Recently, Profiles Editor Holly Rizzuto Palker interviewed Lisa L. Lewis for our July/August issue (On Being a Teen Sleep Advocate: A Conversation with Lisa L. Lewis). Lewis is the author of The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help Them Thrive, described as “a call to action” by Arianna Huffington and “an urgent and timely read” by Daniel H. Pink. The book is an outgrowth of her previous work on the topic, including her role helping get California’s landmark law on healthy school start times passed. During that interview, Lewis offered to share a few tips for Literary Mama readers on how mothers can become activists in our own communities.
Many of us write because we feel driven to do so. We hope to spark a connection: to reach someone who might feel the same way, to move them, perhaps even to inspire change. But we don’t really know what will happen after we send our words out into the world.
That was certainly the case when I first started writing about the 7:30 a.m. start time at my son’s high school several years ago. Then, in 2016, a Los Angeles Times op-ed I’d written, Why school should start later in the day, caught the attention of one of our California state senators. I got swept up in a 2 ½ year legislative journey that led to the first law of its scope in the entire country, requiring California’s public high schools to start at 8:30 a.m. or later and its middle schools at 8 a.m. or later. And then, as an outgrowth of that experience, I ended up writing a book.
When I first started writing about teen sleep and school start times, I had no idea where it would lead. I assumed that my writing might help raise visibility for the topic, but that it existed on a separate plane: related, but at a remove from my local efforts to help change our high school start times in my community. My experience was a powerful reminder that writing is activism. Not only did it alter my own plans for how I’d be advocating for later start times, it connected me with others who felt the same way.
That said, it also pushed me far outside of my comfort zone. I was far more comfortable sitting at a desk than speaking in public! Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way:
Connect with others in your community. Getting involved and advocating for change may seem daunting. But you don’t have to go it alone! Coordinating your efforts with others in your community is more efficient and more effective. “It’s really about building a movement,” Christina Holt, who directs the Community Tool Box at the University of Kansas, told me. “What one person can do is so much different than what a group of
individuals banded together [with] a common interest can do.”
Focus on your strengths, and seek out others with complementary skills. Given my background, I developed briefing materials and reached out to education reporters around the state. Others who volunteered their time to help with the bill’s passage had different backgrounds and other strengths.
Get comfortable doing advocacy work. Seek out resources that can help you develop new skills. The Community Tool Box is a terrific one. It’s a free online resource for bringing about social change and has guidance on developing presentation materials, preparing ahead of time, and even handling sticky situations during the question-and-answer period. There’s also a comprehensive “Learn a Skill” section covering everything from planning an advocacy campaign to honing specific skills like writing letters to school board members.
Be persistent, and be flexible! In many ways, advocacy work is a lot like freelance writing: when you’re seeking a change, you may hear “no” a lot before you hear “yes,” or you may not hear back at all. If you don’t get a response, keep following up. And do the same if you don’t get a positive response. Focus on building awareness by showing up at meetings or starting an online group—whatever makes sense for you and for the cause you’re working on. Reach out to others for ideas. And keep spreading the word: If one tactic doesn’t work, try a different one, such as sharing information about new studies. Be attuned to new possibilities as they present themselves.
While all of these aspects were directly relevant during my own journey, these last two were particularly critical. There were so many points along the way where it would have been easier not to keep going! And, as I’ve noted, my experience advocating for this issue unfolded in ways I never would have anticipated. Through it all, though, I’ve kept writing. I hope you’ll do the same. By doing so, you are helping make a difference.
Partially adapted from The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help Them Thrive (Mango Publishing, 2022)
Lisa L. Lewis is the author of The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, And How Parents And Schools Can Help Them Thrive, described as “a call to action” by Arianna Huffington and “an urgent and timely read” by Daniel H. Pink. The book is an outgrowth of her previous work on the topic, including her role helping get California’s landmark law on healthy school start times passed. Lewis has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and others. She’s a parent to a teen and a recent teen and lives in Southern California.