Over the past three years or so that I’ve officially been part of the activist world, much of my efforts have been of the marching, rallying, sign waving and facebooking variety. An added dimension to my understanding and effectiveness, however, has been a growing knowledge of how our legislative process works and just how important our participation within that system really is. A rally outside a congressperson’s office energizes rally participants. A face to face meeting with said congressperson might actually have some influence over his/her stand on the issues that we discuss.
Since December of last year, I’ve participated in 4 meetings with 3 of CT’s national representatives to share my views on Fast Track and the TPP. What I discovered at each of those meetings includes the following:
- our elected officials are no more intimidating than anyone else we choose to speak with regarding the issues that motivate us
- being prepared with facts rather than raw emotion lends credibility to our conversations
- face to face meetings can be educational in both directions – understanding why our representatives hold particular views is important for knowing how to either support them or influence a change of their position
- once an initial meeting has been accomplished it is important to stay in contact with our legislators to let them know we are paying attention and following their decisions
I have also been learning about our legislative process here in CT and I urge everyone to explore the same in their own state. We often hear the complaint that our elected officials are removed from the community and not available to hear us. That is only true if we don’t know how and where to find them and then make the effort to establish “first contact.” I’ve been at the LOB (Legislative Office Building) in Hartford fairly often over the past few months, following bills related to fracking waste, pesticide bans, GMO issues and end of life decision making options among others. Until recently, my attendance was at committee hearings to either offer my own testimony or to be there as a show of support for others who spoke on behalf of our common interests. That participation is now expanding as I learn to navigate the Capitol Building while the state House and/or Senate are in session.
My first trip to the Capitol Building was several weeks ago. I was stunned, first by the beauty of the building and then a sense that I was participating in history. I was lucky each time to be in the company of people who were able to guide me through the process of understanding how things work and how to find my Senator and Representatives if I chose to speak to them personally about the issue at hand. I certainly was! When either body is in session at the Capitol, it is a busy, noisy, energetic place that at times reminded me of the floor of the Stock Exchange. Everyone is busy trying to talk with someone else, hoping to influence votes on one issue or another.
There are two ways to reach legislators personally at the Capitol. The first is to stand, watching for them to pass in the hall, being ready to pounce and ask for a minute of time to share your thoughts. There may be others waiting to talk with the same person and you have to be patient as well as persistent. It might be a good idea to have printed material to leave with them to read later. The hallway conversations are really just an introduction of yourself and the issue you’re there to represent.
I learned about another way to speak personally with my Representative that I found fascinating. Just outside the chamber where all of the Representatives meet to discuss and vote on everything from A to Z, is an area that provides paper on which you can write a note to the Representative with whom you wish to speak. The paper asks for your name, the time of your note and a short explanation of the issue you want to discuss. After filling out the note, you take it to another desk and leave it with staff that actually enter the House chamber and deliver your message to your Representative who, with any luck, will come out of the chamber to speak with you. After leaving my note last week, I waited for almost an hour before seeing my Representative emerge from the chamber. He spoke with several other people before walking toward the area where I was waiting but I realized he was headed off in another direction and I had to make a decision to go into “pounce” mode as mentioned above. I called his name, extended my hand (always important!) and asked for a moment of his time. As it turns out, the issue I wanted to discuss is one on which he and I totally agree so there was little need to lobby for very long but it gave him a face to put with my name. Coincidentally, we had spoken the night before when he called my house in reply to an email I sent him earlier asking for an explanation of his recent vote on something I care about. Meeting in person the next day was reinforcement of our relationship in the political process.
Many activists with whom I’ve shared ideas believe that “the system” has completely broken down and that we have nothing gain by trying to work within it to effect change. I am not that pessimistic. I believe that there is a place for trying to influence our society with efforts from both within and without the system. Entering the Capitol and LOB, I feet I am taking responsibility for my views and showing respect for the best of what the system stands for – participation by the electorate.
What chance do we have at changing the system if we don’t know how it works and the parts we can play in the process? Let there be no misunderstanding – my participation in rallies, marches, demonstrations and even civil disobedience if necessary will not be compromised but neither will my willingness to work within the system if it offers opportunities to meet face to face with my legislators. Feeling the empowerment that comes from being heard as one voice among many in a public demonstration is equaled by that felt after connecting individually with those whom we’ve elected to represent us. We may not always get the results we want by participating but we certainly have a better chance than if we assume we have no influence and decide to not to try.