Thursday, June 1, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: On-line Tools

While you will always hear me singing the praises of actions like sitting down with your members of Congress face to face, I recognize that isn't every mother's cup of tea. What is a busy mom to do? Enter the online tools! I'm alternately a fan and a critic of internet tools that help connect people to elected officials with ease. Despite the "Advocacy Made Easy" name of my blog series of "how-to" posts, the truth is that when it comes to activism, easier doesn't necessarily mean better. Senators and representatives tend to be more influenced by actions that take visible effort on the part of their constituents. I love the on-line tools as an entry point for beginning advocates. I just don't want activists to stop there!

The greatest benefits of these tools can be found in these situations:
  • An issue is moving quickly and needs to reach a lot of advocates fast 
  • A person is so intimidated by other advocacy methods or strapped for time that he/she would not take any action at all without online tools
  • An organization wants to build awareness about an issue
  • An organization wants to build up a database of people who care about the issue
In these circumstances, online advocacy tools are a good thing. However, we should be aware of are limits to the impact of these strategies, so that people who are blessed with more availability take the time to learn more effective ways to raise their voices.

Let's take a look at three of the most common ways to advocate online and explore their pro's and con's...

1. Online Petitions
You probably see petitions on your friends' Facebook page. Autofill in your address, click one button, and your done! Here's an example of a recent one. 


So easy! Well, not so fast. I truly believe petition organizations actually do send the petitions in, but I think they have become more of a marketing tool. When the ONE Campaign first started doing these, it was pretty new. Back then, offices really sat up to take notice when an online petition had 100,000 signatures. Now, the internet landscape is pretty flooded and offices know how easy it is and are wise to the reality that people can game the system by making up multiple email addresses. I think the main purpose is really to collect your information, so they can put you in the database for more petitions from their client and/or target you for fundraising asks. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good for groups to find likely advocates and then urge them to take a next step by donating or taking a deeper action later!

Pro-tip: If you decide you want to sign online petitions, give them a different email than your main personal address. You know...the one you give to online stores and political candidates, so you won't see all their junk mail? You may well want that future information, but I'd rather have it in a different account to check at my leisure instead of having my personal inbox flooded. 

2. Resistbot
This free tool has been getting a lot of attention this year. With a promise to help you "write Congress in under 2 minutes," this app is engineered to be an easy, daily method for a texting generation to communicate with your U.S. senators. Once you sign up at the Resistbot website, you can use your phone texting function to type "resist" and send it to 50409. A friendly, automated bot will ask for your name and zip code. The zip code is used to determine who your public officials are. Then, just type in your message. The automated system will then fax your message to your U.S. senators. I used Facebook messenger for this exchange to send in a message about Medicaid. 

Cool!! And yet...this is not without it's limitations. Until you stick with the app long enough to unlock functions like mailing a physical letter to Congress, you're stuck with faxing. Offices are quite savvy and know they can defeat the bot by 1) changing their fax number or 2) simply turning off the machine. 
Guess which of my senators is the biggest target for 
Resistbot and chose to unplug!

Then, once you unlock the mailing app, that brings us to the next kind of tool...

3. Web Generated Emails
The upside is that you can comfortably type away at your keyboard. You can copy and paste your talking points from a different website. You don't even have to use postage! I recommend this to my elderly advocates who find it physically painful to actually handwrite many letters. Here's an example of one from the CARE website.
A customized, personal email is pretty good way to get to your member of Congress quickly. The problem comes up if you don't change the language and it reads exactly like all the other emails that were automatically generated. Offices know that this kind of action is pretty easy to do AND that it is easy for them to automatically sort them and send you an automatically generated response. Your opinion does get tallied with others, but it's kind of like robots talking to each other. You will have more impact if you re-write the sample e-mail in your own voice, hit print, and then mail your messages to the local district office of your member of Congress. (Don't send it to Washington D.C. where it will get held up for weeks as it's screened for Anthrax) Then, an actual human will have to open your letter, read it, and forward it to another human who has to respond to it. The more human power they have to put into it, the more they take notice of it because it takes staff away from other priorities. 

