When you ask, virtually everyone agrees that public policy matters, yet meaningful involvement in policy work is a challenge for many. Mental health policy is no exception. For many groups and individuals, their ability to engage in mental health policy is constrained by time, budget and lack of expertise.
In Episode 127 of Into the Fold, we learn more about the Hogg Foundation’s ten years of work addressing these challenges through their Mental Health Policy Academy and Fellows initiative. We spoke with David Johnson, Criminal Justice Organizer for Grassroots Leadership of Texas and an alumnus of the Policy Fellows Program, and Colleen Horton, Director of Policy at the Hogg Foundation, to hear their unique perspectives on what the Policy Fellows initiative means to their work and to the people of Texas.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Into the Fold: David, can you tell us about your experience as a Mental Health Peer Policy Fellow and the impact that it’s had on your career and your life?
David Johnson: The career that I have today began because of my fellowship at the Hogg Foundation. It’s because of that experience that I’m a policy “wonk” and researcher today. Simply put, my experience as a Peer Policy Fellow changed my life.
ITF: Colleen, I know the Policy Fellows program is a long-standing success for the Hogg Foundation and you’ve been involved in it from the beginning. Could you give us a little bit of history of how it started and why the Foundation felt the need for it?
Colleen: Sure. When I came to the Foundation twelve years ago, there was a Policy Fellow here who was an incredible asset to the foundation and the policy team. I started to think of how Policy Fellows could help other non-profit organizations to build their policy capacity out in the community.
The original program included five “traditional” Policy Fellows who were post-graduates from programs in Law or Public Policy or Social Work or Psychology, etc. Our goal was for them to have a comprehensive policy experience—everything from working with the legislature, engaging with state agencies, to doing policy research and analysis, to putting together policy documents and so on.
We put together a two-year program and awarded five grants that funded the Fellows’ salaries and benefits, a mentor stipend and a professional development stipend. We wanted to make sure they had opportunities to really grow during that two-year fellowship.
The idea was not just to build capacity within the [non-profit] organizations, but also to open the door to policy work for the individual Fellows because there aren’t a lot of ground-level policy positions available.
ITF: We’re also talking about the Peer Policy Fellow program for people with lived experience that was started later. David, what did you think when you first heard about this position that valued lived experience with mental illness, substance use and incarceration and about the opportunity to bring those aspects of yourself into your work?
DJ: Very rarely do you find a job posting that specifically requires the types of experiences that people generally try to hide from the world.
Ever since my first felony conviction and incarceration, and prior to this position at the Hogg, I had been running through life trying to get people not to care about my background– trying to dazzle them so thoroughly with my performance or my accomplishments that they never thought to look into my background.
This was the first time I had seen a job posting that basically said, “Hey, bring all your cracks [and broken parts]. Not only are we not going to hold them against you, but we’re also going to hire you because of them.”
ITF: Colleen, was it always the intention to create a Peer Policy Fellow version of this program or did the understanding that a program like this could be beneficial come later?
CH: It was an evolution… and adding the Peer Policy Fellow program is one of the best things we’ve ever done.
When we started the original Policy Fellows program, we also had the Policy Academy. I asked Noah Abdenour, [Peer and Recovery Services Director at Texas Health and Human Services Commission], to attend some of our Policy Academy meetings with peer specialists from his programs so that our Fellows could hear from people with lived experience and come to understand how the policies they were making would affect people on the ground, people in everyday life. Eventually, Noah suggested that we needed Peer Policy Fellows at the Hogg Foundation. So, we made it happen. We now have five Policy Fellows and five Peer Policy Fellows in the program.
ITF: David, can you speak to how your lived experience added value to the program and how it made the work better for everyone else doing it?
DJ: Well, I call out the gaps. People on the margins have had a lot of time to figure out what’s wrong with the system. Concrete examples include working with the legislative work around sentencing limitations, decriminalization of drugs, Clean Slate, and Second Look.
There are so many state policy efforts that are pushed directly by the testimony of individuals with lived experience. However, until recently very few of those individuals were included in the decision-making process, or the planning process around strategy. As a result, there was usually a “top-down” strategy that came into play that would fall flat because it wasn’t informed by reality, it was informed by theory. That’s something the Hogg Fellowship completely throws on its head.
There are a lot of individuals working in policy who have master’s degrees but have never stuck a needle in their arm or smoked a crack pipe or sold themselves or been to jail or been homeless. When they’re put into a safe space with brilliant individuals with lived experience, they find out all the things that are wrong about what they’ve been taught and all the things that are wrong about the systems they’re working to support (or to undo, depending on where they work.)
I think the most concrete impact that my lived experience has had is to save a lot of time by telling people, “No, that’s not the way it needs to be done. That’s why we have the problem that we have today.”
