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Friday
Jan252013

« BUILDING A GRASSROOTS NETWORK »

Let’s face it: getting involved in political advocacy isn’t something that everyone is dialed-in to. 

It’s not for everyone — it’s not for people who don’t want their voice heard, it’s not for those willing to let others direct their future, and it’s not for anyone who cares about dentistry. For the rest of you, however, it’s imperative.

Many of you will find your political footing at the WSDA’s Dental Action Day (this year’s event is January 25, falling right about when this issue hits) — and for all five of the people profiled here, it’s one of the places they got their feet wet. But as important as Dental Action Day is, true political advocates know that the real work is done throughout the year — networking in coffee shops, private homes, and town hall meetings —face-to-face connections that help establish dentists as experts in their field. We spoke with Dr. Rob Merrill, Dr. Marissa Bender, Drs. Josh and Lindsey Papac, and Dr. Robin Henderson (along with her husband Scott) — each at a different point in their dental career and their advocacy journey — to talk about what they’re doing on behalf of dentistry, and why they got involved in the first place. 

Dr. Rob Merrill
Merrill, an orthodontist in private practice since 1990, may have said it best when he said “A lot of times, when people go to see legislators they have their hands out — they want money for this, or money for that. I’ve always strived to be different, by being there primarily as a resource — not asking them to do anything besides listen to me, and by bringing something to them that they consider valuable.”

Merrill first came to understand the role of advocacy in 1994, while attending a lecture given by Michael Dunn at the American Association of Orthodontists’ annual meeting. “He was talking about the importance of being involved in grassroots politics,” said Merrill, “And he said something like ‘If you’re not at the table when decisions about your future are being made, you’ll be on the menu.’” Not content to be someone’s entreé, Merrill decided to begin his advocacy journey when he returned to his home in Washington’s 12th Legislative District. Prior to that, he’d met with legislators at component society meetings and written the occasional letter, but upon his return he rang up Doc Hastings, his 4th Congressional District congressman, and asked to meet. (Note: The 12th legislative district is part of the 4th congressional district; 12th is state, 4th is federal.) The meeting could well have been uncomfortable— Merrill had supported Hastings’ opponent in the previous election — but Merrill led with his desire to become involved in the process and be a resource for Hastings, and everything went smoothly. 

Today, Merrill still meets with his legislators at Dental Action Day every two or three years — even though the trip from his East Wenatchee home takes five hours. “It’s quite a slog to get over there,” he says, “But it was one of the things that Denny Homer really encouraged us to do — even if we couldn’t do it every year. I probably go every two to three years — more so in recent years. It’s important for us to go because that’s where the legislators are working. They know that you’ve taken time out of your office or away from your family to talk about dental issues. They’re going to make time to see you. It’s insufficient if that’s the only contact you have with your legislator, though.” 

To that end, Merrill makes sure he gets face time with many of them throughout the year — scheduling coffee or lunch with them, and hosting and attending fundraisers. Sometimes, Merrill sees legislators at other local events, and he uses each opportunity to reconnect with them. This summer, for instance, one of the local homeless shelters was dedicating new temporary housing for families. Merrill was at the dedication, as were Sen. Parlette and Rep. Condatta — and Merrill took opportunity to talk with them about dental issues. He says, “If we are involved within our communities — as we should be — we will have opportunities to rub shoulders with our legislators because they want to be out among their constituents. I also meet with them privately, if I have a DentPAC check to give them. Additionally, if there’s a dental issue that comes up during the session, I will email them 3-4 times over the course of the year.” And while that may sound daunting to some, the way Merrill breaks it down makes sense. He explains, “There are people who think they can’t get to know their legislator — but the truth is legislators want to get to know you. The reality is that we’re seen as leaders in the community. And while many dentists might shy away from talking politics in their office with their patients, the legislators don’t know that for certain — they just know that we’re well respected, and that we typically have thousands of patients whom we see regularly. And that means that if they’re doing things well, I can be saying good things about them, and if they’re not, I could be saying bad things about them to potential voters.”

