ATLANTA—Terri Lewinson’s latest D.C. experience wasn’t quite “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but she admits that her recent fellowship in the nation’s capital fundamentally changed her understanding of public policy and the future direction of her research.
“When I initially wrote my application for the fellowship, my goal was to get the attention of policymakers who can breathe life into my idea of modeling hotels as senior housing,” said the John A. Hartford Geriatric Scholar and associate professor in the School of Social Work. “I left D.C. with an expanded perspective on the issue.” Her research now considers housing’s critical role in effective criminal justice reform and environmental justice issues.
Lewinson was one of a dozen gerontology scholars from around the country chosen to serve as a Health and Aging Policy Fellow in the 2018/2019 school year. Once in D.C., she served as a Legislative Fellow to Georgia’s 5th District Congressman, the Honorable John Lewis.
“I was honored to serve in the Congressman’s office,” she said. “He is one of the greatest civil rights leaders of my generation.”
In a recent Q&A session, Lewinson discussed her fellowship experience and its impact on her.
Please describe the program.
The Health and Aging Policy Fellow Program brings in academic scholars of aging policy to teach us about Congress and how policy is implemented. They help us find placements that helps move our individual research and practice agendas forward. Although I was primarily interested in the housing needs for aging populations, as Congressman Lewis’s legislative staff member, I managed a poverty portfolio and was exposed to many other complex issues related to aging and wellness.
The experiences were amazing. For example, during my time in D.C., I was one of only five North Americans invited to participate in a two-day, invitation-only Transatlantic Future of Housing Workshop organized by AARP and the German Marshall Fund to dialogue with housing experts about future models of housing that can help people age-in-place.
What were some of your responsibilities as a legislative staff member?
I worked to support Congressman Lewis’s legislative agenda by conducting research, tracking legislation, making policy recommendations, writing memos, meeting with his constituents and attending meetings to draft bills.
In one day, for example, I worked on and submitted a house resolution to recognize February 2018 as Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, my first bill; tracked the progress of H.R. 1865: Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 through to a voting recommendation for Congressman Lewis; and attended “Honoring Black Women Making a Difference on Capitol Hill,” organized by the Bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.
What lessons did you learn?
I learned D.C. is incredibly complex. Before this experience, I was unaware of the intricacy of Congress and the importance of congressional staff members in policymaking. Despite the public focus on the President, these staffers are heads-down and focused on policymaking.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your fellowship?
An intangible thing: getting out of my academic box. Stepping away from academia to experience the legislative world was intimidating, but I did it.
Also that I now have a true sense of what it takes to push a bill through Congress and a better understanding of how to best engage Congress members and get on their agendas.
How has this experience affected your research?
I am still interested in identifying alternative housing models for our changing demographics, but I’ve added other lenses that inform my research. For example, because I tracked legislation for criminal justice bills, I realize that criminal justice reform is necessary and desperately needed. When people exit the system, they need housing to help them transition back into productive life. I will now consider these areas when researching housing needs.
I also have more interest in international issues. This experience informed my teaching, research and how I will engage the community going forward.
What impact has the fellowship had on your career path in general?
It put me on a trajectory to expand my knowledge on relevant issues. I am interested in finding another fellowship in Georgia’s capitol or with another congressional office. I recognize that getting involved locally would allow me to use and grow the knowledge and interests I gained in D.C.
This fellowship opened my eyes to new opportunities that I encourage other policy professionals seek out, especially social workers.
School of Social Work
Dr. Terri Lewinson is a John A. Hartford Geriatric Scholar and an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Developmental Psychology from the University of South Carolina, and Masters and PhD degrees from the School of Social Work at the University of Georgia.