Cover Story

It’s been a discordant year for many Americans. According to APA’s 2017 Stress in America survey, some 63 percent of Americans report that they feel distressed over the future of the country, citing specific worries about social divisiveness, the state of health care and the government’s trustworthiness. The good news: Americans are doing something about it. Fifty-nine percent said they had taken civic action in the past year, such as volunteering and signing petitions. Want to take a stand for causes that are important to you and to the field of psychology? Here are eight ways to get started.

1. Take it to your lawmakers

Take it to your lawmakersConnecting with your lawmakers may seem daunting, but an important part of these officials’ jobs is making themselves accessible to constituents. On APA’s new advocacy website (www.apa.org/advocacy/index.aspx), you can find out who your members of Congress and state and local officials are, how to connect with them and what policy issues are most important to them. APA advocacy experts offer these additional tips to help maximize your impact:

Sign up for APA alerts. APA’s Federal Action Network issues action alerts when Congress is considering issues of importance to psychology. To receive email reminders, which will guide you to call or email members of Congress at critical moments, visit http://advocate.apa.org. The alerts provide key messages to deliver, or you can personalize messages to share your knowledge of how an issue may affect your state or district.

Think locally. Make sure that the issues you bring to your member of Congress are important in his or her state or district. And consider meeting your elected officials on their home turf, says Karen Studwell, JD, APA’s associate executive director for the Education Government Relations Office. “They’ll be easier to reach in their district offices than in Washington, and they’ll have more time to spend with you,” she says.

Tap staff, too. Cultivate relationships with congressional staff—they can be your biggest allies, says APA Senior Policy Advisor Ellen Garrison, PhD.

“They serve as the eyes and ears of their members, who often rely on them heavily for recommendations on legislative matters,” she says.

Stay engaged. A common obstacle to getting involved in advocacy is the belief that your efforts won’t make a difference. Override that reaction by taking small steps. Start with an email or phone call, and work up to bigger things. Once you start, you’ll probably be hooked. Studwell says: “When people see that their actions have an impact, it motivates them.”

2. Volunteer for a cause or a candidate

Volunteer for a cause or a candidateVolunteering is a great way to dip your toe into the political process. If you wonder whether volunteers can really make a difference, look no further than the 2017 Democratic victories in the Virginia State Assembly. Analysts and advocacy organizations including Emily’s List credited the Democrats’ success in large part to the unprecedented number of volunteers who mobilized to help get out the vote.

Volunteerism takes many forms. It can be as short term as joining a one-day event such as the Women’s March, or as extensive as working for the length of a candidate’s campaign. And many find it highly rewarding. “Volunteering for a political campaign is very different from what psychologists typically do,” says Garrison. “You’re working with a whole network of people who share your values and interests. You’re branching out into new territory and getting new experience. And you are personally involved in making a difference.”

Use your expertise. Depending on your circumstances, you can also offer psychological services as a volunteer, Garrison adds. If appropriate, practicing psychologists might provide stress-management strategies to campaign staff, for example. Or, industrial-organizational psychologists might help candidates set up their offices, choose staff and reward their employees’ good performance.

3. Run for office

Psychologists’ strong analytical and communication skills, as well as their commitment to the public, make them prime candidates for public office, says Rep. Alan Lowenthal, PhD (D-Calif.), one of two psychologists in the U.S. Congress. When interacting with constituents, he draws heavily upon his professional experience listening to and empowering community members as a psychologist. “Building relationships —a skill critical in psychology—plays an important part in my work in Washington,” Lowenthal says. Such skills transfer well to any public office at the national, state or local level.

4. Publish an op-ed

Publish an op-edIf writing is your forte, consider penning an op-ed for a newspaper or an online forum. Follow these strategies for the best chance to get your editorial published:

  • Connect your article to current news events.
  • Tailor the article to the community you are writing for. If you are writing for a national audience, make sure the op-ed has broad appeal.
  • Write in engaging, jargon-free language.
  • Consider a range of outlets—including top-tier publications such as The New York Times, your local newspaper, news websites including The Huffington Post or magazines such as Time.
  • Read the publication you are targeting to understand its style, and be sure to determine the publication’s word-length restrictions.
  • Finally, ask a layperson to critique your article to ensure that it’s accessible to the general public. If it passes inspection, send it to the editor.

