Friday, October 13, 2017

What Can We Do BEFORE Disasters Strike?

Hurricanes. Wild fires. Terrorist shootings. The United States has multiple disasters happening one on top of the other right now. A massive earthquake recently ravaged Mexico City and flooding has uprooted many people across Southeast Asia. For those of us who are far away from the scenes and have no special training, it's easy to be caught up in helpless emotions. We want to help, but don't know how. We write checks. We send our thoughts. We pray. But once the media fades away from the crisis of the day, isn't there more we could be doing? I certainly don't have all the answers, but I hope we can start a conversation about it. I made a list of four things that I do that make me feel just a little bit better when I hear about a terrible emergency because was able to help before the disaster even strikes. Telling my children about them helps the kids feel better, too, and sets the example of doing good all year round. Please share your ideas in the comments. We can all learn more!

1. Be a regular blood donor
When tragedy hits in America - whether it's a natural disaster or a mass murder by gun violence - good hearted people line up to give blood from their own veins to help victims. Sometimes we see pictures  in the newspapers of long lines of blood donors. This is awesome. It is admirable. We should do this. Folks should know, however, that the blood collected right after a tragedy will likely not be used for recovery from that event. It takes several weeks to test and process the blood for distribution to patients. So, it's great to be able to refill the supply right after a big demand...AND we should also consider donating at other times, so we always have blood there when we need it. 

That's not blood, it's iodine :)
Did you know that the Red Cross makes it super easy to schedule to donate at any time that is convenient for you? The website lets me know that are three regular donation sites within 10 miles of my house and usually a couple of blood drives going on in public spaces. "Rapid Pass" lets me answer the long list of health questions online, so I don't have to hang out there reading forms. You can be notified by email or phone to be reminded when you can next give (every 8 weeks). They even email me weeks later after my blood has been processed to tell me exactly which hospital was lucky enough to get a special delivery of my personal batch of O-positive.

2. Call or write your members of Congress every week to about anti-poverty programs
Letter-writing is even more effective
when you do it with friends!
It's a sad fact of life that whenever disaster strikes, it's always people living in poverty that get hurt the most. They have far fewer resources to get out of the path of a hurricane or bounce back financially when they are physically hurt or lose a home. Anti-poverty advocacy groups like RESULTS and Bread for the World can keep you updated on how to take action on programs and policies that help people out of poverty in the U.S. and around the world. 

Sometimes helping communities in poverty can even have benefits in averting future catastrophes. For instance, because of continued global support of immunizations and medical facilities, Nigeria was able to contain an Ebola outbreak in 2014 very quickly. The U.S. was a large donor for this effort. They had used funds to increase the number of aid workers for other diseases, but this had the effect of having more trained personnel on the ground who could identify and isolate patients with Ebola. Also, more medical care facilities and equipment stemmed the spread of the disease early, which was critical to avoid widespread suffering and death. 

Making few calls or writing a letter only takes about 5 minutes each week, but contact from constituents is an important way that your members of Congress decide what is important from day to day. 

3. Proactively give to organizations that provide first responders
I know it's a natural thing to hear about a hurricane and then want to give to an organization that will make sure that 100% of your money will go to recovery efforts of that particular hurricane. The Red Cross got so much criticism after Hurricane Katrina about whether funds were going to New Orleans specifically, that they added a drop down selection list online so that you can choose which disaster you wish to address. 

Unfortunately, first responders can't wait around for you to hear about a disaster on the news and type in your credit card numbers when you get a chance. They have to respond, like, NOW. So, consider making a donation sometime when hurricane and wildfire seasons are over and selecting the "Where It's Needed Most" option. I also like to donate to Samaritan's Purse and the International Red Cross because I simply cannot predict where the next disaster will be. Neither can they, but they can make a really good educated guess about it based on their years of experience. Plus, Samaritan's Purse has great flexibility to respond to medical disasters like the Ebola outbreak. After hearing the harrowing story of a doctor who worked on the ground with them in the early days of the epidemic, I became a donor because I want these people to be mobilized in an instant before I even find out about a disaster on NPR's Morning Edition! Don't wait for me, guys...just GO!

