Thursday, July 17, 2014

Advocacy Made Easy: The Town Hall Meeting

Me, pretending to be a U.S. Senator ready
to answer your town hall questions
What comes to mind when you think of the words "Town Hall Meeting"? I think of the Town Council scene in the movie "Footloose." I also think of Patton Oswaldt's 100% Improvised Star Wars filibuster on NBC's "Parks and Recreation." (Wait...I have to watch that again...OMG...hilarious genius...) Believe it or not, there is some semblance to reality in those fictional scenes of democracy in that citizens are addressing elected officials in a public forum. Let me answer some questions about what town hall meetings are and offer tips on how you can add them to your advocacy toolbox.

What is a town hall meeting? It's an informal public meeting typically open to everyone and held at a public space like a library, municipal building, or school. "Town Hall" can also simply refer to a format where attendees generally get to voice their opinions and ask questions of elected officials, staff, or election candidates. They might have different names - like, "Kitchen Table Talk", "Constituent Breakfast", or "Listening Session" - but anywhere the public is invited as active participants instead of spectators is generally thought of as a town hall meeting.

When do they happen? Summer is when many U.S. representatives and senators hold them because they come home to the district from Washington D.C. during August recess. Some members of Congress hold weekly "town hall"-type meetings for visiting constituents in Washington D.C. Some have staffers do them throughout the year even in their absence to create another way for constituents to get information to them.

Do people really yell? It's definitely a possibility, but that depends on how many emotional citizens show up. Even then, it's usually not a cinematic mob scene. Yet these types of meetings are where programs like The Daily Show are able to dig up some gems because these meetings are where real, everyday citizens can hold their elected officials accountable for actions in DC. This is democracy at its raw-est (not necessarily finest) form.

Why should I advocate at a town hall meeting? Because you'll make yourself visible to your member of Congress and to your community. You'll build upon your public reputation. Plus, your member of Congress will be giving you an answer on the record in front of the public and possibly the media.

What is the format for taking questions? This varies. Sometimes questioners must line up at microphones. Sometimes a member of Congress will call on people who raise their hands. I was just at one where less than 20 people showed up, so the aide literally went down the rows, front to back, asking each person to state their issue in 2 minutes or less and allow time for the aide to respond to each and every participant. 

With those questions out of the way, here are some general tips of how to advocate at a town hall meeting. Remember, the format will vary, but these are suggestions that apply to most all town hall meetings. For more details, see this guide from that will take you from the first steps of finding out where the meeting is to crafting your message and presenting at the meeting.
  • Talk to someone who has attended one before - even an aide. Find out what the format will be and get tips from their experience with your particular member of Congress.
    Senators Durbin and Kirk in IL are not immune
    to the lure of cute children in polite families!
  • Invite friends/allies who will also speak on your issues. With a big crowd, you may want to sit separately and try some crafty birddogging techniques. This is not my specialty, but essentially you have people in different areas in the room forcing the official to come back to a topic even if he/she is trying to evade the issue.
  • Show up early. This is about logistics and relationship-building. We showed up early to an Illinois constituent breakfast in DC with our children and BOTH senators made a bee-line to talk to us as soon as they entered the room because they wanted to talk to the cute little girls!

  • Sit up front and wear a logo T-shirt of your org. You want to be noticed and remembered.
  • Write down brief, clear remarks on your issue and end with a "yes or no" question. There's nothing wrong with reading from a paper, but be sure to end with asking them to take a clear action. 

  • Raise your hand right away if that is the format for choosing questions. Be "first, fast, and high" and keep it up there! Think Hermoine Granger in Potions class (even though it didn't work out that well for her...that was Hogwarts, not Congress)
  • Say something personal about yourself. Give some context for why you personally care about your issue, so other people can see themselves in your shoes. For instance, "I am a mother of young children who cares deeply about their health. When I found out that  1.5 million children - 1 every 20 seconds - die in developing countries because of lack of vaccines, I was horrified."
  • Be brief and polite. No one wants to be there all day nor be insulted.
  • Focus on story more than statistics. People are much more likely to remember a touching story rather than a bunch of numbers. For example, my colleague told a story he saw on a Gates Foundation video about a woman who personally vaccinated thousands of children and concluded powerfully saying, "She just needs our help to get the vaccines!" If press are present, they might ask you to repeat your story for their news outlet.
  • Address the audience as much as you address the member of Congress. If possible, turn your body and have eye contact with some of the audience and the member of Congress as well. Town hall advocacy is public awareness as much as lobbying. You may find like-minded people in the audience who might want to join your group. Or, conversely, you might educate someone who thought they were opposed. 
  • Use your loud, clear speaking voice. You want everyone to hear about your issue AND the name of your organization. Now is the time to be bold and be heard. Speak the truth...even if your voice shakes.
  • Bring all your printed media and leave behinds. You might be permitted to give a packet to an aide.
Now, because this is a mom-blog, here's the million dollar question:

SHOULD I TAKE MY CHILDREN? Maybe. Ask yourself if your children can easily sit through a religious service without causing a disturbance. Then, think about the time of day, what the venue will be like, and if any controversial adult topics are likely to be shouted about. I did not take my kids to a standing-room-only, evening town hall with my U.S. Representative the year the controversial Affordable Health Care Act was passed and adults did NOT behave like adults.  If I'm pretty sure the town hall has a photo op for everyone, will only last 1 hour, and everyone will behave, I'll bring my kids. I also bribe them with lollipops, which are portable and keep their mouths quietly busy!

