Friday, December 1, 2017

Anti-Poverty Mom's 2017 Gift Picks

Wow. This year has really been something else. It's true I haven't been blogging very much because I've been busy, like many of you, advocating to protect things like Medicaid, Social Security, children's health insurance, global health funding, global education programs, tax credits for Americans in poverty, women's rights, etc, etc, etc that have all been under attack in 2017. At this time of year, I like to suggest gifts that are good for the Earth or help people in poverty. This year, I think it's appropriate to look for those kinds of gifts even more. 

My general guidelines still stand: Buy local, shop small businesses, gift charity donations, think vintage, buy from places that support women who are survivors of trauma and/or poverty. This year, there is a heightened awareness that corporations are playing a bigger part in our politics than many of us previously realized. So, there's even more of a reason to make sure you spend your hard earned money on a responsible gift that helps people and will make your loved one happy, too. Here are my favorite new finds in 2017. For more ideas, search in this blog with the keywords "Gift Picks" to find my suggestions from past years that are likely still out there!

1. Lemon Chef's Soap from Ten Thousand Villages
I love this for host/hostess gifts for holiday dinners or parties. If someone has been cooking for you, this is especially appropriate! Made in India by people of the marginalized Harijan community, this soap has a lemon scent that rids hands of cooking odors. It's crafted from natural vegetable oils by traditional soap makers. The fragrance is unique and derived from herbs, roots, leaves, and flowers. It uses palm oil grown on local plantations. This oil provides work to local farmers and does not contribute to deforestation. 

2. Penzey's Hot Chocolate with a Hint of Mint
Great for kids and chocolate lovers! Penzey's may have headquarters in Wauwatosa, WI, but there is a local store here for me in St. Louis. Penzey's is well known for the owner's open stance against racism and the President's remarks against minority groups. So, if you want to give the give of a relaxing, sweet, delicious beverage that makes you feel good about supporting others willing to take a stand, check out their Hot Chocolate with a Hint of Mint ($10.55 for a 16 ox bag). They do also have a regular flavor and also a wide range of wonderful gift boxes.

3. A Warm Pink Hat for a January Women's March
Ok, I have no link for this. You need to do our own local homework to find a great knitter in your community willing to make you a pink hat. Pay a fair price for materials and labor, then ask if your knitter needs a ride to any of the Women's Marches taking place again on January 20. We didn't mean for this to be an annual thing, but now that sexual assault survivors are starting to be heard, it's fitting for us to keep the momentum going and show harassers and assaulters that we have not forgotten anything or anyone. Here's a list of scheduled marches around the country. Photo credit: Margo Chambers

Made for Freedom products are made by artisans in poverty who are in danger of becoming victims of human trafficking or have been victims already. By paying women a living wage, they remove the source of their vulnerability, and prevent them from turning to sex trafficking, exploitation or sweat shop labor as their only source of viable income. Some of their items are simply fun and pretty styles, but I rather like the "Speak Up" necklace and bracelet with a biblical verse from Proverbs that is a reminder to advocate: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. 
Okay, I've been testing this one for you all year. The description said, "Meet your new favorite bag!" and for me it was actually true. Noonday artisans are people in developing countries - mostly women - who work in partnership with Noonday to come up with designs together and sell them at a fair value to help artisans work out of poverty and to benefit adoptive families.  This bag is from India. At $178, it's a lot pricier than the other suggestions on my list, but it's a good value compared to similar bags you might buy from a regular retailer. Plus, if you find a local Noonday representative and host a party like I did, you can buy it for much, much less while helping even more people. It's huge size makes it my favorite lobby bag to take to Capitol Hill now because it easily holds standard folder sizes and I can use it as a show-and-tell piece to talk about partnership with entrepreneurs in developing countries in my meetings. Warning: Because of the unique vegetable tanning process used, over time the leather will transition from a light fawn to a rich caramel color...but in my opinion it just looks better and better!

6. Solar Powered Charger from Little Sun
Something techie that will help people in poverty AND be good for the earth! This solar power bank can harass the sun to fuel your phone, camera, or any USB-powered device. OR it can provide up to 150 hours of light. It is weather and UV-resistant for camping and other outdoor activities. Plus, for every charger sold (just like the Little Sun  lights I reviewed in 2014), the same exact product you buy is offered at a fair, locally-affordable price to someone in an underserved area. Pretty good deal for $99. On sale for $84.15 at

Friday, October 13, 2017

What Can We Do BEFORE Disasters Strike?

