We Need Every Voice: Active Participation in AOTA
Virginia C. Stoffel
A lifelong commitment to recognizing, developing, and sharing each of our unique gifts is today's professional challenge.
||Promote OT: Wear an occupational therapy T-shirt while shopping; offer to present at a career day|
||Advocate for coverage of occupational therapy services through your family health insurer|
||Recruit new people to the profession--Get to know the nearest occupational therapy education program|
||Teach others about the relationship between their occupational habits and well-being|
||Initiate activities during OT Month in April|
||Check--Write a few: To AOTA for your membership, to the Fund to Promote OT...|
||Influence public policy at the local, state, and national levels, support AOTPAC|
||Practice what you preach--Balance productive, restful, and leisure occupations|
||Acknowledge your expertise to others--Don't be shy about what you can do as an occupational therapy practitioner|
||Tell others what you are doing so they can model in their communities|
||Innovate by offering creative solutions to disabling barriers in your community|
||Organize and get others to contribute to an event providing a valued service|
||New blood--Make sure there are others who can follow in your steps!|
||Being around occupational therapy leaders and gaining the breadth of a national/global perspective|
||Energized to seek new opportunities|
||Network of resources--People, places, programs, and information that you can use back at home|
||Exposure to new ideas and occupational therapy practice as it exists across the country and globally|
||Friendships that last beyond your term of office|
||Identity as an occupational therapy professional and leader|
||Tremendous professional growth|
||See other parts of the world!|
The year is 1937. There are more than 1,800 occupational therapists listed on the national registry. Eleanor Clark Slagle, former president of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), expresses her concern over membership numbers. Only 828 elected to join the Association that year. She laments, "We need every voice...."
This scene was enacted at the Special Interest Section Annual luncheon in Philadelphia on April 22, 2001. Eleanor Clark Slagle (played by Carolyn Baum, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, and outgoing AOTA President Karen Jacobs, EdD, OTR/L, CPE, FAOTA) discussed issues of concern during their respective presidencies, using a scrapbook (with historic photos) to facilitate their story telling. The areas of mutual concern were all too familiar, despite the 60-plus years between their terms of office: defining occupational therapy (with a lilt on each first syllable, Eleanor admonished, "You must not shorten it to OT--how can you expect others to know you mean occupational therapy?" when Karen slipped into using our profession's acronym as the audience tittered), addressing society's needs (poverty, unemployment), activating all occupational therapists to serve their profession and the Association, influencing public policy, and making health care accessible to all.
Active Participation From the Start
Fast forward to fall 2002. I had just received the September/October issue of the American Journal of Occupational Therapy. Sandra Dimeo, a professor at Utica College of Syracuse University in New York state, wrote about ways to stimulate professional activity among occupational therapy students and closed her column with a statement by one of her students. After having participated in advocacy, leadership, and professional development activities in her community and in the state occupational therapy association as a part of a special topics course, the student wrote, "The class has guided me in controlling my future role in the professional of occupational therapy. I regard OCT 400 as the ignition to my future form of transportation, continuing education, and professional development" (p. 591).1 As an occupational therapy educator, I enjoyed reading about how Dimeo inspired and activated her students into fully participating as the professionals they are becoming. The active learning that occurred by doing real service to the profession and the community can be a catalyst for future leaders.
I had a similar experience in my undergraduate occupational therapy program at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. During my first month in the program, I was elected by my peers to represent students in our program to the AOTA Commission on Education (COE). The senior class representative had taken on a national leadership role and worked to establish the student arm of AOTA (the American Student Committee of the Occupational Therapy Association) that year, so I had a great role model in her activism. Sally Ryan, another faculty mentor and the first COTA to serve on the AOTA Executive Board, said to me "Ginny, sometimes you will hear others talk about AOTA as if it is a group of people who are far apart ("they") from the members ("we"). Just remember, AOTA is all of usÉyou are AOTA." I took that to heart. During my senior year in college, I was then elected to serve a 3-year term on the Steering Committee of the COE and served as secretary of the commission for a portion of that term. Later I served as the fieldwork educator on the COE Steering Committee, assumed a number of positions on the local and state association boards, served as the Mental Health Special Interest Section (SIS) chairperson, served on the SIS Steering Committee (SISSC) and as its chair, served on the AOTA Executive Board, and served as SISSC representative to the Representative Assembly. Being thrust into leadership at the start of my career facilitated connections that I have cherished for the 25 years that I have been an occupational therapist, and it has helped me to develop skills and capacities that I never imagined would serve me (and the profession, I hope!) so well across my career.
Responding to the Call
Each summer and fall, a series of phone contacts, e-mails, and written notices go out from the nominations chairs of state associations and AOTA to members, asking them to consider running for an office. If you have received one of these calls, it was probably because you have served your profession admirably. Others have noticed your leadership, your organizational skills, your passion for the profession, and your ability to analyze complex situations and offer concrete solutions for the betterment of the profession. When people step forward and offer their talents for the good of the profession, their actions do not go unnoticed. But in order to be able to respond to this call, the recipients must weigh the time, duties associated with the job, stage of professional development, number of supports in their job and at home for this level of involvement, and level of readiness they believe they can muster for assuming a prominent and visible leadership role. My hope is that along with this reflection, there is a careful consideration of when (if not now) the individual will make professional leadership a priority.
