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!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Persistence is the Key to Resistance

Were you at the Women's March with me? Were you one of the millions of women who stood up against the Trump administration to rally for women's rights and health? Did you rally to the Resistance and jam up the phone lines of our members of Congress to demand all the things we were fighting to protect? Well, we're six months away from the beginning of what was a political revolution for many and Women's Health is on the line like never before. So, why are the phone lines open now? Why did 13 male senators feel confident that they could craft our new health care bill without the help of any female colleagues? Why are Republicans comfortable moving ahead with a bill that hurts Medicaid support, which covers 70 million Americans -  including low-income women and babies?

My opinion is that we collectively did exactly what the Trump administration hoped we would. We slacked off after 1/2 a year and accepted a new normal. We were worn down by constant, outrageous CNN alerts and disheartened by a lack of immediate response to our phone calls. We said "I'm utterly burned out" and eased up the pressure. Well, I'm here to say to all of us, with a healthy dose of motherly love...

Suck it up, Buttercup. Get back out there.

There is no Resistance without Persistence
Look, I know this is hard to hear. I've been an advocate taking daily action for people in poverty for over 10 years. I know what it's like to win and I know what it is to lose. What I do know, above all, is that you will never win if you simply stop fighting. There's no other group of millions of American women who are resting in the wings waiting to swoop in like the cavalry when we get tired. It's just us. We can't flame out early. Everyone has to adjust to the new normal of adding advocacy into a regular, routine because changing the government is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Does that sound hard? Does it seem like now is the moment for one of my quippy, but truthful metaphors to help us make a paradigm change in how we think about it, so we can gather ourselves together and fight the good fight? Good. Because I have one... :)

Healthy Bodies and Governments need Regular Care
Think of advocacy like many of the things we women do regularly to stay healthy. Brushing your teeth is easy to do, but it's not as easy to do it every single day of your life. Yet we continue because we want to still have good teeth when we are old! It seems kind of silly as an adult to have to convince someone to brush their teeth every day (much less after every meal), but every mom knows the struggle to convince her children that this is a necessary, daily thing we must do in order to have a healthy mouth. Well, government is kind of like our health, too. If you want a healthy government, you have to take care of it by participating in its care on a regular basis.

Think of these advocacy actions in comparison to common things we women have to do to care for our health:
Calling Congress = Brushing teeth once or more daily 
Writing to Congress =  Exercising 2-3 times a week 
Writing a letter to the editor = Dealing with your monthly menstrual cycle 
Visiting a Congressional Office = Visiting the dentist every 6 months 
Voting = Getting a mammogram every couple years
So, there you have it. Think about it, but don't take too long because we need you RIGHT NOW. Congress is poised to end the Medicaid program as we know it, causing 14 million low-income Americans to lose health coverage. These cuts will be used to give the wealthy and powerful another giant tax cut. We must do all we can to protect Americans on Medicaid. Call your two senators and say, "I'm a constituent and my zipcode is ____. I'm calling on behalf of low-income moms and kids on Medicaid and millions of Americans who stand to lose health insurance if the current version of the bill is passed. I urge you to vote no on this or any bill that would reduce the effectiveness of Medicaid by reducing funding or block granting it. Thank you." Feel free to tell your own story or throw in many of the other things that bother you about this bill, like a rise in cost for people with pre-existing conditions. If you want to do more, check out this link for sample text to help engage others in taking action or to write a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Those phone calls take about the same time as brushing your teeth and they could protect the health of millions. Raise your voice and speak out every day. Because persistence is the key to resistance. 

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've probably see petitions on your friends' Facebook pages. 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.

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.