This July, the National Coalition of STD Directors convened select members of its Policy Academy at the organization’s offices in Washington, D.C.
The Policy Academy is a program that provides education, capacity building, and networking opportunities to public health employees working on sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention across the country. This program is the only STI-focused policy training program for public employees in the country.
The Policy Academy consists of five online modules that provide training on every aspect of the policy making process, from developing policy recommendations to effective messaging and coalition building. Throughout the course of the Policy Academy, participants identify a STI-related policy that they are interested in pursuing in their city/state. Proposed policies focused on addressing the rising rates of congenital syphilis, promoting comprehensive sexuality education, and expanding expedited partner therapy (EPT) services for chlamydia treatment.
Participants at the in-person meeting of NCSD’s 2019 Policy Academy represented 9 states, including Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Maryland, New York (City), Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The meeting focused on coalition building and messaging for individuals working on transforming public policy from within their local and state health departments. Participants varied in their policy experience, with some just dipping their toes in the water and others, like myself, responsible for all policy activities within their bureaus. Despite varied experience and roles, all participants shared the desire to make change in their communities, with the ultimate hope of curbing the rise in sexually transmitted infections.
Among the highlights of this year’s meeting was a training on effective messaging by Kellie Mullen, former broadcast news reporter. As public health researchers, epidemiologists, and policy wonks, we are often most comfortable relying on quantitative data, but as Policy Academy participant, Rebecca Scranton (Arizona Department of Health), reflected, it is most compelling to “start with a story, not a number”. Leading with stories and experiences instead of numbers may not come instinctively, but Mullen coached participants on how to focus on their “whys”. (Why are we doing this work? Why is this important?)
That is not to say that surveillance data are not important. The opposite is true – they are crucial aspects of successful STI programs. However, the policy process requires a balance of creative and tangible storytelling intertwined and data. Following this training, Nicole Barron (Virginia Department of Health) reflected: “My involvement with the Policy Academy afforded me a better understanding and insight into policy work… and how to craft and deliver effective messages to varied audiences.”
“My involvement with the Policy Academy afforded me a better understanding and insight into policy work… and how to craft and deliver effective messages to varied audiences.”Nicole Barron, VDH
The Policy Academy is a strategic and influential initiative that trains people in all realms of STI prevention. As Jillian Garai (Oregon Department of Health) noted, “I am often working in the weeds of complex case investigations, and the Policy Academy helped me recognize that in order to advance a proposal, it’s more important for the audience to understand why the issue matters and how it impacts them, than to grasp the finer points of the problem”. Participants left this meeting with a toolbox of new skills, strengthened connections to other STI programs, and a renewed vision for implementing changes in public policy within their communities.