Hurricanes. Wild fires. Terrorist shootings. The United States has multiple disasters happening one on top of the other right now. A massive earthquake recently ravaged Mexico City and flooding has uprooted many people across Southeast Asia. For those of us who are far away from the scenes and have no special training, it's easy to be caught up in helpless emotions. We want to help, but don't know how. We write checks. We send our thoughts. We pray. But once the media fades away from the crisis of the day, isn't there more we could be doing? I certainly don't have all the answers, but I hope we can start a conversation about it. I made a list of four things that I do that make me feel just a little bit better when I hear about a terrible emergency because was able to help before the disaster even strikes. Telling my children about them helps the kids feel better, too, and sets the example of doing good all year round. Please share your ideas in the comments. We can all learn more!

1. Be a regular blood donor
When tragedy hits in America - whether it's a natural disaster or a mass murder by gun violence - good hearted people line up to give blood from their own veins to help victims. Sometimes we see pictures  in the newspapers of long lines of blood donors. This is awesome. It is admirable. We should do this. Folks should know, however, that the blood collected right after a tragedy will likely not be used for recovery from that event. It takes several weeks to test and process the blood for distribution to patients. So, it's great to be able to refill the supply right after a big demand...AND we should also consider donating at other times, so we always have blood there when we need it. 

That's not blood, it's iodine :)
Did you know that the Red Cross makes it super easy to schedule to donate at any time that is convenient for you? The website lets me know that are three regular donation sites within 10 miles of my house and usually a couple of blood drives going on in public spaces. "Rapid Pass" lets me answer the long list of health questions online, so I don't have to hang out there reading forms. You can be notified by email or phone to be reminded when you can next give (every 8 weeks). They even email me weeks later after my blood has been processed to tell me exactly which hospital was lucky enough to get a special delivery of my personal batch of O-positive.

2. Call or write your members of Congress every week about anti-poverty programs
Letter-writing is even more effective
when you do it with friends!
It's a sad fact of life that whenever disaster strikes, it's always people living in poverty that get hurt the most. They have far fewer resources to get out of the path of a hurricane or bounce back financially when they are physically hurt or lose a home. Anti-poverty advocacy groups like RESULTS and Bread for the World can keep you updated on how to take action on programs and policies that help people out of poverty in the U.S. and around the world. 

Sometimes helping communities in poverty can even have benefits in averting future catastrophes. For instance, because of continued global support of immunizations and medical facilities, Nigeria was able to contain an Ebola outbreak in 2014 very quickly. The U.S. was a large donor for this effort. They had used funds to increase the number of aid workers for other diseases, but this had the effect of having more trained personnel on the ground who could identify and isolate patients with Ebola. Also, more medical care facilities and equipment stemmed the spread of the disease early, which was critical to avoid widespread suffering and death. 

Making few calls or writing a letter only takes about 5 minutes each week, but contact from constituents is an important way that your members of Congress decide what is important from day to day. 

3. Proactively give to organizations that provide first responders
I know it's a natural thing to hear about a hurricane and then want to give to an organization that will make sure that 100% of your money will go to recovery efforts of that particular hurricane. The Red Cross got so much criticism after Hurricane Katrina about whether funds were going to New Orleans specifically, that they added a drop down selection list online so that you can choose which disaster you wish to address. 

Unfortunately, first responders can't wait around for you to hear about a disaster on the news and type in your credit card numbers when you get a chance. They have to respond, like, NOW. So, consider making a donation sometime when hurricane and wildfire seasons are over and selecting the "Where It's Needed Most" option. I also like to donate to Samaritan's Purse and the International Red Cross because I simply cannot predict where the next disaster will be. Neither can they, but they can make a really good educated guess about it based on their years of experience. Plus, Samaritan's Purse has great flexibility to respond to medical disasters like the Ebola outbreak. After hearing the harrowing story of a doctor who worked on the ground with them in the early days of the epidemic, I became a donor because I want these people to be mobilized in an instant before I even find out about a disaster on NPR's Morning Edition! Don't wait for me, guys...just GO!

