Friday, July 14, 2023

Advocacy Made Easy: Scheduling a Lobby Meeting

Image: A calendar grid with a giant question mark on it.

Even among seasoned activists, I don't meet a lot of folks who schedule their own lobby meetings. Many advocacy groups rely on staff for that work, but really anyone can request a meeting! Setting up a lobby meeting is a harder advocacy action than some of the other things we do, but it’s not as impossible as most people assume. This blog will give you clear steps to submit your meeting request and some advice for getting your meeting scheduled.

NOTE: I wrote this advice from the perspective of meeting with a U.S. representative or senator. The same basic process works for state officials, but I notice more variability with procedures at the state level. It might be due to state members having fewer constituents and shorter sessions. (Missouri legislators meet only five months out of the year!)

Scheduling a meeting with a member of Congress takes a lot of persistence. If possible, submit your meeting request a whole month before you want to meet, so you have plenty of time to work through these steps. That way you can get on their calendar before they're totally booked up!

How to submit a meeting request

STEP #1: Submit a meeting request by using the website form for the congressional office. If you don’t hear back from them in a week, move to Step #2.

STEP #2: Call the office of your member of Congress. Ask the admin for the name and email address of the “scheduler” for the location where you want to meet (D.C. or local district office). Ask to speak to the scheduler directly with your request. If they are not available, send them an email directly.

Here’s a picture with a sample template you can follow for crafting your email. It should clearly and concisely provide information about who you are, when you want to meet, what your organization does, and why you want to meet. Don't forget to provide both your email and phone contact information!

Image: Sample template for requesting a congressional meeting via email.
Graphic from the book "From Changing Diapers to Changing the World"

STEP #3: Follow up every couple of days with polite emails and phone calls to the scheduler if you don’t hear back in a few days.

Tips to improve your chances of getting a meeting

The following tips can help get your request noticed out of all the other people clamoring for attention. Schedulers are people, too. If you make things easy for them, they'll do their best to make things easy for you.

• Be persistent, but not belligerent.

• Offer as much flexibility as possible for times and location, including an online zoom meeting. Follow their rules respectfully. If they say you can only bring three people, stay within that limit.

Image: ONE volunteers got a surprise meeting in DC with
Rep. Cori Bush when she returned early from her prior meeting. 

Accept a meeting with an aide if the congressperson is not available. Aides are important members of the team who help the member make decisions on your issue. Plus, you never know when you might get a surprise meeting from the member walking in unexpectedly.

• Work with a respected nonpartisan organization aligned with your position. They can support you, and their excellent reputation can help legitimize your request.

Image: RESULTS volunteers met with 
Rep. Ann Wagner during an August recess

• If possible, request a time when you know your member will be in your local area, like August recess when members leave Washington D.C. to go home for almost an entire month. District meetings tend to be longer and more relaxed than D.C. meetings.

Resources to prepare for your meeting

I hope you're successful and move on to the happy problem of wondering what to do in that meeting. Don’t worry! My kiddo and co-author for my next book, Yara Changyit-Levin, has you covered with their blog: “How to Lobby a Member of Congress.” If it’s a Zoom meeting, you can look up a few pointers on my blog, “Advocacy Made Easy: Zoom Lobby Meetings.”

Good luck!

Image: Book cover

Buy an autographed copy of "From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started" at my website or order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or any independent bookstore!

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Could You Set Aside Your Differences for 5 Minutes?

Cynthia with Senator Josh Hawley playing Rock, Paper, Scissors
I’d love to tell you the story of my nuttiest lobbying picture. Please read this blog to the end before commenting.

The Cause

This week, I was in Washington D.C. with the ONE Campaign lobbying for global AIDS programming and general foreign aid funding. The ONE campaign is a global campaign to end extreme poverty and preventable disease in our lifetimes so everyone, everywhere can live with dignity & opportunity. ONE has a non-partisan reputation of people of all different political stances coming together to fight global HIV/AIDS. So, when I go to visit any elected official, that’s what I’m about.

As a constituent from Missouri, I can go to Senator Hawley’s constituent coffees if I'm in DC when one is being hosted. I don’t have a lot in common with Josh Hawley besides voting in Missouri and knowing my way around Capitol Hill. He would probably admit himself that he is a polarizing figure in Congress. But my goal is to build consensus with him to reauthorize the PEPFAR program to fight AIDS and get him to remember me positively for future work together. I've met him briefly before in a similar situation when I told him about global vaccines for Shot@Life and then took a standard photo I'm sure he didn't remember at all. While in line for this picture, I thought about how I might make this encounter more memorable.