Also, it may sound odd in this era of keyboarding and poor handwriting, but it really is even better if you can handwrite your letter and mail it. Staffers report that members are more moved by a handwritten letter because they know you cared enough to take the time to write each word instead of cutting and pasting. It's a connection to the human on the other side. Sometimes, my young grade-school advocates (and one highly creative adult!) will even use markers and pretty pens to make their letters stand out. I think that's all kinds of awesome!

4. Online "Letter to the Editor" Tools 
This is my FAVORITE kind of online action! Letters to the editor in your local paper are great advocacy tools because it shows the member of Congress that your community is talking about your issue publicly. Your letter goes out to thousands of people at once via local media! In addition, you can have friends and neighbors print out the letter and mail it to your member of Congress saying that they read it and agree with you. However, most people don't take this action because it's pretty daunting to come up with a succinct description of your issue in less than 200 words. A tool like this gives you a nice template that you can customize and send in to your paper directly from the website. How cool is that! 

Here's an example from www.RESULTS.org about U.S. health care...

Just be sure to rephrase things in your own voice and don't just copy it word for word. If more than a few people submit a letter an editor can recognized as copied, you run the risk of not being published and having a bad reputation at your paper.

Re-Cap
Are these on-line tools better than nothing? Yes! But remember, Congressional offices are run by smart people and they are understand about easy shortcuts. The more effort you put into an advocacy action, the more they can see you care and the more impact it will have on your member of Congress. Here's a handy chart of responses from Congressional staffers and members of Congress about which actions have more influence on them if the member has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue. As you can see, an in-person visit from constituents is the gold standard. It's the hardest to do and has the most influence!

NOTHING takes the place of a human to human interaction. If they hear your voice or look at your handwritten words, staffers know that you took the time to do it yourself. You are not an online "bot." They have to take the time to listen or read. By all means, use easy online tools, but don't just pat yourself on the back thinking your work is done for the day. 


I firmly believe that some offices rely on constituents who oppose them just getting bored of calling or writing every day. Don't let them be right. 

So, make the online tools an "and," not an "or." Look into your children's eyes, remember what it is you're fighting for, and recommit yourself to making a phone call or writing a real letter every day. You wouldn't trust their care-taking to a bot, would you? So, don't trust their future to one either.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What Does "Next Year in Jerusalem" Mean for Me?





Every year, it is my honor to help my husband prepare and host a Passover Seder at our home. We invite my in-laws to observe the traditions of his family that have been kept for generations long before us. We come together to re-tell the Passover - the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt - to pass down the story of deliverance from generation to generation. The Seder is both a feast celebration and a solemn worship service laden with rich symbolism. The setting in a Jewish home instead of a public house of worship is particularly appealing to me as I see how much it means to my in-laws to gather in a familiar context that slightly changes every year as children grow, new recipes are discovered, and roles swap hands. 

I must admit, as a Christian who has married into this tradition, there is one part of the Seder script that has always left me wondering what meaning I can find in it for myself. At the end of the worship service, all join in saying "Next year in Jerusalem!" This puzzled me because, frankly, nobody at our table is planning to literally pack up this whole family show and cook a big meal in Jerusalem next year. I was never really sure what this phrase might mean for me...someone with a biological ancestry tracing back through many countries, but not through Isreal. Christians do share a love for the Holy Land, but not many of us are buying tickets to go there.


Khalid Alibaih, an artist from Doha, drew sketches
of Allan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh and posted them
on Twitter
This year, however, with desperate news coming out of Syria and the largest number of refugees in existence since World War II, we began to think more carefully about the Passover story and what it meant for a whole people to leave Egypt and oppression all at once. What does a celebration for the deliverance of the Hebrew people mean in the context of a world where the American president is trying to ban refugees of a certain religion from entering our borders? What should we be thinking of during this feast day of plenty when thousands starve aboard uncertain little boats, trying to flee chemical gas attacks? 
"What should we be thinking of during this feast day of plenty when thousands starve aboard uncertain little boats, trying to flee chemical gas attacks?"
With heavy hearts yearning for meaning and inspiration, we added a section to our family's haggadah (service script) to include excerpts from an addition that can be found in a post called Next Year in Jerusalem at Haggadot.com If you host next year (in Jerusalem or otherwise), please consider adding something similar. If not, please reflect on the words and consider how you might commit yourself to refugees living without safety or basic needs. 