3. Become a monthly donor
Most people have a tendency to think: "Oh, that's just what rich people can do." I used to think that before I actually worked on a non-profit fundraising team. It turns out that most organizations would be thrilled to have a monthly donation from you for even as little as $5 a month, which amounts to $60 a year. That's a lot for some people, but if you are a person that spends that much on coffee every day, it's easily within your reach. Monthly donors often say that they like donating this way because it helps them to budget well. Organizations love it because they can be more effective in their yearly planning. So many of us wait until December to see what we can afford to give at the end of the year. That's good for us, but it's hard for a non-profit to know if they'll have enough money to hire new people or pay the rent if they have to wait until the 4th financial quarter to find out how much they have. It also feels good to me to get periodic reminders from the bank about the good work my money is doing even if I'm too busy to be actively working on a problem. 

What do you do to help before disasters strike? Please leave a comment and share!

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!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: Coffee with Your Senator

My family with Senator McCaskill of Missouri
You might be looking at the title of this blog and thinking, "EASY? Coffee with a senator? Are you kidding me?" I kid you not. Some senators actually lay out clever, friendly traps consisting of coffee and piles of Dunkin' Donuts meant to lure friendly constituents to their offices for photo opportunities. Once you overcome the travel hurdle of actually getting to D.C., it's really not hard to attend one. Anybody from their state is welcome! The question is...what are you going to do once you are there? Can you prepare yourself to turn it into an opportunity to advocate? Yes. Yes you can.

How to schedule a coffee
Senate constituent coffees are often held on Wednesdays or Thursdays. (Maybe because it's easier for them to commit to being there midweek Mondays and Fridays when they might be headed to or from their home state?) When planning a D.C. trip, check the websites of your senators or call their D.C. office and ask if she or he hosts one. If yes, there is probably a sign-up form on the senators' official website. Just fill in your info a few weeks ahead of time and you're all set! They might have cute names. Senator Blunt hosts "Missouri Mornings" and Senator McCaskill hosts "Coffee with Claire." Back when I lived in Illinois, Senators Durbin and Kirk honored the long Illinois tradition of hosting a bi-partisan coffee together where they paid for the treats out of their own pockets and took questions at a podium together before doing a double senator photo...which is just about as rare as a double rainbow!

What will happen at the coffee?
The actual format will vary from senator to senator, but it will usually begin with a check in by staff or interns, loading up on snacks and coffee, and milling about with other constituents before the senator arrives. You'll likely be asked to fill out a form with your name and address, the number of people in your party, and a brief description of what you are wearing. The wardrobe question is because you're about to get a professional photo with your senator and they want to make sure they match up the right photo with the right guest. If you're with another family, fill out a form for each one so you each get your own photo and individual time with the senator. Show up early in case there are front row seats or a table where the senator will sit!

For Senator Blunt, we waited in a room in his suite of offices filled with friendly staffers for 15-20 minutes. This is a great chance to find out which one of them actually handles your issue as D.C. aides tend to be specialists. For instance, if you work on U.S. hunger...find out who the agriculture staffer is who works on the farm bill (and, therefore, nutrition programs) and introduce yourself. If you already speak to staffers about your issues regularly on the phone, find them and make sure they know what you look like. Give staffers any hand-outs of statistics or media that support your cause. When it came time to see the senator, only a few people got to speak to him in this setting. It was done one group at a time strictly as a quick photo op. Blunt did not address the group or formally take any questions.

Senator McCaskill's office guided us to a meeting room with a table in the center and many seats around the outside. It quickly became standing room only, so we were happy to be at the table. As people munched on donuts, a staffer led the room in a few rounds of Missouri trivia before handing the podium over to the senator. McCaskill spoke for about 15 minutes on her most pressing issues and then took questions to hear our most pressing issues.

Senators Durbin and Kirk used to have everyone seated in rows in a large room with a microphone and podium. After every question, they would each take a turn answering. It was genuinely heartening to see them answer on issues they both agreed upon and to see them engage in civil, friendly discourse on issues they did not agree on. Not what you see on cable news. Definitely glad we had front row seats for that one!

While you're waiting, you might have time for photo tomfoolery like this panoramic picture my kids took of me waiting in three places at the same time. Does it triple your effectiveness to clone yourself digitally? I guess not, but it was boring in the waiting room after we talked to all the aides we had business with...

