October 7, 2019

How to Advocate for Veterans’ Issues (and Everything Else!)

Kevin Hull speaking at patient empowerment projectKevin Hull likes to say that his nonprofit has a charter mission in advocacy. He runs the West Side Institute for Science and Education (WISE), based at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. And he’s all about advocacy – doing it, helping others do it, and teaching people how to do it well. He even believes that being a capable advocate helps one empower their spirit from within, especially when times are tough.

Hull is also a law professor. For the last 12 years, he has taught the art of legislative draftsmanship – that is, writing proposed new laws or, in some cases, agency regulations – at UIC John Marshall Law School. Prior to that, he was a staff attorney for the Illinois General Assembly down in Springfield. He’s seen, and been involved with, some remarkable legislative efforts, including helping guide the state’s anti-terrorism response following passage of the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11. As a result of his experiences, he is deeply familiar with not only how to craft legislative language, but also how to be successful at getting it enacted.

So we’re very grateful that he joined us on one of our recent podcasts to talk about what he has learned over his years as an advocate. We wanted to share some highlights from that episode.

A longtime activist on veterans’ issues, Kevin has teamed with us on several projects. He served on the expert panel of our patient empowerment project, which trained a group of individuals with spinal cord injury to have a voice in guiding medical research around the condition, to better reflect the interests and concerns of those who are living with it. He is also a participant in the Women Veterans Roundtable, a collaborative of community members committed to serving women veterans.

What makes an effective advocate? Well, Hull believes you first have to be passionate about an issue. Not “veteran’s rights” or “climate change” – those are topics. Issues need to be specific. Legislators pay the most attention to input from constituents when it’s about an upcoming vote, or about something that’s in the news that matters back in the district. To organize effectively, you ultimately need a call to action that people can respond to.

To find these specific, concrete things to rally around, you need to be as informed as possible: you have to not only read the newspaper and policy-driven blogs, but you also have to actually go to community gatherings and stay connected to the cause (including by signing up for these newsletters and sharing relevant podcasts with your friends).

“First thing I’m doing in any situation – whether in a meeting, at an event, or simply networking – is listening,” Hull said. It was by listening at the Women Veterans Roundtable that he seized on the idea to have his student draft initial language for a resolution in favor of requiring healthcare providers to ask patients if they have served in the military. Since the passage of the CHOICE Act and more recently the MISSION Act, more and more veterans are getting their care outside the VA. Women veterans were sharing how important it is for their healthcare providers to be aware of veteran-specific issues that might be present, perhaps most especially trauma-informed care. The Illinois Senate passed a version of the measure in the Spring 2019 session.

It is the accompanying memo that other lawmakers will actually look at – no more than three pages, easy to read, complete with subheadings and good citations, a listing of who is for and against it, and why, and analysis on perhaps the most important question: “why now?”

Listening has led to a number of the issues he’s been involved with. When service members were returning from the 2004-05 conflicts, for example, “there was all this noise coming out of the community” as many were having trouble with their disability claims and in getting accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps. Those years were a hotbed of veteran’s issues, but it was hard to find attorneys to step forward to handle the cases.

Other issues he’s watching – like redistricting, cannabis, and access to experimental treatments – come from his own experiences “not only law school and working for the state legislature, but also being a cancer survivor.” Hull was diagnosed with testicular cancer several years ago. Now cancer-free, he still has to get pre-clearance for his hormone replacement therapy procedures four times a year. That gives him some unique insights into the healthcare system and the complicated world of insurance and coverage – which is completely different than the single-payer system of both the Department of Defense and the VA. (We will definitely be checking back with him as things evolve in healthcare!)

Hull coaches once you have an issue identified, explore how the issue came to be, assessing the shapes and structures of it. “I go up[stream], he says, “and try to look at the regs, or the language, and figure out what’s the history of that language.” Laws and regulations come from a process – often involving multiple amendments that reflect compromises and tradeoffs – and seeing how they came to be enacted, and how they are being implemented, can provide important clues about what your advocacy campaign will be up against, and what challenges it may face, especially in an election year.

And of course, you want to “see who else is already on that ship” and what they are up to. “You gotta know who’s already out there. Because if you’re not already up to speed on something, you will want to jump into someone else’s operation that is, and contribute that way.”

