Like many Americans, you are probably frustrated with the dysfunction, lack of compromise, and overreach that seem to define Washington, DC. Few expect DC to provide meaningful solutions to problems that matter most to American families. That’s why more Americans are looking to the states for answers.
You have likely experienced this sentiment in your own community, but did you know there’s a Network of state leaders and organizations who believe in the power of individuals and communities to solve problems? This Network thinks all Americans should have access to a quality education, a good job, and affordable healthcare—and they are working each day to implement policies to reach that end.
This group is not about taking sides. Working alongside local leaders and community members, they are solving problems and transforming the lives of the people in their states.
Each year, more than a thousand of these state leaders and organizations convene at State Policy Network’s Annual Meeting, the premier conference for developing and accelerating local solutions that empower all Americans to flourish.
In late August 2021, leaders from more than 300 organizations representing all 50 states gathered in Orlando, Florida, for State Policy Network’s 29th Annual Meeting. During the event, attendees learned from one another, forged valuable connections, and celebrated state solutions that are improving the lives of American families.
At the keynote sessions, attendees heard from renowned speakers who inspired and informed Network efforts to advance policy change. Faris and Rosie Yakob, award-winning strategists, creative directors, and public speakers demonstrated that innovation isn’t born out of isolated work but from collaboration. Attendees walked away with practical tips on how to facilitate creativity, embrace diversity, and incentivize more innovation in the workplace.
Attendees also heard from Hamish Brewer, an award-winning educator, principal, author, and international speaker who empowers others—from teachers to students to, yes, even policy changemakers—to envision and create a better future for themselves and their communities. In his inspiring presentation, Hamish shared how the principles he used to turn around failing schools can be applied to the challenges the Network faces in implementing policy reforms that change lives. Hamish encouraged participants to work with their communities and talk to the people they are trying to help. This focus on community engagement was a common theme throughout this year’s Annual Meeting, with several speakers, experts, and panelists underscoring the importance of building relationships in order to make a difference in people’s lives through policy reform.
The Network’s efforts are already making an impact, removing policy barriers that once seemed impossible to overcome. SPN featured a few specific examples in a moving keynote session highlighting Network leaders who have worked in their communities to change lives. Jennifer Stefano, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, told the story of her friend April, a mother with cancer who needed Jennifer’s help to access telemedicine in Pennsylvania. Elise Westhoff, president and CEO of The Philanthropy Roundtable, shared her personal experience with mentorship to inspire the Network to engage deeply with humility. And Matt Paprocki, president of the Illinois Policy Institute, encouraged attendees to fight for people, not against things.
Like the many Annual Meetings that came before, SPN’s 29th Annual Meeting connected attendees with peers, mentors, philanthropic partners, and experts who can help them grow professionally. At this year’s meeting, attendees learned how to use data analytics, attract top talent, increase their donor base, and leverage earned media and accessible messaging to increase the reach of their policy ideas.
Attendees also had the opportunity to attend policy sessions covering practical approaches to address some of the problems many Americans face, including poverty, unemployment, broadband access, job licensing, healthcare affordability, and education opportunity.
When you think of a policy-focused conference like Annual Meeting, you might assume it’s full of older, experienced professionals. And while this conference does attract seasoned policy veterans, that’s not the sole demographic. In fact, 39 percent of this year’s attendees were 34 years-old or younger.
Forty-four of those attendees included participants of the Generation Liberty Fellowship, a program for young professionals who are interested in advancing policies that will lead to a stronger economy and freer society. The 2021 class includes a local elected official, state and national legislative staff, a lawyer, a doctor, a software developer, and an IT systems architect. SPN’s Generation Liberty Fellows receive a stipend to attend Annual Meeting, where they can network with state-based leaders. Fellows are also able to attend tailored programming and training designed to help them continue growing professionally.
At the Annual Awards Dinner and Presentation, a highlight of SPN’s 29th Annual Meeting, SPN celebrated inspirational leadership and policy achievements across the Network.
SPN honored Justin Owen of the Beacon Center of Tennessee with the 2021 Thomas A. Roe Award. Named after SPN’s founder, the award pays tribute to those in the state public policy movement whose achievements have greatly advanced free-market philosophy and policy solutions. Under Justin’s leadership, the Beacon Center has secured several policy wins and succeeded in making policy reform a community effort—one that involves the people whose lives and opportunities will benefit the most from positive change. “To talk and spend time with the people we work with is by far the most rewarding part of my job,” said Justin.
SPN also honored Michael J. Reitz of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy with the 2021 Overton Award. The Overton Award recognizes nonprofit leaders in the state-based, free-market Network who embody the qualities of leadership, loyalty, humility, and support for the cause of liberty. Mike is the executive vice president of the Mackinac Center, where he oversees policy development, communications, fundraising, and the Center’s strategic plan. Under his strategic guidance, Mackinac has secured several important policy wins that have given Michigan residents more opportunities for meaningful work, secure retirement, and second chances. Reitz noted: “Thank you, SPN, for this honor. The things that made America a beacon for the world are the same things that I love about SPN: We are a nation and a Network built on the idea of liberty; we prefer collaboration over central control; ideas are more important than power; and states are the first line of defense for liberty.”
In addition, the Network commended the state organizations that have made a positive impact on the people of their state this past year. The Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement celebrate state think tanks doing exceptional work to develop credible policy research and ideas and to collaborate with communities and leaders to turn these ideas into real-world, life-changing solutions. The 2021 Biggest Win for Freedom Award went to the Libertas Institute, which helped thousands of entrepreneurs and businesses by encouraging Utah to adopt a regulatory sandbox. Libertas is using their expertise and experience to help other states pass regulatory sandboxes so even more Americans can thrive and benefit from this innovative policy. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty took home the 2021 Biggest Home State Win for their work to get students back in the classroom after months of pandemic learning loss. The Illinois Policy Institute was awarded the 2021 Best Issue Campaign for saving millions of Illinois families from a devastating progressive income tax. And finally, the Empire Center won the 2021 Most Influential Research Award for exposing New York’s nursing home coverup and holding Governor Andrew Cuomo accountable.
SPN also awarded the Ed-Prize to two organizations pioneering new solutions to prepare students for successful careers and fulfilling lives. izzit.org will introduce Career & Technical education opportunities to students in Pennsylvania, and MicroschoolingNV will expand innovative education option to families across the country. Through recognition and grant funding, Ed-Prize accelerates ambitious, creative approaches that advance flexible learning models, drive accountability through transparency, and improve student performance in K-12 education.
Communications leaders gathered for a separate reception to celebrate the winners of the 2021 SPN Communications Excellence Awards—an award that recognizes outstanding achievements in marketing, communications, and media across the state think tank Network. The 2021 awards recognized the Center of the American Experiment’s innovative radio campaign, Cardinal Institute’s powerful school choice stories, and Commonwealth’s bipartisan campaign to curb executive overreach.
Year after year we ask attendees what the most valuable part of Annual Meeting is. And each year, we receive the same answer: the relationships this event fosters and facilitates. Annual Meeting gives attendees ample time and opportunities to meet with peers, mentors, and partner organizations.
Working in the state-based policy space can be challenging and often lonely. At Annual Meeting, attendees are reminded that they are not alone in their work to bring community-driven solutions to their states. They take that inspiration home, reenergized to continue their important work to expand freedom, opportunity, and a good life for all Americans.
Join us for SPN’s 30th Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on September 19-21, 2022. Sign up here to get event updates and early access to registration.