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!