5. Raise your voice on social media

Raise your voice on social mediaAt a town hall meeting in 2015, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush made the mistake of disparaging the importance of psychology degrees, saying that students with such liberal arts degrees would have limited career options.

In response, former APA Board of Directors member Ali Mattu, PhD, a cognitive-behavioral therapist and assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center, launched #ThisPsychMajor, a Twitter campaign featuring early career psychologists who spelled out what their education had allowed them to do, such as helping people overcome debilitating anxiety and counseling young people against suicide.

Mattu, who also hosts a YouTube series called “The Psych Show,” is just one of the psychologists using social media to advance the field’s messages, says Alicia Aebersold, chief communications officer at APA.

“Social media outreach like Dr. Mattu’s Twitter campaign allows you to gather with others who believe what you believe and raise your collective voice—exactly what you need for effective advocacy,” she says.

Harness the power of personality. If you are interested in using these tools, Aebersold recommends developing a distinctive voice and using social media to reinforce your perspective—in who you follow or connect with, and in what you share.

“These media take away old-school gatekeepers and put the power in your hands,” says Aebersold. “And, they’re free and easy to learn—worthy tools for your advocacy toolbox.”

6. Support advocacy by your students

Support advocacy by your studentsPsychology faculty have a tremendous opportunity to advance key psychological issues by mobilizing their students. They can, for example:

Help the community. One way to fuel such advocacy is to make community involvement an integral part of undergraduate coursework, known as “engaged scholarship.” In APA’s new book, “Making Research Matter: A Psychologist’s Guide to Public Engagement” (2017), Jamie ­Franco-Zamudio, PhD, and Regina Langhout, PhD, advise that faculty seek out organizations whose work relates to their students’ coursework and that have the capacity to supervise students. Ideally, ­such projects should contribute to student learning as well as benefit the host organization—for example, having students help develop psychology curricula for local high schools or conduct surveys for community health organizations to help improve their services.

Mobilize the students. Some psychologists help students get organized and support their activism campaigns. Lisa Flores, PhD, who directs the counseling psychology program at the University of Missouri, backed students who protested racial injustice on their campus in 2015 by providing opportunities to share their concerns in small group forums and at larger town hall meetings.

Faculty can also urge their students to subscribe to APA’s Federal Action Network, and to take advantage of the advocacy tool kit of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students at www.apa.org/apags/resources/advocacy.

7. Serve as an APA fellow

Dr. Amber A. Hewitt, recent APA FellowFor a direct hand in shaping national policy, apply for one of APA’s fellowships, which enable psychologists to work with Congress or in an executive branch agency. 

Through APA’s Congressional Fellowships, psychologists work with members of Congress or congressional committees. Specialty fellowships include the Catherine Acuff Fellowship for midcareer and senior psychologists; the William A. Bailey Health and Behavior Fellowship for psychologists with backgrounds in health disparities, HIV/AIDS or LGBT health; and the Jacquelin Goldman Congressional Fellowship, funded by the American Psychological Foundation and geared toward developmental or clinical psychologists who work with children.

In addition, APA’s Executive Branch Science Fellowships for psychological researchers offer opportunities to shape science policy in federal agencies.

For more information, visit www.apa.org/advocacy/index.aspx#fellowships.

8. Become a citizen psychologist

Become a citizen psychologistPsychologists, by nature, seek to serve the public good. That’s why so many volunteer for causes such as the American Red Cross, serve on school boards and local committees, and otherwise lend their expertise beyond their everyday careers. APA President Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD—who dubs these psychologists “Citizen Psychologists”—has made it a presidential priority to quantify and honor such work and to develop training resources to help guide such efforts.

“My dream is that the APA Citizen Psychologist concept will be infused into the discipline through education at all levels—from high school to lifelong learning,” says Daniel. “It is important to me that this concept of service to the public good endures as an integral part of APA’s future.”

Through the project, Daniel will:

  • Gather data on the roles psychologists are engaged in as Citizen Psychologists and use that information to show how the field advances society beyond the confines of their offices. To take the survey, go to http://bit.ly/apapcsurvey.
  • Develop educational materials to help teach psychologists and psychology students across the life span about the ways they can serve as successful APA Citizen Psychologists.
  • Recognize Citizen Psychologist leaders through APA presidential citations.

For more information about the Citizen Psychologist initiative, go to www.apa.org/about/governance/citizen-­psychologist/default.aspx.