And if you think hosting a fundraiser is difficult, think again. Merrill dismisses the notion saying, “They’re looking for people who are willing to help them, and because there aren’t that many who are — you get noticed quickly. They don’t want to disappoint constituents, particularly someone who has gotten others to give them money. Without that money they can’t run a campaign to try and keep their job.” Every two years, Merrill hosts a fundraiser for the state’s congressman, making sure that local legislators are invited. He explains, “I invite our legislators to come as contributors — not simply as invited guests. It does a number of things — it gives legislators an opportunity for face time with the congressman, which they like and want. It gives the congressmen the opportunity to get some additional money from the legislators who attend, and it boosts my role as an advocate for dentistry. From the congressman’s perspective, I’m raising more money for his campaign, and because I’ve gotten legislators there for him in my home, he views me as more influential. The legislators view me as more plugged in because I have the congressman there in my home. I’ve been doing it since 1996 — it’s not hard to develop a network.” And while Dr. Merrill has had years to grow his influence in state politics, his point is well-taken: legislators need ground troops and people willing to help them raise money to keep their jobs. 

And he’s not only involved in dental advocacy and grassroots efforts, he’s active in his community as well, having chaired his school district’s levy and construction bond campaigns a number of times, with skills he gathered because of the work he’s done in dental advocacy. He continues to serve his community and champion dentistry, as do his children, whom he encouraged to be a part of the political process from an early age, paying forward his expertise and penchant for advocacy.

Dr. Marissa Bender
Dr. Marissa Bender, a relative newcomer to advocacy, characterized her political involvement as passive until three years ago, when she enrolled in the Leadership Institute to expand her understanding of organized dentistry and advocacy. Calling the Institute “eye-opening,” Bender related how the experience took her from a passive participant to an active advocate of dentistry. Prior to that, she’d been involved at the component level, serving on the executive committee, and later rising through the chairs to become the President of the Snohomish County Dental Society today. She explains, “When I first attended component meetings years ago, I figured that just going to the meetings was enough. Then I went to the Leadership Institute and realized it was just the start. The more I learned about advocacy through the Leadership Institute, the more I wanted to be involved. And, seeing how being involved can make a positive impact has changed my perception. At first I thought other people could handle the work of advocacy, that they didn’t need me. I came to realize that quite the opposite is true — we need every voice we have, speaking in unison for dentistry.”

Today, in addition to attending DAD and hand-delivering checks for DentPAC, Bender has written and emailed her legislators whom she’ll meet with again on January 25. “I’m confident that they will remember me,” she says, “And I will use the opportunity to continue to establish strong relationships and network with them.” Bender has characterized her initial meetings with 1st district legislators — Luis Moscoso, Derek Stanford, and Rosemary McAuliffe — as easy, an open exchange of ideas. “I wasn’t nervous about meeting them,” she explains, “I wanted to educate them about the state of dentistry. I emphasized the role of dental health education in schools, the complexities of access to dental care versus access to medical health care — and the differences between those — and why the midlevel bill isn’t really a solution to access. In return, they wanted to be able to tell their constituents what was available to them in their communities.”

Bender’s advocacy future includes working more closely with DentPAC, once her three-year term on WSDA’s Budget and Finance Committee is over. But she’s also actively involved in her community — volunteering her time on the Medical Teams International vans, serving as Head Lector for her parish church, and volunteering her time as a member of the Dental Access committee for Providence Everett — a group trying to improve dental access in their area. Additionally, she’s one of 23 dentists in a community network taking oncology patients in need of free dental care before they can start their treatment

Dr. Robin Henderson
For Dr. Robin Henderson and her husband Scott, dental advocacy is a family affair. At a time when many dentists would slow down to focus on their children, the Hendersons have decided to include their daughter Sophie in their advocacy efforts – “She’s already come with us to Olympia,” Robin said recently, “And we’re looking forward to the time that we can start bringing her to Dental Action Day.” While Scott’s not a dentist, he’s always been by Robin’s side at Dental Action Day and at the House of Delegates, where, as a focused observer, he’s careful to stay behind the velvet rope. In taking this advocacy journey, the two say they enjoy it because it’s something they can all do together. 

