It’s a question I hear so often: “So, if your national office is near Washington, D.C., what does the American Diabetes Association do in terms of advocacy?” It’s also a very daunting question to answer because there are so many things to talk about, and I’m not an expert in that. But there’s someone who is…
Meet Shereen Arent, Executive Vice President, Government Affairs & Advocacy. Shereen provides strategic direction and oversight of the Association’s advocacy efforts, which focus on increasing federal and state funding for diabetes prevention, research, and treatment; preventing diabetes and improving the availability of accessible, adequate, and affordable health care; and eliminating discrimination against people with diabetes at school, work, and elsewhere in their lives.
Does that sound like a lot to keep track of? It is! I wanted to hear what Shereen herself has to say about the great work she and her team accomplish, and here’s what she had to say:
What brought you to the American Diabetes Association? And why did you make diabetes your cause?
As a lifelong civil rights lawyer, I came to the Association because of the opportunity to begin a program dedicated to fighting discrimination based on diabetes. My focus up until then had been employment discrimination, but working with the American Diabetes Association offered me the opportunity to also fight for fairness at schools, in public places like planes and restaurants, and in prisons.
I was shocked when some 23 years ago I was told I had gestational diabetes (which I had with both of my kids). Little did I know my mom and many other relatives were about to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes – and I sure didn’t envision how much diabetes would become a part of my life’s work.
The Association’s 2011 Legislative Priorities were announced recently. What are you most excited about when it comes to identifying these priorities?
I’m excited because of the process that gets us to our priorities – volunteers and staff from around the country provide input to our volunteer advocacy leadership on the most important issues for us to take on in the public policy arena. We have some tough fights ahead of us this year (such as working to increase funding for diabetes research and programs in a difficult fiscal climate and fighting to keep the gains we made last year with health reform) but they are well worth the effort given the impact we can make on stopping diabetes.
How can volunteer advocates across the country best help us reach our advocacy goals?
The most important thing we can do to move our elected officials is to show them how diabetes impacts their own constituents. They need to hear about daily battles people with diabetes must fight, like getting access to the health care they need to survive – and to thrive. Policy makers need to understand what it means to a family if they cannot be assured their child with diabetes is safe at school. They need to know diabetes is an epidemic that policy makers must take extremely seriously. The first step is signing up as a Diabetes Advocate. From there, advocates l receive information on a variety of ways to help, from sending e-mails to Congress to writing letters to the editor to meeting elected officials — all as part of our Advocates in Action engagement strategy. Lawyers and health care professionals can also help by being a part of our legal advocacy networks.
Call to Congress is coming up March 9 – 11, 2011. What are you looking forward to with this event?
I’m most looking forward to spending time with the Diabetes Advocates who will be coming to Washington, D.C. Together we’re going to take Capitol Hill by storm! The advocates attending Call to Congress have already been hard at work by building our advocacy efforts in their communities and they have made a commitment to take their experiences at Call to Congress back home so we can continue to grow our ability to Stop Diabetes through advocacy.
Since you joined the Association 12 years ago, what stands out in your memory as a significant mile marker in helping for people with diabetes?
That’s truly a hard question for me because so many things stand out. As I spent my first decade here focusing on our Legal Advocacy efforts, the stories of our fight against discrimination are the ones that come most easily to mind. I think about Celeste Barslou, a kindergartener who was told she couldn’t go to school with the other kids in her neighborhood simply because she has diabetes. That was before the Association’s Diabetes Advocates came to the rescue. I remember this great picture of Celeste wearing her school sweatshirt. She was beaming! Flash forward to what now must be a young woman who didn’t have to suffer segregation because the American Diabetes Association was there for her.
I’m also picturing the thousands of other kids with diabetes we helped through our Safe at School Campaign. And maybe some of those kids want to grow up to be police officers or fire fighters – and because of our success in fighting employment discrimination, they can!
If you could tell the world one thing about diabetes, what would it be?
It’s hard enough to live with this disease, so please join us in tearing down the barriers to prevention, to health care, to fairness, and, ultimately, to a cure!
Thanks to Shereen for giving us a more personal view of what advocacy can do and how it can affect our lives! It never ceases to amaze me how a simple personal story can help shape policy on the local, state and federal levels – but then again, that’s what advocacy is all about! If you would like to get involved in the American Diabetes Association’s advocacy work, sign up for updates here or start by taking action now!