fluency: Don’t ever fear the math, because it will impact you in so many ways. Good credit and a solid understanding of finances can be absolutely key to achieving your dreams. And be sure to keep a solid handle on any student loans that might come your way. Far too often we see people mired in debt that they had not sufficiently vetted beforehand. Keeping a keen eye on your finances will benefit you every step of the way. And remember: It’s never too early to start planning for your retirement.
Work ethic: Excellence, commitment, intentionality, and reliability. These are the four tenets I have applied in order to get to where I am today. Not only will these qualities help you when challenges fall into your path, they’ll also ensure that you work smarter and not harder – making your journey much more manageable.
A young professional who focuses on self-awareness, preparation and discipline will be best suited to respond when opportunity knocks. Make sure you are training yourself accordingly so that you can take it to the next level when your chance arrives.
Navigating your career into the C-suite requires intentionality and dedication. You’ll learn a lot about yourself as you master how to overcome barriers and seek out opportunities. Ultimately, if you stay focused and make the right moves, you’ll find that you’re prepared when opportunity knocks.
Here are a few tried and true tips for making that journey to the top:
Do the work, build the skill sets – I know this from experience: If you want to be an effective leader later on, you must develop expertise in your field today and continually build on that experience. Hands-on employees will better understand their team’s needs and concerns as they find themselves in top positions down the road.
Know your strengths, AND your weaknesses – Ultimately, a leader should want to build on existing strengths while acknowledging and addressing weaknesses. It’s okay if you’re not a star at everything. Few—if any—people are. One of the tremendous benefits of the C-suite is that you’ll have the opportunity to build a brilliant, complementary team around you that can fill in gaps where you could use some help.
Master the business side – Don’t focus solely on the mission and fail to master the business/finance side of your organization. Dive in on the finances, revenue growth and strategic leveraging opportunities from the onset. Educate yourself early on what makes the numbers work for your business and the sky will be the limit once you’re in the C-suite.
Build your network and find a mentor – No matter your industry, a timeless key to success is making genuine connections with other professionals. You never know who may end up helping you along the way—or, even better, who you may help move ahead. Always make sure you’re building your professional community, and keep an eye out for a potential mentor who has been down your path before and is willing to help guide you toward your dream leadership role.
Learn from mistakes – Challenges will occur on your way to the C-suite. That’s okay. Even after you’ve made it, you’re going to continue to experience learning moments. In fact, once you’re in that leadership role, it will be more important than ever to commit to your own personal growth and development. Keep learning and growing.
Take calculated risks – If you approach your career from a place of fear, it will only hold you back. A discerning risk-taker can advance him- or herself and an organization in ways a timid one cannot. However, be sure to keep the right people around you to carefully analyze risks and help you take the right chances at the right times.
Put your best foot forward – If you commit to excellence in your work and stay positive and optimistic about your future, then you’ll find you have more opportunities than you might have ever imagined.
Be proactive – That dream job of yours is simply not going to fall into your lap. You need to scope out opportunities for advancement and be willing to make that move. Make sure you are always striving for excellence, regularly making that ask, and shining bright like a diamond.
The road to the C-suite will be paved with potential for growth. If you work hard, keep an eye out for opportunities, and stay positive and proactive, there’s no telling how far you’ll go.
For most of us, achieving our dreams will not be reached through hard work alone. We all start at different stations in life, and for those who may come from more challenging circumstances, solid guidance from established leaders can make all the difference in the world.
In my experience, I’ve found that people in positions of power can be a part of the solution by mentoring young people of diverse backgrounds looking to positively impact the community.
Without a mentor, young women and people of color often do not see themselves in the faces of the existing leadership in their fields. Implicit biases affect everyone, and surely result in communities and industries missing out on some remarkable young people that are otherwise poised to be future leaders. Often, all they need is a little bit of guidance, a leader who believes in them, and a clear vision on how to achieve their goals and make it to the next level.
Mentorship from an established leader can change a promising young person’s trajectory. It is a vote of confidence that will not only affect how the young person views him- or herself, but others in the community or profession will take note as well.
A mentor can also help open previously locked doors for promising young leaders. We all have varying degrees of privilege, and if established leadership wants to help achieve community equity, we can use our positions to expedite the cause.
I know countless leaders who want to help foster equity in the community, but they’re not sure how to go about doing that. We can all help foster change and equity–as well as the trajectory of a young person’s life–by mentoring young people who may not have had all the same opportunities growing up.
What are the qualities that I appreciate in the most influential and significant mentors in my life? There are many qualities that can make someone a good mentor for a young person, but the quality I believe is the most important is believing in someone such that you instill in them a sense of confidence that allows them to believe in themselves and excel. Other important qualities are leading by example, as well as providing unconditional support and encouragement.
When it comes to these important mentorship qualities, I am reminded of my mom, Carmen Castellano. Throughout my journey from San Jose State University to UC Berkeley to La Universidad Central de Venezuela to Yale Law School, I felt alone and didn’t think I had a mentor. At some point along my journey, I woke up and realized my mentor had been by my side the whole time – and that person is my mother. She is someone who has always been there for me and is my most significant mentor.
