Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Visit to Jan Schakowsky's Office: July 15, 2008

Part III in my reports of my first lobbying experience on Captiol Hill! Jan Schakowsky is my representative for the 9th district in IL. I have a great fondness for her for many reasons...here are a couple:
-she lives in Evanston and so did I when I first came to the Chicago area. I still do almost everything in Evanston and feel a great connection there.
-she is a champion of poverty issues
-she is the very first member of Congress I ever met. I met her in a Dominick's about 7 years ago

When I made the appt for me and my colleagues to visit, they told me it would be with her (a face-to-face), but her scheduler gave me so many caveats I had little hope she would actually show. The other 2 RESULTS members asked me as we approached her door, "So who are we seeing?" (since we usually know the name of the aide) and I could only say..."Well, Jan, I hope, but I have no idea" We entered and sat. Enjoyed looking at the map on the wall and showing each other where our houses were. Enjoyed looking at pics of the Congresswoman with various celebs. I can't remember who those celebs were now, because the door opened to reveal the small, but forceful person of Jan Schakowsky herself! I uttered a unremarkable startled phrase like, "Hey! There you are!" and the meeting began. Her aide was present and silent, taking notes through the whole meeting. Jan was dynamic and animated. In retrospect, it was the kind of meeting that was ideal, but I was quite nervous and for a while it turned into a nightmare of mine...I'll explain that...but was ultimately a thrilling experience for me.

I led the meeting as I was actually her constituent (the other 2 live in Chicago). I was glad to have the experience of watching the others present at the prior meetings so that I could learn from that. I graciously thanked her for her past work...and with her that's kind of like..."what HAVEN'T you done for people in poverty?" It was actually a little harder to do prep work for our requests for her because she is generally ahead of the game and has already co-signed most legislation we were asking support from her peers on. Yet there were a few things...namely, the Education for All Act (HR 2092) which, among other things, helps to eliminate school fees so people in extreme poverty can get their kids a basic education. It also requires the Pres to prioritize basic education funding for the most disadvantaged kids (girls in remote areas, child laborers, victims of sex trafficking, orphans, and those negatively impacted by HIV/AIDS). I presented that request first because I was wondering about why she wouldn't be on it already. I phrased the request with all courtesy. Something like "We'd like to ask your support for this...I'm curious as to whether there is a reason that you are not a co-sponsor already? Is there something in this Act that you don't agree with?" There was not. It seemed to just have not been on her radar. She listened quite interestedly about it and we had a good back and forth discussion, everyone agreeing with what is in it. She agreed to take a look at it. I felt so great about that exchange that I launched into our next request.

The next request for the House members was to sign onto the Holt letter to the World Bank to urge them to take on innovative new ways to participate in micro-finance for the very poor. This was a hot-off-the-presses request...the letter was not even drafted yet, so this was more heads-up we were giving her. I described the 3 main tenets of the letter, the last of which was the creation of "apex" funds to help money flow into micro-finance lending from Gov'ts without the gov'ts being directly involved. Our sources said that direct gov't involvement tended not to be good for the system, so the apex funds were to protect the microfinance institution from gov't management (presumably they would need protections from corrupt gov'ts, I think). Schakowsky surprised me by saying that she would sign onto the letter, but she didn't agree with the apex funds. I thought she might have misunderstood me so I tried to restate it and she restated her position more strongly...that we need to work with other gov'ts more instead of trying to bypass them. This is the nightmare part. Never in my life did I fantasize about debating members of Congress. I felt out of my depth. I am not a microfinance expert. But, luckily, that was not my function there. RESULTS knows people that are experts. I was there to say, "hey, I am your constituent, and I care about poverty. I think this is a good thing...please look at it or tell me what you don't like about it!" RESULTS gave me some background, but honestly, what she said gave me an education, too. I left her office with more to think about. And, also, let's not forget that she prefaced her remarks with "Of course, I will sign this" which says that she would not reject all the ideas for the sake of that one. So, it was really great to get that "worst" experience over with and realize that it was not bad at all. Indeed, it was really good for me to experience. I am lucky to have a Rep that agrees with me fundamentally about poverty issues so we can sit and have a back and forth discussion on the best way to do it.

Anyway, she gave us a good 15 or 20 minutes which is House time is a huge chunk of time. She announced that she had to go. I handed her some sealed letters from my letter writing friends back home in her district and said "These are from some Jan Fans back home who couldn't be here, but wanted to add their voices to our meeting" She laughed at the use of "Jan Fan" and accepted them. Lastly, I handed her my very first Letter to the Editor from the Morton Grove Champion. It was printed about a year and a half ago and was a thank you to her for taking on a Food Stamp Challenge to raise awareness about how hard it is to live on a food stamp budget. I told her that since then I had become very involved in media advocacy and that talking with her so long ago and getting that letter in the paper had really put me on that path. "Look! You made an activist and you didn't even mean to!" With that, we ended the meeting on a high, positive, personal note and we went on our merry way.

Just a few notes here in the end. One, her language was peppered with Obama plugs. This is a woman who takes her position as one of his national campaign fundraising chairs very seriously! Two, here's an update from today. I followed up with her aide today about our requests and got the following response from her aide's blackberry: "After meeting with you, she did sign on to h.r. 2092. " WOOO-HOOO! I am going to attend a fundraising BBQ in Schakowsky's backyard this weekend. I fully intend to thank her for her support of education for children in poverty around the world!