“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free’. ”
— Aaron Sorkin, The American President
Nice quote, huh? That speech from The American President is one of the reasons I went into advocacy work. No, I’m not joking. I really did draw inspiration for my career from a movie. Shut up, it’s not lame at all.
I love the idea of “advanced citizenship”, of ordinary people making the government solve there problems, because I’ve seen it actually work. The best example I’ve heard in recent years is of a mother who got a federal law passed that allows college students to stay on their parents insurance even if they have to take a medical leave from school. The story is bittersweet because the mother started advocating for this when her daughter had to take a full courseload while battling cancer because she would lose coverage if she took a leave. The young woman, tragically, passed away, but her legacy is Michelle’s Law.
Now, I hope none of us ever have to do battle like that on behalf of a loved one who is dying but I do encourage everyone, and I mean everyone, even the wingnuts, to keep their legislators on speed dial and weigh in on the important issues of the day. We have the right to bug them whenever we want to, it’s right there in the Constitution, and we should not be afraid to use it. Hell, I’ve been in touch with my Senators twice last week to encourage them to support legislation that benefits Alzheimer’s patients and to support the DREAM Act. It makes me feel all special and patriotic and stuff when I get response emails from them. Like Barabara Mikulski is my BFF or something.
Getting in touch with lawmakers has never been easier. You can write them letters, send faxes, send email, or call them. You can schedule a face to face meeting either at home or in DC. And the best part? They are Constitutionally required to listen! Or make their staff do it. Which is ok. Hill staff are generally smart and have really good, specific issue expertise so talking to a staffer is not a “fuck you”, it’s a chance to get into it with someone who actually knows something.
Calling is also a really great way to get your message across but it’s often unsatisfying. You may actually get to talk to someone for a while but more likely you’ll get voicemail or whoever is answering phones will note your opinion and add it to the “support” or “oppose” column. Don’t take it personally if you get shunted to voicemail: they don’t know that you’re a smart advocate calling with well-formed opinions. You could be a tinfoil-hat-wearing nutjob who is just going to waste their time by telling them how the FBI has placed listening devices in their cat. (True story: a friend who worked on the Hill heard that one from a constituent). So if you call, be prepared to get to the point very quickly.
Letters are nice, but they have to go to West Virginia and be irradiated to make sure there’s no harmful substance in the envelope, so that’s not a time-effective means of communication. For handwritten correspondence, go with a fax.
Email is really the medium of choice for advocacy these days. You can email your Members right from their webpages or you can sign up for advocacy alerts with organizations that deal with issues that matter to you. Many will send you an alert when something important is coming up and you can send an email to legislators with just a few clicks. They even write the form letter for you. Those form letters are fine, but if you have the time, modify them to include personal details as to why you care. The personal stories the human face, are what makes the difference between good advocacy and the kind of advocacy that haunts a legislator’s dreams.
Being an advocate doesn’t take a lot of time and it really doesn’t take any money. It just takes a little attention to the news – the good kind of news that tells you facts and timetables about Congressional action, not the foaming-at-the-mouth punditry that tries to masquerade as news – and some quick fingers on your keyboard to make sure your opinion is counted when your elected officials are making voting decisions. If you feel like your opinion is NOT being counted, even when you share it clearly and intelligently, well, that’s what elections are for. And feel free to tell them that.
To find your Senators, visit www.senate.gov
To find your Member of Congress, visit www.house.gov