The Henderson’s political involvement happened almost accidentally. A colleague friendly with Robin encouraged local legislator Cathy McMorris Rogers to stop in and see Henderson at her practice. Rogers was running for re-election, stumping in her district, networking with professionals in the area. It would be the start of a continuing friendship between the two, long before Rogers went on to serve in D.C. “Her visit that day made it easy for me to see her — whether at subsequent Dental Action Days, or local fundraisers,” said Henderson, who, noting that her first DAD was a little nerve-wracking, offered up a little advice. “The first time in Olympia can be intimidating, so make sure you coattail off of somebody! At our first DAD, we didn’t do that —we just showed up, wandered around, and happened by Senator Hewitt’s office. He’s from Walla Walla — it’s not our district, but it is our component. His legislative aide took us under his wing, told us to come back in ten minutes and she’d have him there for us — which she did. Later that same day, another Senator’s aide took us for a tour of the campus, showed us the lay of the land, went to lunch with us, and took us into the senate chambers! Because of those two people, we learned what to do, where to go, and how to make appointments . We were very fortunate, but we’d recommend that young dentists pair up with someone who has been before.” Now, say the Hendersons, being advocates is a lot less intimidating. “I realize that they are regular people just trying to do their best at their job like any of us,” explains Robin, “And the more information they have, the better job they can do.”

For Scott, being involved in dental advocacy was a natural extension of being with Robin. The two met while she was in dental school, Scott observing her transformation from student to doctor, noting, “I’ve always told Robin that dentists are very humble people. The general public really has no idea how much they know, what it takes to become a dentist, and the abilities the job takes, because they make it look so easy. What they’re doing is really complex — especially the diagnostic piece of it — making hundreds, even thousands of diagnostic decisions all day long. If you’re the patient, you don’t want to hear about all the variables, but that makes the process seem very simple. So it bothers me when outside groups with no training in dentistry try to come up with solutions to access, because they have such a limited understanding of what a dentist actually does.” While at the University of Michigan, one of Robin’s professors was a customer of Scott’s, and he explained what they were really teaching the dental students, “We can teach anyone to be a watchmaker, we can teach anyone to use their hands and perform the tasks, but what we’re really doing is teaching them how to think.“ Scott later told that same story to Rep. Joe Schmick, as it related to midlevel providers, saying, “I explained that that bill would not only have allowed midlevels to perform procedures that couldn’t be reversed, but it would have given them the right to diagnose, and even write prescriptions, without that crucial piece of training – learning how to think. It made an impression.”

Like Bender and Merrill, the Hendersons call on their legislators outside of Dental Action Day, meeting up for coffee, lunch, or at fundraisers — strengthening their advocacy network. Because they live out at the far end of the state, it usually means the Hendersons have to travel to them, but the meetings are congenial and fun. “It’s really like sitting down with a friend. It’s very relaxed and easy,” says Robin, “Legislators really are willing to listen and learn from dentists. I feel like I’m a more responsible citizen, and I like that our daughter thinks that it’s completely normal to know elected officials.” 

This summer, Henderson was trying to meet up with one such legislator, when he suggested that Robin drive his car in the Johnson, Wash. Independence Day parade. Scott explains, “Johnson might have been a town 50 years ago, but now it’s a grain elevator with a main street. But on 4th of July, hundreds of people line the main street, which is barely a car wide. It’s the only parade I’ve ever been in where a crop duster starts the parade by buzzing the crowd. The road ends at the grain elevator and the folks in the parade march to it, then turn around and go back the other way, so this really narrow road has a parade going two directions. It’s crazy, and it was the best parade I’ve ever been to. It was truly a slice of small-town America.” And for the Hendersons, a patriotic reminder of how fun and easy being grassroots advocates can be. 

For Robin and Scott Henderson, the future lies in the ability to get younger dentists involved — “I think we have to take a personal interest in bringing new people into the fold,” says Robin, “Of the 300 people who attended DAD last year, probably 250 are the same ones who have attended for years, and we’re getting older. We need to reach out to the younger dentists we know and bring them along with us, and explain to them that this could change their career. They have a long time to go in their careers, and they are looking at things through a different set of filters, with different pressures on their careers. As senior dentists, we’re responsible for making personal invitations to young dentists and students.”

