Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in the national AIA SpeakUp conference that was hosted here in Denver. The purpose of the conference was to give participants a crash course in what it means to advocate and lobby for the architecture profession. At a hotel ball room in downtown Denver, I met dozens of architects, designers, lobbyists, and AIA staff members from across the country as we attempted to learn the ropes of what it means to advocate for our profession.
Now that I am a handful of months removed from the conference, I’ve taken the knowledge gained over those three days and apply it to the rest of my AIA life. So, I figured now was as good a time as any to attempt to share my impressions with more than the few people who have had to listen to me over the last few months.
One of the first things that dawned on me at the conference is that advocacy exists on a spectrum. There are some people that will be willing to go up on the hill and testify in front of Congress and there are those that would like to sign a petition once in a while and move on. While having experts available to meet face to face with Representatives and Senators is vital, also having a large pool of architects who are willing to mobilize for a cause is the foundation of a robust advocacy effort. If people care about their profession then they need an avenue where they can direct their attention.
Which brings me to my next point: people need a variety of ways to get involved and be invested. The more focused options that are available to people, the more the base of people willing to help will grow. Here in Colorado, our AIA chapter has a variety of methods that are already in place. We have a full time lobbyist who works tirelessly on the hill standing up on behalf of architects. We have a full time staff member whose role it is to manage and direct all things related to state government affairs and how it relates to architects. The Government Affairs Committee sifts through the hundreds of bills that come through the state congress every session and helps to direct AIA Colorado’s position on those bills and issues. And finally, the local advocacy directors serve as the conduit between the state board, AIA Colorado, and local members. However, most of these efforts require something beyond volunteers and time commitments. They require funding.
Political Action Committees (PACs) are the backbone for AIA advocacy efforts. These exist on a federal and state level and the funds are allocated accordingly. The bipartisan group identifies candidates, existing members of congress, bills, causes, and efforts that we as architects can get behind and whose support can benefit us from a policy level. Regardless of your feelings on such groups, they are part of the political landscape and it is critical that we as architects are able to have a seat at the table. Even our small donations can make a long lasting impact on candidates and policy makers. In fact, these small donations, especially ones handed from an architect to a politician (instead of being given by a lobbyist), can have one of the most meaningful impacts for our efforts. One of the sayings that most resonated with me at SpeakUp was from a staff member at AIA National: “if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu”.
Finally, from a purely logistical standpoint, I realized that it is crucial to provide small victories and milestone goals. Often, our greatest advocates are not people that are paid to do it, but are ordinary AIA members who volunteer their time. However, these efforts are only sustainable if they are maintained. It’s easy to rally around a cause in short bursts, but keeping that effort up over the long haul is a big ask. It’s critical to set smaller and attainable goals on the way to the larger goal so that we don’t burn out our volunteer efforts. Quick and achievable wins are the surest way to keep people engaged and helps to build a solid base of volunteers and advocates.
In the coming year, AIA Colorado and AIA National will be focusing even more on our advocacy efforts, especially on a state level since that is where most of us can have the greatest influence. I would urge you all to take a look at existing programs and tools (and, of course, make a contribution to the PAC), and to keep your eyes out for more opportunities in the near future. The best way to make your voice heard is to reach out. The greater our base, the larger our resources and the louder our voices become. We just have to be willing to speak up, first. (See that? See what I did there?)