The Fundamental Power of Advocacy

Advocacy Word on Wooden Cubes

When it comes to fixing broken systems, CHP believes there are few skills more fundamental than advocacy. Used effectively, advocacy gives individuals and coalitions the power to address policy, resource flows, practices, relationships, power dynamics, and mental models – all of which are necessary for addressing complex problems.

Advocacy can show up in many different ways, from organizing rallies to emailing your representatives. And as Lee Lehmkuhl proves, becoming an advocate doesn’t have to happen overnight. Small steps can lead to big impact.

Lee isn’t easily pigeonholed. His diverse background includes a distinguished military career, two advanced degrees in operations research, and a second career with the Mitre Corporation. In addition to holding various leadership roles at First Congregational Church over the years, he is a classically trained musician and has the distinction of being the first straight member of the church’s Out Loud Men’s Chorus.

Lee is also an avid hunter, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and since 2019, he has been a member of Lethal Means Safety Task Force with the Suicide Prevention Collaborative of El Paso County (the Collaborative). Now the chair of the task force, he is a passionate advocate for the safe storage of firearms as a means to prevent suicide.

“I believe in the Second Amendment but I’ll just borrow a line from the Collaborative’s PSA (on firearm safety), ‘with rights comes responsibilities.’ You can value your Second Amendment rights and be prepared to defend your home and your loved ones without being a danger to yourself or others,” he says.

Advocacy Engages the Community

Lee intuitively understands the importance of listening to people’s concerns and meeting them where they are. He even uses himself as an example when talking with other gun owners, telling them that it took him a couple of years after joining the Collaborative to finally lock up his own firearms. But, he says, he came to realize that “I wasn’t really living up to the standards I was espousing.” While his firearms are only a few keystrokes away in his safe if he needs them, “just that action might be the time it takes to stop and think if I’m the one having a problem.”

One of the Collaborative’s priority populations is veterans. Research shows that over a period of 20 years, military deaths by suicide – which includes active duty and veterans – were four times higher than deaths that occurred during military operations. Nationally, 75% of veterans who attempt suicide use a firearm.

Recently, Lee conducted a safe firearm storage training at Fort Carson, alongside Carey Boelter, another member of the Collaborative. At the time, she was the Behavioral Health Programs Manager for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and is now the Associate Director for Crisis Services at the Colorado Behavioral Health Administration.

“It helps that I’m a vet and can talk about my experiences and the experiences they may have had. Most of these folks know somebody who has who has died by suicide using a firearm, just because of that the nature of the service,” he says. “It was quite impactful and meaningful to do that.”

Not only was Lee invited back to do a second training at Fort Carson with Army Chaplains, he has presented Safer Homes Safer Families training at his own church. This type of training is vital in the faith community because many people turn to their churches for support during difficult times.

Advocacy Builds Relationships

While Lee has been a passionate suicide prevention advocate with those in the community for several years, he recently expanded his advocacy work into local and state government.

It started in early 2023 when Nicole Johnston, CHP’s Suicide Prevention Program Manager for the Collaborative, organized a trip to the State Capitol. Since Nicole started her position, she has promoted the importance of the coalition’s role in advocating with elected officials. When the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado sponsored a Suicide Prevention Awareness Day at the Capitol, she recommended that the Collaborative participate. Eight members of the Collaborative, including Lee, volunteered for the opportunity.

“When PJ (Higgins) and I met with state elected officials at the Chamber of Commerce event last December, we heard loud and clear that El Paso County has traditionally not had constituents come to the Capitol and engage,” said Nicole. “The Collaborative was ready to change systems and advocate for bills that have an impact in our community, and I was excited to see the enthusiasm of Lee and others participating in this event.”

PJ , who is CHP’s Opioid Prevention Program Manager and also leads CHP’s Advocacy Lab, connected Nicole with Sarah Brittain Jack to schedule a one-on-one meeting with Senator Gardner. Senator Liston also joined the meeting. Nicole introduced the Collaborative members to Representative English, sponsors of the youth suicide prevention bill, and members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. PJ, who used to work at the Capitol, joined the group on the senate floor and provided education to Lee and other Collaborative members on the agenda, votes, and procedures.

The opportunity to speak to legislators can have a profound impact on how individuals think of advocacy at the government level. “In my experience, it feels so high stakes before you go to meet with this person who’s in a position of power. But basically, every legislator, especially at the state level, is just a pretty regular person,” says PJ, who started his career working in electoral politics as a campaign manager for a variety of state-wide and local campaigns. “They’re accessible, they’re easy to talk to, and it really opens up this whole world of ‘I can do this’ and that’s amazing.”

Lee remembers the experience as “very enlightening, very educational,” which made him want to learn more. So, he joined a weekly session hosted by PJ that tracked the progress of certain pieces of state legislation. Those sessions ultimately morphed into discussions about how to secure and prepare for meetings with elected officials. Participants were asked to identify one of their representatives and apply the skills they had learned by securing a meeting and preparing an ask for them.

Lee had the idea to contact his councilmember, who is a veteran and a strong proponent of the Second Amendment, about suicide prevention. He worked closely with Nicole and PJ to learn about his councilmember and met in person with them to do the final prep for the meeting.

Lee’s meeting with the councilmember went well. “He pulled in the president of the council about halfway through to show him the Collaborative’s public service announcement and he seemed quite interested in the topic, too,” Lee remembers. While Lee hasn’t been able to schedule a second meeting yet, “I think it’s really important for engagement down the road to establish those types of positive relationships with elected officials.”

Advocacy Meets You Where You Are

Reflecting on his advocacy work to date, Lee acknowledges that it might be easier for some people to do than others, depending on the issue. “Something like suicide prevention, it’s kind of hard to be against it, right? But if my topic was a woman’s right to choose or LGBTQ+ rights, you’re immediately going to run into people who vehemently disagree with that position.”

PJ notes that traditional power structures and a person’s identity can also present barriers to doing advocacy work. “It might be different for somebody who is trans or Black or has a disability. It might take a different framework to approach that meeting,” he says. “But advocacy can be as simple as picking up the phone or sending an e-mail. There is power in that and real impacts to be made.”

Lee echoes this sentiment and urges individuals to use their voice to advocate for the things that matter to them, in a way that aligns with their unique circumstances. “When you have the opportunity, do good in this world.”