How to prepare for your moment with the senator
The best thing you can do is to think of something to thank your senator for and also come up with a VERY BRIEF question for your senator. If you personally really can't stand their politics, you can always thank them for hosting the coffee. After all, they did put a donut in your hand. That's just polite. 
If your senator does a town hall format, this is an opportunity not only to lobby your senator, but to do it publicly in front of all the other constituents. You get to educate a room full of people on your issue and know that your senator's answer will be witnessed by other voters. The best rules of town hall advocacy still apply here...get your hand up first and highest (so you get to speak before time runs out), write your question down on a piece of paper (so you don't ramble nervously), and have a clear "yes or no" question request at the end. Refer to my Advocacy Made Easy: The Town Hall Meeting blog for more details on tips about how to make this work. Both of my daughters got to ask separate questions to McCaskill - one on global education and the other on climate change. 
If there is no Q&A session, you'll either only have a few brief words with the senator as he or she moves through the room or just the time that you will pose for the staff photographer together. Either way, you've gotta be super fast with your request. You probably will only have time for 2 sentences of exchange while you get posed for your photo. For instance, when we saw Senator Blunt just before the vote on the Affordable Health Care repeal, my moment pretty much went like this: "Hi Senator, thanks so much for having us here today and for all your help with global health funding. We spoke with your staff about health care, but I also wanted to tell you in person that I am very concerned about preserving Medicaid. It helps so many people in Missouri, including low-income moms and kids. We'd really like you to vote no on this health care act repeal." Boom. No time for a huge story while lots of other people were in line waiting, but I got out the important stuff and a very clear request. Then, it was up to him to decide how much time to allocate to an answer.

For our double senator meeting in IL back when the girls were tiny, both senators bent down to my kids like they were going to pinch their cheeks or something. The men were very surprised to have the kids thrust a sheaf of papers at them and say those were pictures and letters from their friends back home all asking them to support vaccines to end polio and other disease. Surprise! Little lobbyists! It was fun, funny, and I think it was the best part of everyone's day. 
After the meeting
The senate staff will either let you have your picture also taken on your own camera/phone or will email the picture to you shortly. Either way, you will have a digital copy of your moment. Post the picture on social media letting your followers know what you talked to the senator about and tag the appropriate organizations. Also, specifically tweet your senator thanking them for the opportunity to meet. After all, they are not required to do this at all and plenty of them do not!

The unexpected!
I'm happy to report that we got a fun surprise from Senator McCaskill this year. After she answered my 6th grader's question, she spoke directly to my girl about the importance of encouraging young women to run for office. She invited her to go over to her office and tell the staff there that the senator said it was ok for my girl to go into the private office and have a picture at the senator's desk. She urged her to get a picture "with your feet up on the desk and just get a feel for it." While my very polite 11-year-old declined to do that pose, we had fun seeing the inside of her beautiful, huge, airy, tasteful office and snapping a few photos. Did McCaskill's ploy work? Maybe! At least it convinced her to go big or go home...she said, "If I did want to run for office, I definitely want to be a senator instead of a representative. Their offices are WAY bigger and nicer!" (She's not wrong...)

Have you ever attended a constituent coffee? 
Tell us what it was like in the comment section!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Persistence is the Key to Resistance

Were you at the Women's March with me? Were you one of the millions of women who stood up against the Trump administration to rally for women's rights and health? Did you rally to the Resistance and jam up the phone lines of our members of Congress to demand all the things we were fighting to protect? Well, we're six months away from the beginning of what was a political revolution for many and Women's Health is on the line like never before. So, why are the phone lines open now? Why did 13 male senators feel confident that they could craft our new health care bill without the help of any female colleagues? Why are Republicans comfortable moving ahead with a bill that hurts Medicaid support, which covers 70 million Americans -  including low-income women and babies?

My opinion is that we collectively did exactly what the Trump administration hoped we would. We slacked off after 1/2 a year and accepted a new normal. We were worn down by constant, outrageous CNN alerts and disheartened by a lack of immediate response to our phone calls. We said "I'm utterly burned out" and eased up the pressure. Well, I'm here to say to all of us, with a healthy dose of motherly love...

Suck it up, Buttercup. Get back out there.

