As a practicing lawyer, Emily O’Donnell saw unintentional consequences of the law. She also saw how underserved groups had a lack of voice in the legislature. That’s what inspired her to join the Women’s Fund of Chattanooga as executive director and focus on helping women use advocacy and philanthropy to spark change.
“Advocacy can affect a system, which makes lasting change,” Emily said. “Direct services alone won’t fix problems. We’ve got to change the systems in place that leave people underserved or ignored by the law.”
Emily says good advocacy leads to good policy – i.e. policy that gives us the ends we want. Bad advocacy, on the other hand, is less effective, and might come from a lack of diverse voices. Particularly for women, lack of representation in the legislature has multiple consequences. Things like feminine care products and diapers are taxed as luxury items. When mothers can’t afford diapers, babies develop illnesses that strain the health care system for everyone.
“The Institute for Women’s Policy Research did a study in 2015 on the status of women in the U.S., and Tennessee was tied for 49th place based on a collection of indicators like health, employment and safety,” Emily said. “Women are bearing the brunt of this, but it affects everyone.”
There’s good news for those who want to get involved. Advocacy doesn’t have to be running for office (unless you want to). Emily believes you can advocate person-to-person, with your daily spending habits and even with your voice.
“At your workplace, you can ask for a review of your pay and your benefits,” Emily said. “You can, and should, address microaggressions and inequity when you see it. And you don’t have to be rich to make a difference. Everyone spends money, and you can always choose to spend your money at businesses where their values align with yours.”
Another way to get involved is to contact your representatives to voice your concerns. Emily says her grandmother was known well by government officials in her district. She wrote every president during her life and received a response each time.
“She believed the government’s job was to work for her,” Emily said. “I reflect on her mindset and it drives me to do what I do. I believe we can create change we want when we work together and make our voices heard.”