CH: That’s so true. And it’s not just a lesson that the Peer Fellows taught the “traditional” Policy Fellows, it’s also a lesson they taught to mental health and substance use advocates across the state. Often professionals think their knowledge is enough to create good strategies, good solutions. What they’re able to learn from Peer Fellows is that if they don’t listen to the people who are impacted by the solutions, they’re often going to get it wrong.
It’s been an incredible experience to see all the Fellows in action and it’s amazing to see the expansive impact that the program has had across the policy arena,
DJ: Working with people with lived experience also supports the organizing needed to push policy changes or block undesired policy changes as well as the development of true relationships with people directly impacted by policy. Those things do matter.
ITF: Another key piece of this policy initiative is the Policy Academy. Colleen, could you describe what the Policy Academy is and how it was decided that it should be a component of the initiative?
CH: We decided to create the Policy Academy to ensure that all the Policy Fellows had a truly meaningful experience and left the two-year program with some real expertise and real knowledge. Texans Care for Children has been the grantee that’s facilitated the Academy. The goal was to ensure that all the Fellows and grantee organizations had opportunities for professional development in mental health and substance use policy. It enables them to understand both the issues and the policy process — how the legislature operates, how the budget is developed, how rules are made at the agency, etc. The Academy has been a vital component of the program since the beginning.
ITF: There also seems to be a strong group identity among the Fellows that is intentional, that helps them feel as if they’re part of a common enterprise.
CH: It’s a remarkable thing to see. All the Fellows really bond and support each other. They work on projects together, they collaborate, they go bowling, they do a lot of things together. They become professional colleagues but also good friends.
In policy work things can get frustrating, and if you don’t have support and friendship, it’s not going to be a fun job. When you do have people around you who love what they’re doing, who are doing it for the right reasons and the same reasons that you are and who can help hold you up, it’s incredible.
ITF: David, tell us about some personal highlights from your two years as a Fellow and what you’ve been up to since then.
DJ: My two years were wild and they were amazing! My high points centered around cutting down someone’s nonsense argument and calling them out. To come into the legislature as a Black man who’s been to prison three times, struggled with substance misuse and had misdiagnosed and misaddressed behavioral health issues and then come into [the legislature] and have an opportunity to push back on a bully and have that bully turn… that was a high point for me. Another high point was the honor of having my name included in a House of Representatives resolution in honor of [Second Chance].
Overall, high points for me were less about things like learning how to read and decipher statutes than they were about moments where personal connections were developed, like going to Washington D.C. with the entire cohort of Fellows. They were about having access to thought leaders and at the same time going to the theater together or doing karaoke together. I’d never been on a business trip where the point of the trip was to learn and heal and grow.
ITF: Colleen, what were personal highlights for you?
CH: The real high points are watching the Fellows soar.
It’s been incredible to see not only what happens during that two-year fellowship but also what happens afterwards. We have Fellows at state agencies, at the Texas legislature, at nonprofits, at professional associations… It’s been so heartwarming to see them soar and hold on to the passion for the work.
It’s also been good working with Texans Care for Children. They’ve done an excellent job with the Academy and supporting the Fellows and mentor organizations.
Seeing people take the [Fellowship]opportunity not just as a two-year job, but also as the beginning of the formation of a lifetime career has been awesome.
DJ: I’m also so happy that this experience informs my work locally with Grassroots Leadership regarding what public safety should look like in Austin and how Travis County should use funds in response to overdoses and substance misuse and behavior health.
Local policy affects our lives more than state or federal policy. So, to know that I have immediate opportunities to apply my experience even while the Legislature is out of session is one of the most rewarding things to me about having been a Peer Policy Fellow.
ITF: Colleen, could you tell us about the upcoming funding opportunities for new Policy Fellow Grantees and the retrospective report on the Policy Fellows program?
CH: The next cohort of Fellows will begin on July 1, 2022.
On January 31 we released one Request for Proposals for “traditional” Fellows and another for Peer Fellows. Eligible organizations can apply for one or both, and include nonprofits, governmental entities, universities, etc. who are interested in expanding their capacity to do mental health policy within their organization.
Applicants do not have to be a mental health organization or substance use organization. They just need to be an organization where mental health policy or substance use policy fits with their mission and where the resources provided by the Hogg Foundation can help them expand their ability to do policy work.
The report, The Hogg Foundation on Mental Health Policy Academy and Policy Fellow Initiative, A Retrospective on a Decade of Investment, will look back at the history of the Policy Fellow and Academy programs to give as much information as possible to enable other funders and other states to replicate the program. It will also speak to changes we’ve made along the way to make the program a success and will probably be published in the next couple of months.
DJ: And to speak to the individual with lived experience: don’t wait for an organization to apply for a Policy Fellows grant and then wait to be interviewed. Find a nonprofit you have a relationship with. Let them know how this program builds out their capacity as well as your own. That’s what I want every directly impacted person to know.
ITF: I’m always very grateful to have any opportunity to reacquaint our listeners with the Policy Fellows program and the work that the Fellows themselves are doing out there in the world. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to our listeners today.