Don’t Be A Marshmallow: My Experience with Advocacy

“Your child is bright. He could grow up to become the President of the United States.” I was in the fifth grade when I heard those words from my teacher. Because my parents spoke only Spanish, I was asked to be the translator at my own parent-teacher conference. I relayed the words to my parents with mixed emotions. I was proud hearing them, but also troubled. I knew at an early age I could never become the President of the United States—I was an undocumented immigrant. Yes, I was bright and I had goals and ambitions, but I was uncertain whether I could ever reach them. Through hard work and perseverance, my family earned our permanent resident card and, in 2009, we became U.S. citizens.

I have seen first-hand how policy initiatives can represent both obstacles and opportunities for disadvantaged and diverse individuals. Fortunately for me, my early experiences sparked an enduring passion to help these groups, both on an individual and societal level.

Over the past two years I’ve had the privilege of participating in visits to “the Hill” (Capitol Hill) where I’ve spoken about the benefits of the Graduate Psychology Education (GPE) Program. The GPE Program is the nation’s primary federal program dedicated to funding the training of doctoral-level psychologists. Graduate students and interns are trained in interprofessional collaboration and learn how to provide behavioral and mental health services to vulnerable and underserved populations. The GPE program is a great fit with my personal and career goals of helping underrepresented groups receive cost-effective, evidence-based health care services.

I distinctly remember my first Hill visit, mainly because I was a ball of nerves! Though I had the passion to be involved in policy work, I wasn’t sure where to begin. As a graduate student in clinical psychology, I was taught about the science and practice of psychology, but here I was treading new waters, trying to connect my knowledge base to policy issues and efforts. Before I got involved in this kind of work, I found advocacy intimidating. I thought, “Can I contribute to these discussions? Will Senators and Representatives listen to what I have to say? Can I make a meaningful difference?” Fortunately, the answer to all three questions was YES.

Prior to the Hill visits, Sheila Lane Forsyth and Alexandra Ginsberg from APA’s Education Government Relations Office provided excellent training on how to translate my knowledge and experience into a story­ that can connect with congressional staffers, Senators, and Representatives. After training, I was more confident that I had something to contribute to these discussions. Most importantly, I learned that my lived experiences and my work as a behavioral health consultant were compelling talking points.

When we arrived at the Hill, I felt a mix of emotions. I felt grateful to have the opportunity and I felt excited to meet my state’s congress people. I was in awe as I walked through the corridors and hallways where history has been made. I also felt, once more, a bit terrified. I was worried that I would not be an effective advocate, but those fears and worries disappeared after my first meeting. It was affirming (and cool!) to see that congressional staffers and congress people were interested in my message. Staffers were very cordial and had many questions about the GPE program and how it affected lives in my local community. The in-person meeting helped me develop a personal relationship with each office we visited and helped put a face to each request we made. In fact, I have continued to have follow-up contact with congressional offices even after my visit to DC.

Of course, I was ecstatic to learn later that Congress supported APA’s request for additional GPE funding! I know that I was just one small part of this effort, but my experience with advocacy taught me we can make a meaningful difference!

It was quite the lesson: That we psychologists can have an impact on a much larger, societal level. We can advance the science and practice of psychology by informing key policy makers about ways to have a positive impact on human welfare.

On my latest visit to the Hill, I had a chance to tour the Smithsonian, in particular the National Portrait Gallery. I was drawn to an exhibit on Dolores Huerta, a Latina civil rights activist who was a strong advocate for the rights of farm workers, labor unions, and women. It was a marvelous exhibit and featured this quote, which has had a profound effect on me:

Don’t be a marshmallow.
Walk the street with us into history.
Get off the sidewalk.
Work for justice

This is a call for all of us to be engaged in advocacy. As psychologists, helping people should also include promoting human rights and calling for social justice. I will never be the President of the United States, but I can do my part to help raise awareness about the value of psychology as a science and how it can be used improve the lives of those who are often overlooked and in need.

About the Author

Juventino Hernandez Rodriguez, M. A.
Juventino is a rising fifth-year graduate student in the PhD Clinical Psychology Program at the University of Arkansas. Juventino is also an APA MFP Fellow. His research interests include cultural and contextual processes on Latino youth’s mental health. He is also interested in building and evaluating community- and school-based prevention programs for at-risk youth and their families. His clinical interests are in evidence-based psychosocial therapies for children and families in community-based settings.