On Becoming a Change Agent: A Q&A With Policy Fellow Tanya Lavelle

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Tanya Lavelle
Tanya Lavelle

The Hogg Foundation works to foster the capacity of individuals and organizations to engage in effective mental health advocacy. Through the Hogg Mental Health Policy Fellow Grants program, organizations receive grants to hire in-house policy fellows, individuals who receive extensive training and experience in mental health policy work.

In her own words, Tanya Lavelle, a mental health policy fellow at Easter Seals Central Texas, tells us what her Hogg-funded fellowship has meant to her professionally and personally.

 

  1. Tell us a bit more about your background. How did you decide to get into mental health work? I always knew that I wanted to work in policy, and my experiences navigating an unfriendly health care system motivated me to go into health policy. As an undergrad, I majored in political science at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and after spending some time working in women’s health, applied to the LBJ School of Public Affairs to pursue my master’s degree. My interest in mental health stems from my interest in psychology, as well as my work at the Texas Primary Care Office during graduate school. There, I helped recruit physicians to work in underserved areas of the state and saw how fragmented and underfunded the TX mental health system really is.
  2. What have you learned from working with legislators and their staffs at the Capitol? Since this was my first session, I had not really worked at length with legislators or their staff before; I learned the most from working with staffers. Since they’re stretched thin and don’t have much time to listen to everybody, I learned how to get my message across quickly and efficiently. I also discovered how important and rewarding it is to cultivate real relationships with staffers, especially in offices that are dedicated to your issue area.
  3. Personally, what did you accomplish this session that you are most proud of? I worked hard educating legislative offices on SB 1226, a bill that promoted meaningful employment for people with disabilities, including people with mental illness. There was neither a fiscal note nor mandates attached to the bill and it flew through the Senate. However, when it got to the House there was a lot of backlash. The opposition was largely due to misinformation on the bill’s impact, and I spent a lot of time visiting offices and working with
    other advocacy groups to make sure committee members had an accurate understanding of the bill and its impact on people with disabilities. The bill eventually passed, and since there weren’t a lot of people working on the bill, I feel like the information and technical assistance I provided really did make an impact.
  4. The Capitol can be a physical and emotional grind. Did you find that to be the case, and if so, what helps you deal with it? I honestly didn’t find the Capitol to be as scary as people told me that it would be. I only had one late night of testimony and one major disappointment: the failure of Medicaid expansion to make it out of committee. The draining part was spending entire work weeks at the Capitol. Things happened in waves, so I was either running around all over or waiting on committees for hours on end. I found that the best way to break up the monotony was to actually watch the House or Senate in session. It’s usually pretty interesting and wasn’t something I was able to do that often. Other than the occasional marathon day, the only thing that nearly took me down was blisters! Even the best shoes can betray you after being on your feet all day, but I held it together thanks to a pair of foldable flats that I kept in my briefcase. Overall, I had a great time during the session and just wish that I didn’t have to wait so long for the next one.
  5. What has been your favorite part of your fellowship at Easter Seals? My favorite part so far has been the diverse work that I’ve been able to do. I’ve gotten to do a lot of things that I’ve never done before outside of an academic setting, like giving testimony, working with people across the state and coming up with policy platforms. What’s more, I’ve been able to work on a wide range of topics related to mental health, including housing and employment. I’ve learned so much in just one year, and I am so grateful for this fellowship.
  6. In what ways have you grown since you first started at Easter Seals? My fellowship has helped me to become much more self-sufficient. In my previous positions I was always part of a larger department, but at Easter Seals I’m the only full-time policy person, so if something needs to get done, it’s on me. Being an “army of one” has also turned me into a self-starter, giving me the opportunity to push myself and take on roles that I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out. All of the different experiences this position has afforded me have built up my confidence as a professional and have made me more willing to take on challenging projects. Having more responsibilities has really made me appreciate the support of the other Hogg Fellows and especially my mentor, who has extensive experience in policy and is always willing to help me understand new things.
  7. How do you plan on using what you learned during your fellowship in future work? The work that I’m doing now as a Fellow is exactly what I want to do long-term, so hopefully I can take what I’ve learned and continue to build on it for the future. The projects I’ve worked on and the connections I’ve made will help me moving forward as a health policy professional in Texas.
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