3. Become a monthly donor
Most people have a tendency to think: "Oh, that's just what rich people can do." I used to think that before I actually worked on a non-profit fundraising team. It turns out that most organizations would be thrilled to have a monthly donation from you for even as little as $5 a month, which amounts to $60 a year. That's a lot for some people, but if you are a person that spends that much on coffee every day, it's easily within your reach. Monthly donors often say that they like donating this way because it helps them to budget well. Organizations love it because they can be more effective in their yearly planning. So many of us wait until December to see what we can afford to give at the end of the year. That's good for us, but it's hard for a non-profit to know if they'll have enough money to hire new people or pay the rent if they have to wait until the 4th financial quarter to find out how much they have. It also feels good to me to get periodic reminders from the bank about the good work my money is doing even if I'm too busy to be actively working on a problem. 

What do you do to help before disasters strike? Please leave a comment and share!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: The Handwritten Letter

The first question I usually get when I teach new advocates – young or old – to handwrite letters to Congress is, “Do we really have to write them by hand?” Despite the fact that our digital world sensibilities leave us ill prepared to write with a pen (or pencil) and paper, my answer is: YES. Unless you have a medical condition that makes it difficult for you to write, you should really handwrite your letter to Congress for two reasons. First, it sets your message apart from the masses of spam emails and tweets hurled at them every hour. Handwriting letters is becoming a bit of a lost art. Like handwritten thank you notes, hardly anyone ever does it anymore. 

The second reason is just practical. Handwriting proves you didn’t digitally copy and paste someone else’s message. Even if you hand copy a letter of mine word for word, the handwritten nature of your letter means that you actually took time to look at each word and write it out with some level of purposeful intention. You didn’t blindly cut and paste something into an email that you didn’t even read. So, hooray for handwriting! You can even use pretty purple pens like this lovely grade school girl did. (I tend to think that actually may draw more attention!)

Here are my suggestions for writing an effective letter to Congress…

Letters should be short, personal, and have a clear request
The most effective letters share something personal from a constituent. Talking about your experience and why you care is always a good idea. Feel like you haven’t personally experienced a hardship worth describing? That’s okay. You can write about a news story you heard and how you felt about it. That even helps illustrate that your issue is important enough to be in the media!

Keep the length to a page at most. Staying brief will help keep you focused and to the point, so that they don’t miss your request.

Speaking of requests, make it crystal clear what you want your member of Congress to do. It’s best if you have a bill number and the official name of the bill you are concerned about. If you don’t have that information, still try to be so clear that you can put your request in the form of a “yes or no” question. “Will you help kids in poverty globally who need access to education by signing H. Res. 466 to support the Global Partnership for Education?” “Will you help save the lives of moms and kids around the world by signing the Reach Every Mother and Child Act?” I often even underline or use a bright highlighter on my request line, so that they can’t possibly miss it.

EPIC format can help you stay focused
I know it's hard to put all our complicated human feelings down in one page. Some days, you may have a sample letter about an issue that you can work from. Many organizations circulate pre-written text that they hope you’ll personalize with your own voice. Whether I am starting from scratch or tweaking a template, I like to use the tried and true "EPIC" format (taught to me by RESULTS) to create a clear, effective, one-page handwritten letter. It helps me get my scattered mommy-brain thoughts in order. This is what EPIC stands for:

Engage: Engage the reader's attention with a question or a startling statement. You could use a surprising statistic or a question. Or, you can even thank your member of Congress or tell them that you appreciate that they have a difficult job. That can be rare and attention-grabbing! Do not start off with a personal attack. That would be a “Dis-Engage” statement that causes a reader to mentally stop paying attention right away.

Problem: State the problem that you want the reader to address.

Inform (or Illustrate): Inform the reader of the solution or illustrate how the solution can help.

Call to Action: CLEARLY state what you want the reader to do. It's best if you can do it in the form of a question that should be answered with a "yes" or a "no."

Just one or two sentences in each section will do the trick!

Sign the letter with your name, title, and address
If you have an illegible signature like me, it’s really important to print your name along with your address. Your address lets the office know that you do, indeed, live in their district. Write your address both on the return address area of your outside envelope AND on the inside letter itself. Busy office staffers move quickly and your envelope may get separated from your letter. At best, that means you wouldn’t get a letter back responding to your request. At worst, your letter might get thrown away without proof that you’re a constituent and potential voter.

