Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): Putting Marriage on the Agenda: How Oklahoma Laid the Foundation for Its Marriage Initiative. How Did the OMI Develop Support and Stakeholder Buy-In?

07/29/2008

Oklahoma leaders recognized that the idea of the state initiating broad action in support of marriage was new and unfamiliar. To move forward, supporters of a statewide marriage initiative worked step by step to build support and credibility for the OMI. State leadership articulated ambitious goals for the initiative, and sought buy-in and participation from multiple sectors in the state. Oklahoma marriage supporters drew on research, and brought experts and advocates together to stimulate interest, address skeptics, and build awareness.

High Ranking Political Officials Put Marriage on the Agenda.  From the outset, state leaders recognized the need to develop broad support for an initiative focusing on marriage. To begin building political support, Oklahomas then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, Jerry Regier  who had the original vision for focusing on marriage  brought TANFs family formation goals and their related issues to the attention of then-governor Frank Keating and other state leaders. He organized a session at a retreat held for the governors cabinet members following Keatings reelection in late 1998. During the session, presenters discussed the links between strong families and a strong economy, and between single-parent or unwed motherhood and increased risks of child poverty. Although some cabinet members at first opposed state involvement, the presentation intrigued the group.

Motivated by these presentations as well as by release of the state economic report, Governor Keating proposed in his 1999 inaugural address ambitious 10-year social goals for the state. These goals included cutting Oklahomas divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates by one third, and reducing child abuse by half. He also sponsored The Governor and First Ladys Conference on Marriage in March 1999, to introduce state-level leaders and opinion-makers to the importance of marriage and the need for action to achieve these goals (particularly reducing the divorce rate). Two hundred representatives of state institutional and organizational sectors, such as business, the faith community, social services funders and providers, education, and the media, attended. The response among sectors was generally positive and interest was high. Leveraging this interest to create specific strategies, however, turned out to be a significant challenge.

Talking with Key Groups and Leaders Stimulated Interest and Began Building Public Support.  Leaders of the OMI began to build public support by asking individuals or groups representing the various sectors to undertake activities to support the OMI in ways consistent with their primary mission or their roles in the state or their communities. Secretary Regier and others met with leaders from these sectors to encourage them to seek ways to speak up for and support marriage. To build a case for taking action, OMI leaders drew on existing research showing how marriage affects family and child outcomes. They first approached groups they felt would be open to the idea, such as clergy and others in the faith community. They brought leaders of the faith community together to pledge their support for the initiative, and to seek agreement on a marriage covenant.(3) A group of clerical leaders publicly pledged support for the OMI in February 2000, and eventually almost 1,000 of them signed covenants.

Engaging Experts Helped the OMI Develop Credibility, Address Skeptics, and Build Public Awareness.  Engaging leaders and experts with strong reputations and potentially different perspectives on a range of issues helped OMI planners to prepare for and address initial skeptics and opponents. A steering committee was established to help plan and advance the initiative. Howard Hendrick, director of Oklahomas Department of Human Services (DHS), became an important member of the group. Prior to being named DHS director in 1998, he served for 12 years in the Oklahoma State Senate, where he developed close relationships with other legislators. These relationships proved useful in keeping communication open as the OMI developed. The steering committee also engaged experts to collaborate in planning and to speak to interested groups. Experts working with the steering committee included, for example, Dr. Les Parrott of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University, and Theodora Ooms of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).(4) Advocates for domestic violence services also were included as partners on the steering committee, adding depth and diversity to the team.

To help build public support for the initiative during the early planning period, the OMI leaders engaged relationship experts to speak to and collaborate with a variety of audiences around the state. Dr. Les Parrot first spoke at a state Health Department-sponsored conference of more than 800 public health nurses. In 2000, he and his wife, Dr. Leslie Parrot, moved to Oklahoma for a year and were named scholars in residence at Oklahoma State University. In this capacity, they made appearances as OMI marriage ambassadors throughout the state, including at college and university venues.

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