This summer marks the sixth year Disability Network has offered Advocacy Academy—an eight-week paid internship program for young adults that features experiential advocacy training. Each year, six young adults with disabilities are selected through an interview process to participate in Advocacy Academy. Additionally, one former Advocacy Academy graduate is selected as a mentor for the team.
The group spends the first weeks of the internship learning about the disability rights movement and the role of advocacy in creating change. Through consensus, the group self-selects a disability-related issue they will work on over the remainder of the internship. They develop an advocacy plan and work toward implementing the plan. Depending on how involved the topic or the advocacy plan is, sometimes the end goal cannot be achieved within the time frame of the program. Advocacy is a long, involved process and we tell the interns they shouldn’t expect to resolve the entire issue they’re addressing during their eight-week internship. The goal of Advocacy Academy is to give the interns experience and teach them valuable skills. As far as their project goals are concerned, at the very least, awareness of the issue will be raised, and that’s always the first step in effecting change.
With that said, some of the past projects have succeeded in doing far more than raising awareness. One group met with state legislators and got a bill to the senate floor; another group developed and implemented an emergency preparedness plan for a Senior Housing Center and educated the local fire department on the unique needs of evacuating people with disabilities. Each year it seems a couple of the interns become impassioned with the issue they are working on and vow to stay connected to the cause and pursue it on their own.
Each year the Advocacy Academy interns travel to Lansing for a day to visit the State Capital and meet with legislators from our region.
In addition to learning about disability rights and the advocacy process, the interns learn other valuable skills such as working in a team setting, group communication, and basic workplace etiquette and conduct. Advocacy Academy becomes a great addition to their resumes and gives them confidence to take that next step to employment.
We have stayed in touch with a number of the Advocacy Academy graduates over the years; several have moved on to jobs and/or post- or secondary educational settings. A couple of the interns became interested in pursuing politics; one is now working at her state representative’s office and another is in Washington D.C. working on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Leadership Intern.
Every year, we rely on funding from the community to ensure we can offer Advocacy Academy. This year we are grateful for the support of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Fetzer Institute and Youth United Way.