Good luck and please leave a comment about your experience if you go to one!

Not everyone is excited about town halls as I am.
Use your best judgement on whether you attend with kids.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reflections on Backpacking with Kids: Electricity and the #PowerProject

I just got back from a backpacking trip in the Colorado Rocky Mountain National Park this week. Wow, what an experience! Not only was it metaphorically breathtaking in beauty and literally breathtaking in low-oxygen altitude, but it was a test of teamwork and patience to hike in with 4 adults and 5 children (one 10 yr old, two 8 yr olds, and 4 four year olds). Whew! You'd better believe I have some blogs coming up about appreciation for clean water, sanitation, health service access, mosquitos, materialism, and teamwork. But let's start here with a topic that has a timely advocacy action as well: Electricity.

I admit that the first time I heard about the ONE Campaign's push for the Electrify Africa Act, it didn't grab me the way child survival initiatives do. After all, I spend most of my time trying to convince my own children to use less electricity in our daily lives. Yet over the course of the last year I've come to realize that access to electricity is actually quite fundamental to basic health care and education...things I believe in and actively advocate for. 

For instance, mothers with no electricity must give birth in darkness or flickering candlelight. My first daughter was born on a moonlit, snowy night in Chicago, but I never gave it a second thought that we'd quickly be in a warm, well-lit room with heart rate monitors and all the lights and electricity needed to aid my doctor if complications should arise. 

As for education, my daughters - free of water-carrying or animal-tending chores that many impoverished girls must attend to - still find themselves finishing homework past sundown or reading in their beds. Lack of safe electric light is a limiting factor for any child needing to do schoolwork after the African sun sets on the savannah and darkness creeps across the landscape.

So, I came to know the need in my head, but the practical experience of lack of plug-ins on a backpacking trip helped cement the lessons in my heart as I watched all of our children cope with a severely restricted number of watts last week. Here are a few of the big and small ways that electricity - or lack thereof - impacted our trip and my thoughts about the need for electricity in Africa.
  • Cookstoves. Wood-burning open fires are a major cause of pneumonia and lung disease for people in extreme poverty. I still remember how the delicious smoky smell that greeted me in Uganda brought me pleasure for 15 minutes before I realized that it permeated the air wherever we went as people burned wood for heat and cooking to the detriment of their lungs and forests. On our Colorado trip, we used little high-tech propane one-burner stoves because wood cooking fires are forbidden in the Rockies during high-fire season, but an electric stove in Africa can solve health, ecological, and safety issues all at once.
  • Water sanitation. We mechanically filtered our water using a gravity filter system after we scooped it out of a nearby stream, but we also had a UV sterilization "pen" that we dipped into our water bottles to kill off germs and bacteria. This was a new addition to our camping gear this year and it beats the yukky tasting iodine pills we used to drop in. On this trip, the luxury of a little electricity provided us with the basic necessity of clean water that did not make us sick.
  • Communication. We did bring cell phones, but kept them off most of the time to conserve battery life. Even though cell service was spotty at our altitude, it was critical to us to be able to call out as we navigated the woods ushering around our mountain-lion, I mean, children. Just months ago, one of the 4-yr-olds on this trip had been injured on a day hike and suffered a skull fracture up on the mountain from falling rock and needed an ambulance called to meet them at the trail head. We need that communication. So do people in poverty.
  • Flashlights. My kids love to play "Flashlight Tag" and "Wax Museum" in the dark any time they can get their hands on a flashlight. Each child was given their own flashlight at the beginning of the trip. They were flabbergasted to be chided for these same activities. "We might need them for an emergency!" was the refrain they heard often and barely comprehended since they are used to unlimited light at any time of their lives.
  • Reading. My girls love, love, love to read. At home, it's a bedtime activity. On the mountain, it became a morning activity. I watched them read and read in the tent until they could no longer discern the letters on the page. Then, it was time to put the books down because they were not allowed to use up their precious batteries on frivolous things like words and imagination. Fine for a weekend, but tragic for a whole life.

These are the thoughts inspiring me to write about electricity first among poverty issues upon my return. This past week, the ONE Campaign launched the "#PowerProject," an online campaign to inspire people to write to their senators in support of the Energize Africa Act to help 50 million people in Africa access electricity for the first time – lighting up hospitals, schools and businesses. ONE’s goal is to get 50,000 letters and they've started a little competition to inspire us with a trip to Washington D.C. to lobby on this issue as the prize!

Want to help me go to Washington, D.C., for a “Power Trip” with ONE? Help me send as many letters as possible to the Senate in support of the Energize Africa Act by clicking on this link to send an email to your senator. When you use my personal Power Project website, it will give me credit and I might get the chance to take my stories to DC and lift my voice on behalf of Africans in need. It only takes about 2 minutes and it can mean so much to millions of families. 

Thank you in advance for your actions and support!