FREE SPEECH: Get Engaged

By on November 29, 2016

How to effectively lobby your elected officials, even when you’re mad as hell.

Make sure these folks know where you stand before they convene. (Photo: www.house.gov)

Make sure these folks know where you stand before they convene. (Photo: www.house.gov)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Today, it seems there is enough political news to unnerve the most sanguine.

An undercurrent of rage can be detected at festive gatherings, running counter to the message of peace and joy often associated with the holiday season. Some lament the police’s violent attacks on water protectors rallying against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Others worry about state cuts in healthcare and the vow of Republican lawmakers to privatize public lands. Certain people that President-elect Donald Trump has appointed to his team have also stoked concern in many.

Rather than let anger poison winter revelry, there are effective ways to channel your ire—and hopefully effect actual change. Contacting your elected representatives and sharing your views is an important way to participate in democracy, and it’s a way to trade helplessness for empowerment.

In fact, if Utah-based writer and former congressional staffer Emily Ellsworth (@emilyeditore) is any gauge, you’ll be in good company when contacting your senators and representatives. Ellsworth published a series of tweets, starting on November 11, offering insights on the most effective ways to communicate with elected officials. Her messages took off like wildfire.

According to Ellsworth, “Within days, the tweets had been viewed over 25 million times with 14 thousand retweets. By the following Monday, the phone lines in Washington, D.C., were flooded with calls from people talking to congressional staffers about their frustrations with political appointees and requests to investigate
the incoming administration’s financial entanglements.”

Ellsworth has since turned this advice into a self-published book, Call the Halls: Contacting Your Representatives the Smart Way.

“The best letters are the ones that are specific and heartfelt,” Ellsworth writes. This advice goes for phone calls as well. “The power of an individual story is the thing that changes the minds of lawmakers.”

Phoebe Stoner agrees. The former campaign manager for County Commissioner Natalia D. Macker, and current executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, says effective communicating with elected officials starts with storytelling.

“You can have all these facts, and have studied the issue,” explained Stoner, “but if you have a story that represents the effects of policy, then the issue becomes personal.”

In Wyoming, people have a uniquely strong voice with their electeds because of the state’s small population. Fifty phone calls from constituents speaks louder here than it does in a more populous state like California. Wyoming senators and representatives are accustomed to talking to voters.

According to Senator Mike Enzi’s press secretary Max d’Onofrio, Enzi listens when constituents speak. Enzi spends a portion of each year traveling the state and talking with people face-to-face.

“Wyoming is one of those places where people call their senators by their first names,” d’Onofrio said. “Senator Enzi really does listen to his constituents. I think he would say he takes everything into consideration.”

With national legislators, Ellsworth recommends phone calls to district offices as the best way to get your message heard. The second most effective way is a personal email. However, form emails, while virtually effortless to sign and send, really aren’t that effective.

“Form emails that come from websites where you just put in your name and ZIP code are batched easily,” Ellsworth writes. “Lots of emails on one particular issue show that there is interest in a policy or piece of legislation, but the impersonal nature of form emails can dilute their impact.”

To master the art of communicating with a legislator or other elected official, take the long view. Stoner recommends thinking in terms of building relationships and becoming a trusted source of information.

“Relationships take time,” Stoner said. “Over time, the representative gets to know you and knows the issue you care about. It builds trust.”

Stoner’s message is both pragmatic and hopeful. If you really want to participate in democracy and lobby your legislators, you’ll need to check cynicism, and apathy, at the door. Being engaged politically takes time, and heart. The good news is that citizens can and should think of themselves as resources for their representatives. Legislators can’t be experts on everything and they depend on lobbyists – including citizen lobbyists – to provide information and ideas for how to solve problems.

House District 23 Representative Andy Schwartz says just identifying a problem is not the way to persuade him to do something. “But if somebody had a thought about ways to fix a problem, that’s immensely valuable,” he noted.

Perhaps the key mental shift for the average citizen is to stop seeing yourself as powerless and instead as a potential expert.

Now about that rage. According to Stoner, any kind of emotion can provide important fuel and focus for communicating. It’s often that instance of emotion that provides the spark for action. “Whatever that sting is, it is important to identify it in your story,” she said.

So you might say, “I’ve always loved public lands, and when I heard there was drilling planned in the Hoback Range, it really worried me. So I decided to write to you (senator) to tell you how much those mountains mean to me.”

The savvy citizen will identify the areas of shared values with their elected officials. Those are the arenas where you’re likely to have an impact.

Stoner also recommends something most people know but that can get lost in political dialogue: communicating with respect and tact. “It’s like communication in general,” she said. “You have a message you want to get across. It’s best delivered in a way they can hear it.”

A final key tip is to keep things in perspective. You aren’t going to be able to sway everyone all of the time. “You won’t change your representative’s mind right away,” Ellsworth writes. “In most cases, you’ll see more failures than successes.”

“However,” she continues, “despite the uphill battle, a more engaged constituency always leads to more compromise and conversation. When we only allow those in the extremes to dictate the conversations, we grow further apart.”

The Equality State Policy Center will host daylong advocacy training, Shape Wyoming, February 6 at the Radisson Hotel in Cheyenne. For more information visit equalitystate.org. PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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