There is no Resistance without Persistence
Look, I know this is hard to hear. I've been an advocate taking daily action for people in poverty for over 10 years. I know what it's like to win and I know what it is to lose. What I do know, above all, is that you will never win if you simply stop fighting. There's no other group of millions of American women who are resting in the wings waiting to swoop in like the cavalry when we get tired. It's just us. We can't flame out early. Everyone has to adjust to the new normal of adding advocacy into a regular, routine because changing the government is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Does that sound hard? Does it seem like now is the moment for one of my quippy, but truthful metaphors to help us make a paradigm change in how we think about it, so we can gather ourselves together and fight the good fight? Good. Because I have one... :)

Healthy Bodies and Governments need Regular Care
Think of advocacy like many of the things we women do regularly to stay healthy. Brushing your teeth is easy to do, but it's not as easy to do it every single day of your life. Yet we continue because we want to still have good teeth when we are old! It seems kind of silly as an adult to have to convince someone to brush their teeth every day (much less after every meal), but every mom knows the struggle to convince her children that this is a necessary, daily thing we must do in order to have a healthy mouth. Well, government is kind of like our health, too. If you want a healthy government, you have to take care of it by participating in its care on a regular basis.

Think of these advocacy actions in comparison to common things we women have to do to care for our health:
Calling Congress = Brushing teeth once or more daily 
Writing to Congress =  Exercising 2-3 times a week 
Writing a letter to the editor = Dealing with your monthly menstrual cycle 
Visiting a Congressional Office = Visiting the dentist every 6 months 
Voting = Getting a mammogram every couple years
So, there you have it. Think about it, but don't take too long because we need you RIGHT NOW. Congress is poised to end the Medicaid program as we know it, causing 14 million low-income Americans to lose health coverage. These cuts will be used to give the wealthy and powerful another giant tax cut. We must do all we can to protect Americans on Medicaid. Call your two senators and say, "I'm a constituent and my zipcode is ____. I'm calling on behalf of low-income moms and kids on Medicaid and millions of Americans who stand to lose health insurance if the current version of the bill is passed. I urge you to vote no on this or any bill that would reduce the effectiveness of Medicaid by reducing funding or block granting it. Thank you." Feel free to tell your own story or throw in many of the other things that bother you about this bill, like a rise in cost for people with pre-existing conditions. If you want to do more, check out this link for sample text to help engage others in taking action or to write a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Those phone calls take about the same time as brushing your teeth and they could protect the health of millions. Raise your voice and speak out every day. Because persistence is the key to resistance. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: On-line Tools

While you will always hear me singing the praises of actions like sitting down with your members of Congress face to face, I recognize that isn't every mother's cup of tea. What is a busy mom to do? Enter the online tools! I'm alternately a fan and a critic of internet tools that help connect people to elected officials with ease. Despite the "Advocacy Made Easy" name of my blog series of "how-to" posts, the truth is that when it comes to activism, easier doesn't necessarily mean better. Senators and representatives tend to be more influenced by actions that take visible effort on the part of their constituents. I love the on-line tools as an entry point for beginning advocates. I just don't want activists to stop there!

The greatest benefits of these tools can be found in these situations:
  • An issue is moving quickly and needs to reach a lot of advocates fast 
  • A person is so intimidated by other advocacy methods or strapped for time that he/she would not take any action at all without online tools
  • An organization wants to build awareness about an issue
  • An organization wants to build up a database of people who care about the issue
In these circumstances, online advocacy tools are a good thing. However, we should be aware of are limits to the impact of these strategies, so that people who are blessed with more availability take the time to learn more effective ways to raise their voices.

Let's take a look at three of the most common ways to advocate online and explore their pro's and con's...

1. Online Petitions
You've probably seen petitions on your friends' Facebook pages. Autofill in your address, click one button, and your done! Here's an example of a recent one. 

So easy! Well, not so fast. I truly believe petition organizations actually do send the petitions in, but I think they have become more of a marketing tool. When the ONE Campaign first started doing these, it was pretty new. Back then, offices really sat up to take notice when an online petition had 100,000 signatures. Now, the internet landscape is pretty flooded and offices know how easy it is and are wise to the reality that people can game the system by making up multiple email addresses. I think the main purpose is really to collect your information, so they can put you in the database for more petitions from their client and/or target you for fundraising asks. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good for groups to find likely advocates and then urge them to take a next step by donating or taking a deeper action later!

