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Profiles in Advocacy

State Representative Vickie Nardello
Vice Chair of the Energy & Technology Committee, Chair of the Public Health Subcommittee of the Medicaid Managed Care Council, and (in her day job) dental hygienist in the Hartford Public School system

How did you come to advocacy? Describe your inspiration, the first problem or issue you advocated on

Coming from an affluent suburban dental practice to my current job as a hygienist in the Hartford school system, I saw the huge discrepancy in dental needs and access to care between urban and suburban children in Connecticut. I came to see the critical role of dental hygienists in school-based clinics. As I became more active, I wrote to agencies about the issue. I got polite letters in response, but basically saying that nothing will happen. So, I became president of the CT Dental Hygienists' Association and became active in government relations, both in Connecticut and nationally. I spent three years as an unpaid advocate, lobbying together with a professional lobbyist -- an incredible resource. We passed two bills in three years updating the practice acts to reflect changing realities.

I observed the legislative process and found it fascinating. Another teacher in the school where I was working had just returned from maternity leave. My room was quiet during lunch and she asked if she could express milk here in private. As we talked, I told her about the crushing dental needs of these children and my frustrations in moving systems to address those needs. It turned out that she was married to a legislator. She urged me to run for office. My first response was, no I couldn't do that. I had never been involved in politics. But we talked more and more about it. She offered me advice and the convinced me of the importance of running for office. I found that hygienists statewide were excited to help. I interviewed with the town chairs for my district and they decided to endorse me. The first time, I ran with very few resources against a strong incumbent in a district with few Democratic voters. I came very close. In the next election, I won by 168 votes.

How do you feel that you've been most effective?

I've learned the importance of bringing people together and building consensus around issues. I am willing to put in long hours and work hard. Advocates have to keep your goal above everything else. Not worry about who gets credit, but about solving the problem. Don't let personalities get in your way. The ultimate goal is to solve the problem. You have to be cooperative and nonpartisan, not adversarial.

What advice would you give to new advocates? How can they be most effective? What lessons have you learned?

You need to bring awareness to your issue through the media. Learn as much as you can about the people you are approaching. Be persistent, don't give up the first time; keep trying and eventually you will achieve your goal.

Why is it important for consumers to advocate for systems change as well as for themselves and their families?

There are so many important issues in the political process, that some good ones fall through the cracks. If consumers don't keep them in focus they can get lost. It only takes one person who will make this a priority and work hard. Real people with real stories are the most effective.

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