It was as part of a 1993 senior citizens’ lobbying trip to the state capital in Albany that Dorothy Epstein realized there was more to effective lobbying than just showing up and handing out position papers.
“We had divided into groups and each was to visit the chairman of a legislative committee we were interested in,” she recalled. “Although we were in groups of five or seven, only one or two people spoke first.
“But when it came for the others to speak, they did not speak to the point and their presentation lacked focus. I felt we needed more education if we were going to lobby effectively. They had knowledge, but they had to know how to make a presentation, speak effectively and not ramble.”
Epstein, now 89, then chaired the advisory council of the Joint Public Affairs Committee for Older Adults, the senior advocacy arm of the Jewish Association for Service to the Aged, a UJA-Federation agency. At the next advisory council meeting, she proposed setting up a training program, and in the next year a curriculum and teachers were assembled.
“It’s a very well thought-out curriculum,” Epstein said of the 10-week course that since 1994 has graduated 239 students. “It teaches public speaking, how a bill becomes a law, how to organize a meeting, how to work with the media, and explains about city, state and the federal government.”
Called the Institute for Senior Action, Epstein said she was unaware of any other similar program for seniors. The institute is limited to those involved in organizations, senior centers, churches or synagogues — anyplace where those taking the 45-hour course can teach what they learned to others.
Margrit Pittman, 79, was in the first class in 1994 and said she found it quite informative.
“To me, the details about the legislative process were new — what does the City Council do vs. the state Legislature, for instance,” she said. “The class was ethnically integrated and included people from all over New York City. To me, that meant that here was a real tool to influence politics.”
Over the years she has been in JPAC, Pittman said, the organization has had some lobbying successes, but “unfortunately most of the victories were to prevent cuts in social services.”
“I’m sure that without the efforts of JPAC and other organizations, the cutbacks would have been more,” she said.
But two victories do stand out, she said: A free checking program and a reduced-price prescription drugs program.
Amy West, director of JPAC, said the banking legislation was pushed because fees in recent years have made it prohibitive for seniors on limited income to have checking accounts. As a result of the legislation, “a lot of banks now offer no-fee checking, or can charge no more than $8 a month,” she said.
Banks do not generally advertise the checking program, said West, but it is available for those of any age with any income level. The only restriction is a limit on the number of checks that may be written each month.
The Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage program enables seniors on limited income to buy prescriptions at low cost.
Barry Rock, 60, of Howard Beach is Epstein’s successor as chair of JPAC’s advisory committee.
He joined the organization soon after retiring five years ago after 36 years with the U.S. Postal Service. Rock said he also took the $35 training program and found it “very helpful.”
“Most of the public speaking I do has a question-and-answer period,” he said. “The course gave me the confidence I needed. I had just done a limited amount of public speaking before, and the course taught me how to organize my thoughts and to think on my feet.”
Deborah Grayson Riegel, project director of the Institute for Senior Action, said the course’s classes requires a weekly time commitment from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Two topics are discussed each week during classes at JASA’s central office, 132 W. 31st St., Manhattan.
West said JPAC, which was founded in 1977 and has more than 400 members older than 55 from more than 200 groups in the city, also succeeded in having the City Council create a separate committee on aging.
“We wanted a committee because so many of the issues we raise are specific to senior citizens and we felt there should be a committee to meet those needs,” said West. “We have fought for street lights, bus shelters, sidewalk improvements, curb cuts — things that are needed by seniors to get around their neighborhoods.
“We take a position on issues only, not on candidates, in order to protect our nonprofit status.”