Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Guest Blog: Lobbying on Zoom with UNICEF by Yara Changyit-Levin

Today's guest blogger is a very close colleague of mine: Yara Changyit-Levin. She is a high-school activist who writes the blog Thrill Seeking for Nerds (who want to change the world) and advocates about global health, climate issues, gun violence, and U.S. poverty. I admire how she trains other activists over Zoom and other digital platforms during isolation. I'm also pretty biased about her accomplishments because she's my daughter!

Our local senate office reached out to Yara recently to set up a lobby meeting via Zoom. So many good relationship building things happened in that meeting that I wanted her to share it with you. Perhaps you can pick up a few tips from this high-school UNICEF group? Their experience shows us how human the senate staffers are as they grow and learn new ways of communicating with constituents during this age of COVID-19.

If you'd like to support Yara and her UNICEF team members, please call your senate office and say, "My name is ____ and my zip-code is _____. Please ask the senator to sign Senate Resolution 511 to support Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to make sure children around the world have access to immunizations for measles, polio, and - eventually - COVID-19. Thank you."

Take it away, Yara...


“You know, you’re the first meeting we’ve had that isn’t about COVID.”

I heard this from Senator Josh Hawley's aide in a virtual lobby meeting last week with my school’s UNICEF Club.

Yara (top center) facilitates the meeting with Senator Hawley's aides (top left and right)
and her fellow UNICEF Club members.

Many people are already familiar with UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, which does exactly what the name implies. UNICEF has many different programs to put children first, including providing health care, education, emergency relief, and more in over 190 countries and territories.

So, what does a high school UNICEF Club do? We hold bake sales and other fundraisers for UNICEF, hold meetings, and we even make announcements at daily school assemblies when there’s a current event that affects children around the world, such as earthquakes in Puerto Rico or, most recently, the spread of COVID-19.

As Anti-Poverty Mom’s daughter, I was already familiar with UNICEF (having lobbied for funding and participated in trick-or-treat for UNICEF), so I was really excited to see this club at my school.

This school year, I became one of the club’s co-leaders and took on the role of Advocacy Lead, which has been very exciting! As a club, we’re doing more advocacy along the lines of RESULTS or Shot@Life, including our Valentine’s Day letter-writing to Congress. Before spring break, I hoped to hand-deliver our letters to a Senator’s local office and have our first lobby meeting as a club, so I submitted an official meeting request.

Letter boxes collected constituent letters at school and
at an at-home letter writing event before
COVID-19 isolation started.
Needless to say, COVID disrupted those plans. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear back about that meeting. It just wasn’t going to happen.
But after four weeks, I got an email back! Not one, but two local aides were available to have a virtual meeting with us and get to know our UNICEF Club. I had a quick prep session with one of my co-leaders, who was lobbying for the first time.

These letters from the collection boxes were packaged
together in a large envelope & mailed after the meeting. 

We talked about two bipartisan resolutions, S. Res. 112 (a framework to end all forms of violence against children) and S. Res. 511 (supporting funding for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance). Mostly, however, we just talked about what our club was doing in the community and how we took an interest in advocacy, so we can build a relationship with this office. One of the senior co-leaders was able to join us to add her voice, as she’s been a leader for many years and seen the club evolve.

What was most interesting to me was what we learned about how Congressional aides do their jobs these days. These two had never used Zoom before, which surprised me, so they got to learn tips and tricks from a high school sophomore, junior, and senior! 

As I mentioned earlier with the quote that started this blog, they are really busy with COVID-19 stuff, trying to help their constituents navigate government agencies. One aide spends nearly all his time answering questions about the stimulus checks, when he himself still hadn’t received his own check! 

The aides for this office are working from home, so they can’t check the mail every day even when there’s a flood of constituents reaching out with various questions and demands. This meeting was a positive one for UNICEF Club and for our relationship to the Senator’s office— we all learned new lessons about communication between Congress and constituents. 

I’m looking forward to another year of UNICEF Club when we return to school, with more advocacy actions to follow. If you feel ready to take action with us, I recommend visiting to find some handy, customizable emails that will actually reach Congress in a timely manner!