Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lobbying with Kids: Immersion Civics "Summer School"

At the desk of U.S. Rep Lacy Clay of Missouri with
the Congressman and RESULTS
I see some folks out there in facebook-land talking about creative ideas or epic struggles to keep their kids from losing academic ground over the summer. How to make math fun, cajoling kids into picking up an instrument, or encouraging reading are recurring themes. These are great discussions. In fact, my kids might love it if I'd use some of those creative ideas!

I'm often a no-frills, no-fun Mommy who says, "Don't even ask to get in the pool or touch a digital device before you've read and practiced music!" But truth be told, I don't really require a lot over the summer. Summer is the time to explore other important things we don't get to during the school year. For instance, how to sand and paint a gazebo to look like the TARDIS on Dr. Who. Or, "what does poison ivy look like?" and OMYGOD-YOUR-STANDING-IN-POISON-OAK-DON'T-MOVE! 

Aside from nature and industrial arts, my kids do engage in another summer activity that goes beyond what they get in the classroom during the year.
I like to call it "Immersion Civics."
Civics doesn't get a ton of attention in school. Reading, writing, and arithmetic get top billing and lately STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are in the news. Yet citizen engagement and lobbying don't make it to the classroom much. So, if summer is a chance to explore, then it's a great time for civics! Here's our story and ideas how you can still introduce your kids to a few actions before summer break is completely over.

Cathy Hurwitt, Chief of Staff for Rep. Shakowksy
explained how my daughter's letters helped keep
an issue at the top of her ever growing in-box.
There aren't really summer camps around here about saving the world using your personal political power. So, I went the Do-It-Yourself route. On a trip to DC, I took them on a guided tour of our democracy. Starting with a walk to see iconic monuments, I took them to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial to talk about of one of the most celebrated American community organizers ever. Then, we attended the 
RESULTS International Conference and Lobby Day where they saw veteran advocates teaching other adults how to lobby for the first time about anti-poverty issues. The climax of the whole trip was going to Capitol Hill to visit six congressional offices in one day to talk about global vaccines! That's a lot of walking and grown-up talking. But along the way, they met adults who were pleased to see them. A few took time to make them feel special. Congressman Lacy Clay of Missouri will always send his aides searching for toys and goodies for small fry that visit his office (plush buffalo that grunt and snort were a hit). The Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Jan Schakowksy from Illinois is a no-nonsense lady, but when she found out my eldest was behind a letter-writing campaign for a water project, she sat down for a little private tutoring session to tell her all about what happened to the letters once they got to the office.

I like my kids to know they have a place at the table
in lobby meetings.
Full disclosure: my kids don't always speak in lobby meetings. Sometimes they have something to say on the topics of  education or hunger because they can relate to those issues. Most times, they watch and talk with me about it later. Sometimes they write letters ahead of time so that they can feel comfortable reading right from the paper. Other times, they deliver letters from their friends and they explain what the letters are about. The important part is that they see the process with their own eyes, know that they have a place at the table, and feel welcome to contribute when they are ready.
Just like immersion in a foreign language helps one naturally pick up words and tones, my kids naturally pick up our behavior, attitude, and even some phrases when they do decide to speak in meetings.
If there were ever a doubt for me that this is a good skill to teach kids and that the lessons were sinking in, they evaporated the day I saw a lobby agenda document drafted by one daughter in third grade after a peer suffered loss of his soccer privileges - unjustly, in her opinion. She and her friends requested a sit-down discussion with the principal and walked through all the logically arranged talking points. I gave her an A+ from Mommy-school.

I'll admit that this level of summer civics isn't for everyone. Just as my friends who are professional pianists are in a great position to teach their daughter advanced piano, my activities allow me teach them in this area. Nonetheless, ANYONE can start hands-on government lessons without even leaving the house. You can teach kids to write a letter to Congress and celebrate when you get a letter back. If they are old enough to have an email account, you can teach them about an issue and help them take an online action to send an email to Congress. Both of those lessons can be done in under 30 minutes. If you're especially ambitious you might even let them help you make a video showing other people how to call-in to Congress. Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to find an issue that will make the world a better place help them be proud of themselves and the democracy we live in.

Hand-in-hand, I walk the halls of Congress with my girls.