Pro-tip: If you decide you want to sign online petitions, give them a different email than your main personal address. You know...the one you give to online stores and political candidates, so you won't see all their junk mail? You may well want that future information, but I'd rather have it in a different account to check at my leisure instead of having my personal inbox flooded. 

2. Resistbot
This free tool has been getting a lot of attention this year. With a promise to help you "write Congress in under 2 minutes," this app is engineered to be an easy, daily method for a texting generation to communicate with your U.S. senators. Once you sign up at the Resistbot website, you can use your phone texting function to type "resist" and send it to 50409. A friendly, automated bot will ask for your name and zip code. The zip code is used to determine who your public officials are. Then, just type in your message. The automated system will then fax your message to your U.S. senators. I used Facebook messenger for this exchange to send in a message about Medicaid. 

Cool!! And yet...this is not without it's limitations. Until you stick with the app long enough to unlock functions like mailing a physical letter to Congress, you're stuck with faxing. Offices are quite savvy and know they can defeat the bot by 1) changing their fax number or 2) simply turning off the machine. 
Guess which of my senators is the biggest target for 
Resistbot and chose to unplug!

Then, once you unlock the mailing app, that brings us to the next kind of tool...

3. Web Generated Emails
The upside is that you can comfortably type away at your keyboard. You can copy and paste your talking points from a different website. You don't even have to use postage! I recommend this to my elderly advocates who find it physically painful to actually handwrite many letters. Here's an example of one from the CARE website.
A customized, personal email is pretty good way to get to your member of Congress quickly. The problem comes up if you don't change the language and it reads exactly like all the other emails that were automatically generated. Offices know that this kind of action is pretty easy to do AND that it is easy for them to automatically sort them and send you an automatically generated response. Your opinion does get tallied with others, but it's kind of like robots talking to each other. You will have more impact if you re-write the sample e-mail in your own voice, hit print, and then mail your messages to the local district office of your member of Congress. (Don't send it to Washington D.C. where it will get held up for weeks as it's screened for Anthrax) Then, an actual human will have to open your letter, read it, and forward it to another human who has to respond to it. The more human power they have to put into it, the more they take notice of it because it takes staff away from other priorities. 

Also, it may sound odd in this era of keyboarding and poor handwriting, but it really is even better if you can handwrite your letter and mail it. Staffers report that members are more moved by a handwritten letter because they know you cared enough to take the time to write each word instead of cutting and pasting. It's a connection to the human on the other side. Sometimes, my young grade-school advocates (and one highly creative adult!) will even use markers and pretty pens to make their letters stand out. I think that's all kinds of awesome!

4. Online "Letter to the Editor" Tools 
This is my FAVORITE kind of online action! Letters to the editor in your local paper are great advocacy tools because it shows the member of Congress that your community is talking about your issue publicly. Your letter goes out to thousands of people at once via local media! In addition, you can have friends and neighbors print out the letter and mail it to your member of Congress saying that they read it and agree with you. However, most people don't take this action because it's pretty daunting to come up with a succinct description of your issue in less than 200 words. A tool like this gives you a nice template that you can customize and send in to your paper directly from the website. How cool is that! 

Here's an example from about U.S. health care...

Just be sure to rephrase things in your own voice and don't just copy it word for word. If more than a few people submit a letter an editor can recognized as copied, you run the risk of not being published and having a bad reputation at your paper.

Are these on-line tools better than nothing? Yes! But remember, Congressional offices are run by smart people and they are understand about easy shortcuts. The more effort you put into an advocacy action, the more they can see you care and the more impact it will have on your member of Congress. Here's a handy chart of responses from Congressional staffers and members of Congress about which actions have more influence on them if the member has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue. As you can see, an in-person visit from constituents is the gold standard. It's the hardest to do and has the most influence!

NOTHING takes the place of a human to human interaction. If they hear your voice or look at your handwritten words, staffers know that you took the time to do it yourself. You are not an online "bot." They have to take the time to listen or read. By all means, use easy online tools, but don't just pat yourself on the back thinking your work is done for the day. 

I firmly believe that some offices rely on constituents who oppose them just getting bored of calling or writing every day. Don't let them be right. 

So, make the online tools an "and," not an "or." Look into your children's eyes, remember what it is you're fighting for, and recommit yourself to making a phone call or writing a real letter every day. You wouldn't trust their care-taking to a bot, would you? So, don't trust their future to one either.