Image: Cynthia explains more about 
PEPFAR to Senator Hawley

When it was my turn to speak to him, the senator gave me a couple of minutes to talk about PEPFAR. He already knew the basics: that it provides funding for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in impoverished countries. I told him this is the 20th anniversary of the program and it has helped save over 25 million lives since it started in 2003. We discovered we both feel PEPFAR is the "best thing George W. Bush ever did." (his words) I asked him if he would sign the reauthorization bill coming up soon and he agreed that he'd take a look at it, which is exactly what most members will say because they want to make sure nothing weird gets attached to the bill before they commit.

Image: The signed picture of Cynthia 
& Senator Hawley posing formally

Then, I asked him if - after we took the stuffy, formal photo that would show my ONE T-shirt -could we take a picture for fun and play Rock, Paper, Scissors? His staff didn't think he would, so they all stood nervously about while I asked. But he said, "Yeah, sure!" So, we found out we have one more thing in common: that we can be a little silly at a normally tedious Senate event.

The Picture

Image: Cynthia and Senator Hawley are surprised they both chose scissors

When we both came up with scissors, all the staff and other Missouri folks shouted and laughed. He asked, “Should we do it again until someone wins?” But I said, “No, it’s perfect. We agreed on that, too!” The picture captured a moment that stood out in everyone's mind as unusual and positive.

Now, why did this work? I can't speak for the senator, but I should acknowledge some of it probably has to do with the setting on his comfortable home-turf, the bi-partisan nature of my global health request, and my privilege as a cis-gender, middle-aged, white-ish mom constituent who is already known to the senator's staff because of frequent lobby visits. All of that grants me a lot leeway in many offices, and I'm aware I have colleagues and loved ones who wouldn't feel comfortable or safe making odd requests of members. But I did use that privilege and that moment to try to work toward a program that will assist millions of people who don't have access to speak to a U.S. senator nor access to the health resources they need.

I think Senator Hawley, his aides, and I are going to remember that for a long time…or at least until the PEFAR bill is introduced and he hopefully signs it!

The Backlash

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about this picture as I am. Of course, there are always critics in the facebook comments. A common thing Missouri Democrats say to me is that I should not talk to or work with him or any Republicans at all. People call me "naive," a “fool,” an “appeaser” and worse.

Image: Facebook comment saying I am a fool and beneath contempt for my lobbying with Hawley

Image: Facebook comment saying
"I would find other supporters"

I understand emotions run very high and some people cannot set aside their deep feelings for the 5 minutes of a photo op for the sake of a global good. The trouble with that way of thinking is the reality of how the American government works. We each only get two senators and one representative in Congress. If I refused to work with members who are not of my preferred party, then I’d give up 100% of my influence with the Senate because I’m only represented by Republicans.

I campaigned for Democrats in election season, but we lost. Yet I feel so strongly about the 38 million people in the world with AIDS, that I will not take a pass right now just hoping to get lucky in the next election cycle. I do this work because other Americans give up while millions of people are still dying from treatable and preventable disease. They cannot wait for the next election cycle. Most of them in Africa don’t know who Senator Hawley is or anything about him.

When I'm on Capitol Hill with my Nigerian ONE partners, I’m not going to say, “No, I won’t do my best for you because I don’t agree with these folks on issues you’ve never heard about.” The important part is that I agree with my Nigerian colleagues that their friends and relatives should not die needlessly. Historically, corruption in their country has been a constant phenomenon. They persist a system far more corrupt than ours. So, I persist as well.

Still, because of my relationships with other activists in my state, I get to tag along with them to meet with THEIR representatives. So, yes, I work with Democrats, too! Here’s a picture of our face-to-face meeting with Congresswoman Cori Bush of St. Louis. 

She’s known as a member of the progressive coalition known as The Squad, infamous among hard-core Republicans who don’t like them. So, yes, we DO find other allies. And that's the point. It’s not easy to pass bills, so we need supporters from every party. The more different they are, the better. Because if their colleagues see that Cori Bush and Josh Hawley can agree on PEPFAR, it must be something very good and very special that everyone should agree on.

Can YOU Set Aside Differences for 5 Minutes?

Now, this is the part that gets personal. Can YOU set aside your active beef with your members of Congress for 5 minutes or less to help achieve the end of AIDS in our lifetimes? I’m not so na├»ve to think that one game of Rock, Paper, Scissors would assure Senator Hawley’s signature on the reauthorization bill for PEPFAR. He and his colleagues need to hear from a LOT of people.

