Homework assignment: Engage local leaders as advocates

Margo PedrosoSince the release of the Senate transportation bill back in November, we have faced the specter of a transportation bill in which state departments of transportation would make the sole decisions about whether to dedicate any funding to Safe Routes to School, bicycling and walking.

Late last week we got the welcome news that the Cardin-Cochran amendment was incorporated into the Senate bill, ensuring that local governments and schools can compete for these important projects. 

While we have a brief reprieve in Congressional action, I wanted to take time to reflect on what we can learn from the Cardin-Cochran amendment.  In my view, a key takeaway is that we mobilized leaders at all levels of government to call their Senators to advocate for a small say in transportation project decisions.

This fight has shown how important it is to build relationships with policymakers at the local level.  These relationships come into play in your day-to-day ability to pursue your Safe Routes to School initiatives. 

Your local mayor or city council representative make decisions about transportation projects, sidewalk policies for developers, and local funding.  Your school board member or superintendant can apply for Safe Routes to School projects, add traffic safety to the school curricula, and make decisions about where schools are sited. 

In addition to their direct role in Safe Routes to School, these leaders can also be a powerful advocate in reaching out to Congress.  Members of Congress are likely to take that call from a local mayor or school board member, and to give their views additional weight--because they are closest to the needs of their constituents. 

My big lesson from the Cardin-Cochran amendment is that building allies among leaders in your local government and school system is absolutely critical to Safe Routes to School locally and nationally.  So my homework assignment to you is to go out and recruit a new policymaker as your advocate. 

Do a little research to identify what is important to that policymaker.  Safety?  Childhood obesity?  Saving money?  Reducing traffic?  Whatever it is, we likely have a publication or a fact sheet that can help you sell Safe Routes to School to that leader.  Make the pitch, invite them to participate in a Safe Routes to School event, and keep in touch as your program progresses.

Then, when we face another challenge like this in the future, and we put out a call to action, you can contact your Member of Congress.  And, you can also reach out to that local leader and ask him or her to make that very important phone call.  That is how we will make sure we have wins like this again in the future.