Drs. Josh and Lindsey Papac
When the Papacs met in dental school at the UW, Lindsey already had a slight advantage in advocacy experience, by virtue of her mentorship under Dr. Barry Feder. Lindsey’s mother is a hygienist in Feder’s practice, and he began to school Lindsey about advocacy as soon as he learned she was applying to UWSoD — even though she initially balked. “He said that I needed to get involved with legislative issues, but I’ve never been really political — and he would tell me, ’Look, this is your job, this is your future — you have to be involved.’” And so it was that during her first year of dental school she found herself at DAD, following the effusive Feder around. And while she doesn’t recall the issues or talking points that first year, she remembers the dawning realization that the work of the dentists and other students that day was a big deal, and important to her career. “I knew then that I wanted to get involved because my career was on the line, and I wanted to have a say.”

Josh followed suit the year after, with encouragement from Lindsey and Al Minahan, son of WSDA President-elect David Minahan. Josh, too, realized that unless he went to Olympia, he couldn’t guarantee that his voice would be heard. “The first year I met with legislators it seemed like they enjoyed talking with students because they looked at us as ‘unspoiled.’ Students were encouraged to share their views, although it was generally more related to school issues, but we never felt marginalized — either by the doctors or the legislators.” While both remember that first time as a little intimidating , they soon got the hang of it. “As you move through the years you begin to get the ‘format’ of it,” relates Josh, “You get to know legislators, and you understand the issues more completely. Going back two and three years later with a really strong understanding of the subject matter was really helpful — you really feel like you grasp what’s involved, and it makes it a lot easier.” Along the way he and Lindsey formed comfortable relationships with two legislators they had met at DAD — Tina Orwell and Dave Upthegrove — whom they both characterize as easygoing and genuine people. In fact, that first year, Rep. Orwell made an indelible impression on Lindsey — by singling her out, and asking her opinion. For Papac there was an instantaneous connection “I think it was just the simplicity of a woman to woman connection in a sea of male dentists. She took the time to talk directly to me — I really liked that about her —I got a feel for her not only as a legislator, but, as a mom and a wife. It was great to be singled out in that situation, because it made me feel as though my opinion mattered to her.”

For both, the best part of those early DAD experiences wasn’t necessarily the advocacy piece, though. It was the opportunity to meet, befriend, and learn from dentists who had been in practice for years, and were all too eager to help shape students from ‘raw materials’ to finished products. Josh relates, “I met people who we really consider mentors now — a lot of the senior doctors who went to DAD. I enjoyed the camaraderie aspect of it, and getting to know people who are well-known and respected in the WSDA — people like Jeff Parrish, Dave Minahan, and Bryan and Linda Edgar. We hit it off with Bryan and Linda right away — I think because we’re another husband/wife dental team. They’ve been great to us. Doug Walsh has been another great mentor figure, and was another person we met because of Dental Action Day.” Lindsey agrees, saying, “One of the real rewards of attending DAD was the networking opportunity. There is a common ground among attendees — and being there with a group of senior dentists, and having them get to know us was rewarding on so many levels. The networking possibilities were endless. Dental students should really look at it as an opportunity to possibly find a job — or a mentor.” 

Another high point for the two was attending ASDA’s National Dental Lobby Day in Washington D.C. while Lindsey was serving as Washington’s ASDA representative. There, they were able to get meetings with Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Maria Cantwell — both count the experience as one of the most exciting of their young careers. 

Today, Lindsey is an associate in a Burien practice, working with Dr. Randy Olson, and Josh is just wrapping up the purchase of a practice. And while their penchant for advocacy hasn’t waned, they are finding that their journey is shifting a bit. Josh’s practice and their new home are in the Lake Tapps area, meaning they’ll have to meet a whole new set of legislators for their new district. They’re in it for the long haul though, and expect to live in that area for the remainder of their careers. They plan to visit with their new legislators at 2013 DAD, and are looking forward to building relationships with them over the years, and eventually hosting fundraiser for legislators whom they identify as friends of dentistry.

One thing’s for sure though — when they do, they might just give Rob Merrill a call for some pointers. After all, it’s all about networking.

Want to be involved in Grassroots dentistry? Send Michael Walsh an email to michael@wsda.org, or call him at 800-448-3368.

 

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