Using a title is optional, but feel free to use one. As silly as it might seem to stay-at-home moms like me who always feel like an unpaid mash-up of “Chef/Maid/Private Math Tutor/Psychologist/Head Zookeeper,” a title can signal to your member that you have a place in your community and that there are likely others like you who probably vote in his or her district. Titles aren’t as hard to come by as you might think even if you don’t have a professional position. Do you sit on any volunteer committees? Are you a member of a religious community? Are you a scout leader or a coach of youth sports? Even if you are just using talking points about hunger that came off of the Bread for the World website, guess what? You’re doing unpaid work for them and that makes you a genuine Bread for the World volunteer. Heck, even "Stay at Home Mom" is a title I can be proud of! Flaunt that title, baby. J

Don't overthink it!
A letter to Congress should not take you more than 5 minutes to write. I've coached new folks who agonized over a letter for over a 1/2 hour, eventually taking it home for more tweaking. I often wondered if they ever sent the letter at all? Here's the truth: Perfection isn't necessary. A hastily written message with poor handwriting is more effective than a masterpiece that never gets mailed. Think like a child. In fact, check out the letter my 3 year old wrote about global health that simply says, "Please help kids in the world be healthy." Her letter got a response just like mine did and helped us pass global child health legislation!

Letters mailed to local district offices arrive MUCH faster than ones mailed to Washington D.C.
If you mail your letter all the way to a congressional office in D.C., it will take more time to travel PLUS it will take another couple of weeks to get to the office because of anthrax bacteria screening. Younger readers may not recall the anthrax bioterrorism attacks of 2001, which involved media outlets, U.S. Senate offices, and the State Department. Sadly, five people died and many people – including 31 Capitol Hill staffers! – tested positive for anthrax. But, local offices still receive mail without screening. Local aides will immediately log your opinion and then forward your letter onto DC by fax, scanning, or hand carrying. I once had a Congresswoman who hand-carried her own constituent letters back weekly to DC with her in her own briefcase.

Letter writing at First United Methodist Church
for Bread for the World
Repeat often and ask others to join you

It usually takes many letters to inspire a member of Congress to take an action. Hopefully, letter writing is combined with other forms of advocacy and frequent letters will always help bolster the case of those going in to lobby on the issue. 

Neighbors, spouses, children, scouting troops, social justice committees, book clubs, and anyone you know who is sympathetic to your cause are fair game to ask to write letters with you. When I was a Bread for the World organizer for my church, I would deliver hundreds of letters at once to offices from my congregation. That kind of citizen advocacy really makes senators and representatives sit up and take notice!

I hope this helps you take the leap to write your own letter and help others to write as well. Most of the time you'll simply get a form letter in response, but occasionally my children have received personal hand-written letters in return. Please leave a comment and tell us how you felt writing it and if you got a response from your member of Congress!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: Coffee with Your Senator

My family with Senator McCaskill of Missouri
You might be looking at the title of this blog and thinking, "EASY? Coffee with a senator? Are you kidding me?" I kid you not. Some senators actually lay out clever, friendly traps consisting of coffee and piles of Dunkin' Donuts meant to lure friendly constituents to their offices for photo opportunities. Once you overcome the travel hurdle of actually getting to D.C., it's really not hard to attend one. Anybody from their state is welcome! The question is...what are you going to do once you are there? Can you prepare yourself to turn it into an opportunity to advocate? Yes. Yes you can.

How to schedule a coffee
Senate constituent coffees are often held on Wednesdays or Thursdays. (Maybe because it's easier for them to commit to being there midweek Mondays and Fridays when they might be headed to or from their home state?) When planning a D.C. trip, check the websites of your senators or call their D.C. office and ask if she or he hosts one. If yes, there is probably a sign-up form on the senators' official website. Just fill in your info a few weeks ahead of time and you're all set! They might have cute names. Senator Blunt hosts "Missouri Mornings" and Senator McCaskill hosts "Coffee with Claire." Back when I lived in Illinois, Senators Durbin and Kirk honored the long Illinois tradition of hosting a bi-partisan coffee together where they paid for the treats out of their own pockets and took questions at a podium together before doing a double senator photo...which is just about as rare as a double rainbow!

What will happen at the coffee?
The actual format will vary from senator to senator, but it will usually begin with a check in by staff or interns, loading up on snacks and coffee, and milling about with other constituents before the senator arrives. You'll likely be asked to fill out a form with your name and address, the number of people in your party, and a brief description of what you are wearing. The wardrobe question is because you're about to get a professional photo with your senator and they want to make sure they match up the right photo with the right guest. If you're with another family, fill out a form for each one so you each get your own photo and individual time with the senator. Show up early in case there are front row seats or a table where the senator will sit!