And then go help. “Go and engage them, offer value, see what you can do.” It’s important, he says, to just be present. Through undergrad and into law school, he volunteered at local candidates’ offices, stuffing envelopes and walking precincts. “By showing up and doing a good job on what you pledge to do, you can start to make something of a presence for yourself.” For example, you could research how other jurisdictions have addressed the issue. “Once you develop your presence, if you’re adding value, usually you’ll be picked for the team – and that’s a great place to be, to continue to make an impact.”

If you show yourself to be a problem-solver showing up with a plan for a solution, and you’re in position to help effectuate that – “well who knows, you might have somebody invite you to work at their shop, because they want all of those things to happen too – and boom! you’ve created your own job!” This is, in fact, how Hull got more than one of his jobs, including the one as a legislative staffer in Springfield. He had been tracking bills and writing synopses for committees that interested him at the Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyer’s Section while in law school – in 1998, the ILGA website was a lot less user-friendly – and one thing just led to another.

In the legal writing class he offers, he helps apprenticing law students apply those kinds of insights to the issues of today. His students have to put together legislative packages that just might get introduced and voted upon. This brings one of the rewards of advocacy – the thrill. “One of the thrills of being a staffer, and then teaching this class,” says Hull, “is that the actual language we’re coming up with makes it into the proposal.” His students have drafted several things that have made it into proposals, including one bill that required notice to be given to tenants being evicted from a building that’s in foreclosure, and an ordinance to prevent landlords in Cook County from discriminating against holders of Section 8 vouchers.

But the biggest deal is not even the language of the bill itself – it’s the package of materials, such as the cover memo, bill analysis, and one-page talking points that accompany it. As he learned under his mentor Rob Uhe, who was chief counsel to the speaker in those years, it is the accompanying memo that other lawmakers will actually look at – no more than three pages, easy to read, complete with subheadings and good citations, a listing of who is for and against it, and why, and analysis on perhaps the most important question: “why now?” After countless re-writes, this package is what his students have to turn in at the end of the semester. Hull cites to the success his former students have achieved in pursuing careers in advocacy and policy positions upon graduation. The work product they generate through the class serves as compelling writing samples in getting their first interviews – and making sure you create such a package for your issue a big word to the wise for any aspiring advocate.

Speaking of wise, Hull’s organization is an interesting story in itself. WISE manages the external research project portfolio for Jesse Brown when the hospital collaborates with its university partners. It’s one of 77 such nonprofit institutions across the country, created in the early 1990s to serve as flexible funding mechanisms for bio-medical research at VA hospitals.

They have their own association – NAVREF, the National Association of Veterans’ Research and Education Foundations. Every other year, NAVREF goes to Washington to meet with congressional members and staff. Among its accomplishments were gaining authority for the nonprofits to administer educational activities to VA employees as well as veterans and families; and structuring the transition from the old clinical trial contracts with collaborators to a standardized Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to promote efficiency in contracting across multiple sites. One of its current advocacy issues is the Access to Clinical Trials initiative, working to get veterans to enroll in industry-funded clinical trials. On off years, the nonprofits take turns hosting a gathering – this year it was San Antonio – where they meet and work on their advocacy agenda, share best practices, and meet with VA leadership.

Hull always encourages people to become advocates – even if it’s in a small way, in their neighborhood. Because it’s not just good to be useful. It’s also good for you.

“You could wind up finding a particular talent, a particular issue, and with it, you find a role. … Once you have a role, and people are valuing that role, you can be more in tune with your own self – and certainly it’s a mindful position that truly creates an advocate. With that strength, you can go out and be someone else’s advocate.”

We can’t think of much that’s more desirable in times like these.

You can hear more of Kevin’s thoughts and advice on the podcast, where he talks in more detail about how to be effective as an advocate, and how great that can make you feel.

It’s just one example of the kinds of stories we want to bring you – stories of people making and driving policy, how they do it, and stories of how those policies impact people on the ground. Because – as advocates of all sorts know – without stories you’re not going to get someone’s attention. This is what our SoundCloud channel – How Policy Works – is all about. We hope you will enjoy these podcasts – but also that you will be inspired, perhaps enough to jot your notes down while at the kitchen table, and then attend a town hall in your neighborhood, volunteer for a local candidate, or even join us as a guest on the podcast!

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