Reflections on this year's retreats from Program Officer Erin Lloyd
As we head into preparations for the selection of the 2015 Switzer Fellows (a most exciting time of year for us here!), I have paused for a moment to reflect on the gatherings we’ve had this year with our 2014 Fellows.
The 2014 Fellows are the first cohort that has been required to attend two retreats during their Fellowship year: the fall retreat, which offered a workshop on personal leadership skills and awareness, and the recent spring retreat, which focused on a policy communications training. In the fall we looked inward at the personal traits that can help us as leaders, in the spring we looked outward as we thought about how to communicate with others. We’ve hit upon a terrific series of trainings for our Fellows, and we look forward to continuing to work with our partners at Rockwood Leadership Institute and COMPASS to offer these critical leadership skills trainings.
Another important “first” for this year was that we convened all of the 2014 Fellows in one place for the spring retreat. As I am writing this now it’s hard to believe we hadn’t done this before, but the focus on a policy communications training opened up some interesting opportunities. For one, it led us to consider meeting in Washington, DC – neutral territory for everyone, and what better place to learn to communicate with decision makers? Our trainers at COMPASS are based in DC and have deep connections with the policy community there, which benefitted us greatly in terms of panel speakers and ability to navigate the Capitol Hill culture as Fellows made arrangements to meet with legislative staff on the Hill, or agency or NGO policy staff in DC. We are still in the process of receiving feedback from Fellows who participated in the training, but so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive about this experience. Fellows worked incredibly hard over January and February to hone their message and pinpoint to whom they wanted to bring that message in our nation’s capital. The workshop culminated with our two days in DC on March 1st and 2nd, and on the last day everyone went out to meet with their Hill representatives and deliver the message they’d worked so hard on over the past two months. See our photo album, and reflections from our COMPASS trainers and Fellows about the workshop!
Learning how to communicate with policymakers is an invaluable experience even for Fellows who have no intention of working in the policy arena. When you learn to speak, as an expert, to a policymaker, you are in fact learning how to do several critical things, including: knowing your audience and speaking to them accordingly (i.e., an audience not well-versed in your issue); and knowing how to deliver a clear and concise message that gets right to the point and quickly tells your audience why they should care. Practicing these skills in the DC environment, where meetings may be held in busy hallways while the listener is multi-tasking and sometimes traveling to their next meeting, is in many ways baptism by fire. But it represents a consistent challenge faced by action-oriented scientists and experts (like Switzer Fellows!) who try to bring their message to the public – we are a society that is multi-tasking and that is short on time and attention. Successful communicators need to speak to people where they are, and need to be able to impart an important message clearly and efficiently.
As I listened to the Fellow participants (2014 Fellows and several Fellow alums) over the course of our two days together in DC, I heard new friendships and professional connections being made between California and New England Fellows, and saw seeds for potential future collaboration being sown. Our Network was strengthened by bringing the New England and California cohort together, and by introducing them to local Fellow alums at our Sunday brunch. We look forward to planning future spring retreats not only as educational opportunities, but important networking ones as well. Thank you to all the Fellows who came to our Sunday brunch, and to all who worked so hard and did such a fantastic job in DC!