"At the beginning of our Passover Seder, we are commanded to consider ourselves as though we, too, had gone out from Egypt. At the end of the seder, we say the words, "Next year in Jerusalem" to recognize that, just as redemption came for our ancestors, so, too, will redemption come for us in this generation. For those of us fortunate enough to have a roof over our heads, we may understand these words to mean that the parts of us that feel adrift will find steady footing. However, for the world's 65 million displaced people and refugees, these words can be a literal message of hope that they will be able to rebuild their lives in a safe place.

Tonight, we honor the strength and resilience of refugees across the globe. We commit ourselves to ensuring that out country remains open to them, to supporting them as they rebuild their lives, and to championing their right for protection. Just as our own people now eat the bread of liberation, we pray that today's refugees will fulfill their dreams of rebuilding their lives in safety and freedom in the year to come.

Blessed are all those who yearn to be free.

Blessed are we who commit ourselves to their freedom.

Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, source of strength and liberation."




Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Strategic Acts of Kindness

Last week was “Random Acts of Kindness Week,” a time to encourage people to make life more pleasant for everyone. Organizers at randomactsofkindness.org encouraged actions like leaving positive notes around town and feeding meters for strangers. I would never argue with that notion. The world needs more kindness! But now that the week for random acts is over, I think it’s time to also embrace “strategic acts of kindness.”

Random acts of hatred have risen dramatically in the United States. Our country has seen repeated damage to Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats to Jewish community centers. The highest office of the U.S. has issued unconstitutional travel bans targeting Muslims. People of all kinds of skin tones other than the old Crayola crayon "flesh" color are shouted at to "Go home!" when they've lived in the U.S. their whole lives. Racism, sexism, and xenophobia are becoming increasingly normalized in political discussions and in everyday conversations. 


In the face of such a disturbing reality, we must take powerful actions to protect those who suffer disproportionately in this world because of religion, race, gender, or any number of factors. People of every political stripe are waking up and wanting to have a voice in the direction our country is heading. However, many regular folks don’t have the first idea about how to reach our nation’s decision makers.

That’s where strategic acts of kindness come in. In my former career as an engineer, I found random actions led to random results. Intentional strategy is needed to combat random acts of hatred or – even worse – systematic acts of oppression in our country and around the world.

Bread for the World volunteers handwrite letters to Congress
at church after a Sunday worship service.
What could this sort of organized love look like? Setting aside time each day to call members of Congress to voice your opinion. Holding a meeting with friends to write letters to elected officials. Submitting a letter to the editor. Sitting down with a senator or representative face to face to voice your opinion with respect. In fact, these are the very actions that U.S. representatives and senators consistently report as the most influential ways a constituent can sway their opinion.


If you don’t know how to do these things right now, that’s not a problem. Before I learned how to raise my voice, I was a stay-at-home mom who didn’t even know the names of my senators. I only knew that my community and my world allowed babies in poverty to suffer from poor health and I wanted to help. By getting involved with reputable advocacy organizations like RESULTS, I was able to receive training, support, and inspiration to become a skilled advocate. In time, I learned to effectively advise policy makers, guiding them towards decisions that improve access to education, health, and economic opportunity.

Richard Smiley and I meet with Senator Durbin about
microfinance to help the poorest families of the world.
What could we accomplish together if we could channel outrage and dissent into deliberate actions to change the future in positive ways? The possibilities are endless. Look at the massive problem of global poverty, widely regarded as unsolvable. Years of coordinated volunteer advocacy have pressured the U.S. to partner with other countries on global health, nutrition, and education programs. Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has been cut by more than half! With enough engaged citizens creating the political will to stand up for ourselves and people in need, there is no limit to the good we could do.

It is critical that we empower ourselves with the skills needed to speak out to the presidential administration and our members of Congress. Compassionate civic engagement is what our situation demands of us today. Together, we can navigate the combative ugliness of our time by rising above it. It’s time to move beyond the random. We can shape the future by committing to strategic acts of kindness.