by Nancy S. Partika, Hawaii Grassroots Advocate

ex·clu·sive: excluding or not admitting other things; restricted or limited to the person, group, or area concerned.

in·clu·sive: including or covering all the services, facilities, or items normally expected or required; not excluding any of the parties or groups involved in something

I have never been a fan of exclusivity—whether we are talking about club memberships, special deals, gated communities, pools, beaches, airline seats, COVID vaccine access, or other spaces of exclusion. They separate and marginalize rather than draw together in sometimes significant and unfortunate ways.

In the past, I tended to avoid Hill Day events—a lot of preparation, travel, and anticipation—for what? For the few who managed to merit the privilege (ten to twenty minutes perhaps) of a key person’s time and attention. Frankly, I did not see the value.

I made a significant shift this year from being a remote observer of Hill Day activities to being an invested participant because it became virtual, and therefore, more “inclusive.” What changed my thinking? Perhaps being involved as a member of the OPEN Policy Summit and Virtual Hill Day design team, for one. As planning progressed, I could really see the potential to make the Policy Summit in general, and Virtual Hill Day in particular, shift from “exclusive” to “inclusive” in its intent and desired outcomes. After all, OPEN, by its very design, is an inclusive organization and that is apparent in almost every thought and action by its members.

What particularly intrigued me though, was the potential for using our COVID-induced isolation to build on our “inclusive” intent and actions. How many is too many at a Hill Day virtual visit? Who not only can attend, due to its virtual nature, but should attend in order to share ideas and experiences that affect our collective oral health status? How do we redefine something like a hill day with its typical face-to-face, educate-our-representative-and-their-staff limitations, to a more community-focused format that allows everyone who attends to listen, learn, participate, and activate?

Because of its virtual format, instead of two or three individuals visiting DC and Congressional folks this year, we welcomed thirteen to fifteen people representing diverse perspectives and experiences who were able to attend our three, half-hour 2021 Virtual Hill Day sessions.

With a thoughtfully crafted agenda, we allocated ten minutes for the OPEN “asks,” ten minutes for Congressional staff response/questions, and a final ten minutes for our community participants to ask questions, provide feedback on their experiences, and reflect on needs for better oral health. We all agreed that those final ten minutes were the most enlightening and inspirational. We all not only learned something new from the experience, we also felt more connected as a collective community as a result.

COVID has rearranged and disrupted all of our lives over the past year. But it has also given us a unique opportunity to problem-solve how to do things in new ways, and virtual gatherings like OPEN’s 2021 Hill Day is one such example. When the time comes for in-person gatherings again, we will be relieved and happy to see one another; however, let’s not lose the momentum gained this past year resulting from expanded inclusiveness due to virtual events and gatherings.