Perhaps you are just launching your professional volunteer efforts and do not feel very connected to the Association. Take the example of one of our new junior students, who, this fall, went to the AOTA Web site, read about the current efforts of the Association relative to advocacy and public information, and cited those efforts as something she hoped she could do in her new role as a leader in our campus Student Occupational Therapy Association. Use the electronic mailing lists, e-mail addresses, and toll-free number to make connections with other volunteers and Association Headquarters staff members who are active in the area(s) you think you could contribute to. Have less time? Offer to do a discrete task (e.g., review a new document or an article). Have more time but don't feel ready to serve as an officer or a committee chairperson? E-mail the new chairperson and offer to serve on his or her committee or advisory groups. Feel ready to make the plunge into an elected position? Start preparing now. Take your picture, review the nomination form, and formulate your personal statement as to what you can offer the Association. Respond to the call for nominations this fall, then after the Nominating Committee confirms your candidacy, call your friends and colleagues and ask them to actively support you.
Juggling To Make Time
Making time for professional volunteerism has been among the priority life roles that I juggle. Being able to incorporate those roles has also been a joy and source of unexpected pleasure that I have experienced by taking on leadership roles with AOTA. For example, when I was unexpectedly asked to do a presentation for AOTA at the American Psychiatric Association meetings one October, I was able to arrange for two of my sons (ages 8 and 14 at the time) to accompany me (at my cost, of course, thanks to a great last-minute airfare sale!). They enjoyed staying at what we called my "home away from home"--the hotel across from the AOTA headquarters that is usually where volunteers stay during meetings of the Association bodies. My children and I spent the two days following my presentation touring the monuments and museums in Washington, DC, mastering the subway system, and enjoying the multiethnic eateries that are so plentiful in the neighborhood surrounding the AOTA office. For my youngest son, my subsequent trips to AOTA were ones he could relate to. I could say "I got my juice and bagel in the breakfast room and went running on the path we discovered together" and he would smile at the memory of that shared trip.
Benefits--Expected and Unexpected
Serving on a committee or board as a leader in occupational therapy strengthens your own identity as an occupational therapy professional. By surrounding yourself with other occupational therapy leaders, you have a bird's-eye view of varied leadership styles and can learn more about those you wish to emulate. To serve the professional association, you need to be a good listener so that you have your eyes and ears attuned to member needs and concerns. Making sure you fully understand and grasp the challenges and opportunities being experienced by members whose area of practice is different from your own moves you to ask questions and pay attention to situations of which you might otherwise be unaware. When I ask others why they continue to take on leadership roles in AOTA, I often hear "the connections I make and the networks of people and resources I use make the benefit to me invaluable, personally and professionally."
During my varied terms in national leadership, I have benefited from the broad view that these experiences have offered me. One duty that frequently falls to AOTA members in leadership roles is to review official papers of the Association and make recommendations as to their revision. Being very familiar with the collective wisdom that is contained across the official documents and resources on the AOTA Web site has been a benefit to me. Sudents, faculty colleagues, and therapists in the community often call to see whether I can help them deal with a new program, policy, or practice challenge. Having firsthand knowledge of AOTA resources allows me to direct others to those that might meet their needs.
Other benefits that I experienced from taking on leadership roles were realized when major job changes occurred. Given that I have background in both occupational therapy and counseling, I was asked by my employer to leave my position as director of occupational and activities therapies and take on a job where I was overseeing an outpatient mental health and alcohol and drug clinic (where there were no occupational therapy services or occupational therapists employed). Had it not been for my professional service activities, I might have felt less connected to our profession, and I may have drifted away from occupational therapy. I believe today that the work I do as a scientist in the Center for Addictions and Behavioral Health Research has been possible because of what I bring to this multidisciplinary center as an occupational therapist, and because of the positive regard I have for the kind of work that happens when people from a variety of professions work together to address challenging issues. A close colleague of mine was recently informed that her position has been eliminated. Within several days she had numerous phone calls, e-mails, and contacts that offered her hope and potential employment opportunities, many of which she credits to her past and present roles as an occupational therapy leader and volunteer.
"Ask Not What AOTA Can Do for You, But What You Can Do for AOTA"
Barbara L. Kornblau, JD, OT/L, FAOTA, DAAPM, ABDA, CCM, CDMS, at her first national presentation as the incoming president of AOTA in April 2001, called upon the members to take the challenge of actively participating and shaping our Association, and, in turn, our profession. She recalled the famous speech made by U.S. President John F. Kennedy as he became president, and she persuasively offered examples of the ways that occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants make a difference. JFK's message that we must all be involved in solutions, and not passively wait for others to take on the leadership needed, is just the call for action that I heard as a junior occupational therapy student. There are so many ways to can get involved... just choose one, and when that feels stagnant, try another! If you cannot respond to a need, make sure you support someone who can. Take stock of what you have to offer and don't undersell the gifts that you have. I had to learn how to set up a print machine in my undergraduate occupational therapy program and made stationery with the message "Gifts aren't gifts until they are given away." This reminds me that I cannot keep my talents hiddenÑI must recognize them as gifts to be given away. A lifelong commitment to recognizing, developing, and sharing each of our unique gifts is today's professional challenge. In giving, you will receive tremendous benefits that only experience can offer you. Enjoy the journey that active participation in AOTA offers, and remember, "We need every voice...."
1. Dimeo, S. B. (2002). The Issue Is: How can professional activity at the student level be increased? American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 56, 590592.
Virginia C. Stoffel, MS, OTR, FAOTA, is an associate professor of Occupational Therapy at the University of WisconsinMilwaukee. She recently completed 8 years of national leadership for AOTA through the Special Interest Sections, the Board of Directors, and the Representative Assembly. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 414 229-5583.