A phone call to Congress takes only 2 minutes. An email from a weblink only takes a few seconds. Neither of those will be as publicly strange as what I did at that coffee. Add your name to join the ONE Campaign in the fight against HIV/AIDS with this link today for future actions to reauthorize the PEPFAR program this year!

Image: Book cover

Buy an autographed copy of "From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started" at my website or order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or any independent bookstore!

Saturday, June 10, 2023

5 Tips & Tricks to Make Your Hill Pics Pop!

Image: Cynthia sitting on the edge of a fountain

Along with hot tips for burning belly fat, my social media algorithms insist on showing me reels of tiny girls with "10 Tips & Tricks to Take Amazing Instagram Photos." I know they’re offering to make me more attractive while boosting their own clicks, but I started to wonder: Could these influencers help my activism? Was what I perceived as shallow actually great marketing advice to help me spread the word about global health?

Image: Cynthia in front of U.S. Capitol 2009
Photo by Richard Smiley

For 15 years, I’ve been coming to advocate on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. with various global health advocacy groups almost every year. I have over a decade’s worth of pictures of me in front of the U.S. Capitol! My early pics look like 1980’s vacation photos of my youth. As I crossed the Capitol grounds on the way to the House and the Senate with my ONE Campaign group this week, my teammates helped me experiment with Instagrammer tips.

Let’s see what happens when a 51-year-old mom applies tips from glamorous influencers about how to make pictures more interesting and flattering!

This first photo is what you DO NOT want. From a publicity stance, we can’t see the organization logo, so it’s not helping to build awareness of the cause. From a composition angle, we cut the top of the Capitol off. The activist has a closed off posture with a unhappy, disagreeable face. Even if your Hill meeting didn’t go well, your face doesn’t have to tell that story!

Image: Cynthia shows what not to do in a Hill photo

This next one is the standard photo most people expect to see. I bet 95% of my Capitol Hill day photos look like this. Nothing wrong with it. Nice smile. Nametag and jacket are moved aside so people can see the logo. But every activist has this picture. Can we improve on it to be something that will cause your friends to stop scrolling on social media, read your post, and maybe even take an action to help your cause?

Image: Cynthia standing in front of US Capitol with arms at her sides

Okay, enough it is:

5 Tips & Tricks to Make Your Hill Pics Pop!

#1 Photographer shooting up

Ask your photographer to get down low on their knees and shoot up. (Thanks, Jorge!) Show us that swag bag with your logo right out front to tell us who you are and what you stand for. I think a blend between these pictures of Angela Pancella and I would be exactly right. She looks more natural, but you can see the logo better in mine. Either way, the angle on the shot is already a bit more interesting.

#2 Swing a bag

Get this carefree, confident look by rocking back & forth on your feet while swinging the bag & taking action shots until you get a great one. Logos on both the bag & T-shirt are visible with a cheerful face on the volunteer! It looks silly when you're doing it, but the pictures turn out well. The foot closest to the photographer stays put. When your foot farthest from the camera steps forward, swing the bag forward. When it steps back, swing the bag back. FYI, the Instagrammer I got this tip from says that swinging the bag forward will hide your tummy if you are self-conscious about it. I don’t know much about that, but Angela and I modeled both options to for you to choose from.

#3 Find a Friend

Find a friend and strike a pose! Lobbying should be a team sport. We’re more powerful together, so grab a colleague and strike a dynamic pose that shows how much fun you’re having.

Image: Cynthia and Angela smiling and holding out hands together

#4 Add a New Level

Get down low along with your photographer to add an unusual level. This one looks confident and really focuses attention on your location and your organization’s logo.

Image: Cynthia squats down in front of the US Capitol

#5 Feature a Different Architectural Feature

You don't HAVE to have a picture in front of the Capitol building to show you're lobbying in D.C. Find a different interesting feature to set you apart from other activists, like this fountain in front of the Library of Congress. Sitting on the edge of a wall with a leg up looks casual and adds interesting angles to the picture. Prominently display your organization's logo and wear sunglasses to look cool, especially if you’re facing into blinding sun. Look off-camera and add a filter for extra coolness points.

Image: Cynthia sitting on the edge of a fountain

Now that you know how to get some great photos, you'll want to share them with the world to spread awareness of your issues. Be sure to tag your organization. Better yet, tag your policymakers with a message reminding them of your request "thanks for meeting me -- counting on you to help end AIDS in our lifetime!" etc. (Thanks, Meredith Dodson of Coalition for Human Needs, for reminding me of that!)

Good luck with your photos...and good luck with your meetings!!

Image: Book cover

Buy an autographed copy of "From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started" at my website or order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or any independent bookstore!