How do you get a sense of confidence so that you can believe in yourself and excel? For me, it started at home. My parents began instilling in me a sense of self-worth and value from birth. My mom came from humble beginnings. She was one of four girls, and while her sisters excelled in art and academia and earned college degrees, she was encouraged to pursue a career as a secretary. It was important to her to ensure her children excelled academically and she knew they had the ability to do so. Her excellent English language skills, honed during her Catholic school education and Heald Business College training, certainly helped guide her children to excel in reading and writing.
My first experience with understanding the power of confidence was when I was six years old. I was in the first grade, and I remember sitting in the front row reading a book for the first time. I was sitting there reading away feeling very empowered and emboldened by my ability to read well – it was my first “girl power” meets “brain power” moment. I believe that this epiphany was fueled by the encouragement I received at home from my parents, and school is where it played out in a positive and reinforcing way.
My mom continued to cultivate and build my confidence as I grew into a teenager and beyond. Growing up, we all go through that awkward phase when we are trying to figure out who we are and where we fit in. There’s the “terrible twos” and for some of us there’s the “terrible teens”. I was one of those “terrible teens” who was struggling to understand her identity and where she fit in. I was lucky to have my mom during those years as someone to lean on and go to when I was lost and discouraged– acting out and rebelling as some teenagers do. I made some mistakes and bad moves, but my mother never lost sight of my true potential and never gave up on me. Her unconditional love and support was what got me through those years and helped me decide to invest in my education and plan for my future.
Later in life when I was accepted into Yale Law School, my father tried to convince me not to go. He was concerned about me living so far away from home and he wanted me to attend law school in the Bay Area. I was crushed that my father was not able to support my decision. After all, it was my decision to make. My mother, however, made it clear to me that as far as she was concerned, I should go to whatever law school I wanted to. If I wanted to move across the country to attend Yale Law School, she made it clear that she supported me 100 percent. It was that unconditional love and support that gave me the strength, confidence and conviction to move across the country on my own to attend Yale Law School.
How does a mentor “leading by example” make a difference? I think leading by example was one of the most important ways my mom was a mentor. When I was young, my mom worked as a secretary, which was a career she excelled in. For decades she was an executive secretary at San Jose City College (SJCC) working for the college’s faculty senate, deans, and presidents. While at SJCC she shone in each of her positions, taking on broad levels of responsibility and demonstrating exceptional leadership.
I had the opportunity to work with my mom for a short time while she was at SJCC. After graduating from college, as I was studying for the LSAT, I was offered a job by my mom’s boss, the President of SJCC, Byron Skinner. Little did I know at the time that being the Special Assistant to the President actually meant I was the Special Assistant to my mom. During my tenure, I saw firsthand how hard my mom worked, how dedicated she was to her job, how important it was to her to maintain excellent standards, and how she was playing a leadership role on that campus.
In other words, I saw her lead by example and it made me realize a few important things about my future career: (1) I would never be able to be the perfectionist that is required of someone in her position and I could never do her job; (2) some day when I finished law school and became an attorney, I was going to need someone with an exceptional skill set and work ethic, like my mom, if I was going to be successful; (3) being excellent at your job commands respect and is essential for success; and (4) having pride in who you are and what you do is as important as the work you produce.
I will always be grateful to my mother for the important role she has played in my life. She has been a constant source of support and encouragement. I believe that the lessons I learned from her in terms of professionalism and excellence have been instrumental in my own success as a CEO. She has helped shape who I am as a person and as a professional woman. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from my mother in this manner. She inspires me to want to support and mentor other young people. I am indeed blessed to have such a mentor in my life. My mother – my mentor.
One of the greatest things young people can learn about themselves is that their voices and actions have an impact. Once this is realized, it’s hard to overstate the changes that can be made in the world around us.
Civic engagement—the act of working to identify and address issues of concern to the community—is one of the best ways for young people to go out and impact change. This comes in many forms.
According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement Circle at Tufts University, civic engagement can be divided into three categories: civic, electoral, and political voice. From voting to volunteering to fundraising — or even political protest — all forms of civic engagement carry unique values and benefits. What matters is that you’re a part of the conversation.
Here are 4 reasons why you should consider diving in and taking part in civic engagement in your city:
Voting – Your vote matters. We’ve all heard it before, but it bears repeating. Few forms of civic engagement are more empowering than taking part in democracy and casting your ballot on election day. Stay informed, make sure you’re registered, and help your community put responsible, service-minded people into elected office.
Serving on nonprofit boards: A nonprofit needs strong leadership if it’s going to have a big impact in the community it serves. By joining a board, you can help guide a nonprofit’s executive director to success. All you need to do is volunteer your time and expertise, and act as an ambassador to the organization’s cause in the community.
Protest: There are few things more inspiring than seeing young people exercising their right to assemble and speak truth to power. From DREAMers fighting to safely live in the country they call home, to teenagers taking to the streets in protest of the nation’s lax gun laws, time and again youth in America have led the way for change. The power of protest is real.
Volunteerism: Help build a house with Habitat for Humanity. Serve a meal at an emergency homeless shelter. Assist patients and visitors at your local hospital. Even if you already serve on a nonprofit board, there is nothing quite like going out in your community and volunteering. You’ll meet new people, learn new things and remember why it is you fight for the things you do. Volunteerism can also open up opportunities to share your passions with the community. Are you an art enthusiast? Organize a public art show!
Civic engagement ultimately benefits both you and your community. Your voice matters, and your experiences can help shape the conversation. So get out there and make yourself a part of the discussion, a part of the solution, and see for yourself the impact you’ll have.