For Senator Blunt, we waited in a room in his suite of offices filled with friendly staffers for 15-20 minutes. This is a great chance to find out which one of them actually handles your issue as D.C. aides tend to be specialists. For instance, if you work on U.S. hunger...find out who the agriculture staffer is who works on the farm bill (and, therefore, nutrition programs) and introduce yourself. If you already speak to staffers about your issues regularly on the phone, find them and make sure they know what you look like. Give staffers any hand-outs of statistics or media that support your cause. When it came time to see the senator, only a few people got to speak to him in this setting. It was done one group at a time strictly as a quick photo op. Blunt did not address the group or formally take any questions.

Senator McCaskill's office guided us to a meeting room with a table in the center and many seats around the outside. It quickly became standing room only, so we were happy to be at the table. As people munched on donuts, a staffer led the room in a few rounds of Missouri trivia before handing the podium over to the senator. McCaskill spoke for about 15 minutes on her most pressing issues and then took questions to hear our most pressing issues.

Senators Durbin and Kirk used to have everyone seated in rows in a large room with a microphone and podium. After every question, they would each take a turn answering. It was genuinely heartening to see them answer on issues they both agreed upon and to see them engage in civil, friendly discourse on issues they did not agree on. Not what you see on cable news. Definitely glad we had front row seats for that one!

While you're waiting, you might have time for photo tomfoolery like this panoramic picture my kids took of me waiting in three places at the same time. Does it triple your effectiveness to clone yourself digitally? I guess not, but it was boring in the waiting room after we talked to all the aides we had business with...

How to prepare for your moment with the senator
The best thing you can do is to think of something to thank your senator for and also come up with a VERY BRIEF question for your senator. If you personally really can't stand their politics, you can always thank them for hosting the coffee. After all, they did put a donut in your hand. That's just polite. 
If your senator does a town hall format, this is an opportunity not only to lobby your senator, but to do it publicly in front of all the other constituents. You get to educate a room full of people on your issue and know that your senator's answer will be witnessed by other voters. The best rules of town hall advocacy still apply here...get your hand up first and highest (so you get to speak before time runs out), write your question down on a piece of paper (so you don't ramble nervously), and have a clear "yes or no" question request at the end. Refer to my Advocacy Made Easy: The Town Hall Meeting blog for more details on tips about how to make this work. Both of my daughters got to ask separate questions to McCaskill - one on global education and the other on climate change. 
If there is no Q&A session, you'll either only have a few brief words with the senator as he or she moves through the room or just the time that you will pose for the staff photographer together. Either way, you've gotta be super fast with your request. You probably will only have time for 2 sentences of exchange while you get posed for your photo. For instance, when we saw Senator Blunt just before the vote on the Affordable Health Care repeal, my moment pretty much went like this: "Hi Senator, thanks so much for having us here today and for all your help with global health funding. We spoke with your staff about health care, but I also wanted to tell you in person that I am very concerned about preserving Medicaid. It helps so many people in Missouri, including low-income moms and kids. We'd really like you to vote no on this health care act repeal." Boom. No time for a huge story while lots of other people were in line waiting, but I got out the important stuff and a very clear request. Then, it was up to him to decide how much time to allocate to an answer.

For our double senator meeting in IL back when the girls were tiny, both senators bent down to my kids like they were going to pinch their cheeks or something. The men were very surprised to have the kids thrust a sheaf of papers at them and say those were pictures and letters from their friends back home all asking them to support vaccines to end polio and other disease. Surprise! Little lobbyists! It was fun, funny, and I think it was the best part of everyone's day. 
After the meeting
The senate staff will either let you have your picture also taken on your own camera/phone or will email the picture to you shortly. Either way, you will have a digital copy of your moment. Post the picture on social media letting your followers know what you talked to the senator about and tag the appropriate organizations. Also, specifically tweet your senator thanking them for the opportunity to meet. After all, they are not required to do this at all and plenty of them do not!

The unexpected!
I'm happy to report that we got a fun surprise from Senator McCaskill this year. After she answered my 6th grader's question, she spoke directly to my girl about the importance of encouraging young women to run for office. She invited her to go over to her office and tell the staff there that the senator said it was ok for my girl to go into the private office and have a picture at the senator's desk. She urged her to get a picture "with your feet up on the desk and just get a feel for it." While my very polite 11-year-old declined to do that pose, we had fun seeing the inside of her beautiful, huge, airy, tasteful office and snapping a few photos. Did McCaskill's ploy work? Maybe! At least it convinced her to go big or go home...she said, "If I did want to run for office, I definitely want to be a senator instead of a representative. Their offices are WAY bigger and nicer!" (She's not wrong...)

Have you ever attended a constituent coffee? 
Tell us what it was like in the comment section!