Advocacy 101: Talking with your Congressman

Advocacy 101: Talking with your Congressman

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By Kristen Johnson. Kristen is a Congressional District Leader for ONE in Washington State’s District 5. She graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in Creative Writing and is currently earning her certificate in editing from the University of Washington. She has been involved with ONE for almost two years and enjoys the Power Summit for lobby day and the inspiring atmosphere to continue moving forward with ONE’s mission and goals.

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This week, ONE’s annual Power Summit came to a close in Washington D.C. Last Monday, myself and over 150 other volunteers from all over the country took Capitol Hill by storm to lobby on behalf of ONE for foreign assistance programs and asking for support for the Electrify Africa Act, which we almost passed last year due to our efforts.

Whenever I talk to people about what I did in D.C., they are often impressed and tell me how lucky I am to be able to meet with my Representatives and Senators to advocate for what I am passionate about. They are always surprised when I tell them how easy it is. Talking to your congressman yourself is not out of reach, you just have to know what to do. Here are some tips and tricks from one voter to another:

1. Dress professionally

Maybe this seems a little obvious, but it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to look put together. If you are going on behalf of an organization, wear a t-shirt to show that you are representing them—just make sure you wear a blazer or cardigan over it.

2. Schedule a meeting

Yes, it’s really that simple. Call your Representative or Senator’s local office and schedule a meeting. If you are in D.C. and congress is in session, you should schedule a meeting for then. They will appreciate at you took the time and effort to come and see them in person.

3. Have a good relationship with the staff

Be prepared for the fact that you may not meet directly with your member of congress, even when you do schedule a meeting. They have busy schedules and don’t always have time to meet with everyone. Sometimes if you schedule an appointment, the Representative or Senator won’t be available, and you will meet with one of the staff members. Do not think they are “just staff”—they are very qualified and highly dedicated people who work very hard to communicate information to their bosses. They are the gatekeepers—everything goes through them before the Representative or Senator sees it. If you have a good relationship with them, they are more likely to pass along what you give them as it is coming from a familiar face. Treat them with the same respect and courtesy that you would treat the Representative or Senator.

4. Know what you are advocating for inside and out

Whatever it is that you are there to advocate for, make sure you know it. Don’t wing it—be prepared. Make your points clear, concise, and articulate. Know all of your stats and information beforehand and how you’re going to structure your argument. Be your most professional but genuine self, because if you seem forced and robotic, they will not believe that you are actually passionate about what you are discussing.

Don’t be afraid to do some research on your Representative or Senator. Find out some of their background— where they grew up, what college they attended, what committees they are part of, or even which college basketball team they root for. These can help you make a personal connection and break the ice.

5. Be flexible and able to think on your feet

On that note, don’t memorize a speech to give word for word; sometimes you will not have very long to meet them, so having an elaborate speech isn’t going to do you much good if you don’t have the chance to give it. There are also brief moments that you can take advantage of as well: you may catch them in the hall, or maybe just leaving the restroom, or sometimes they will pop into the office right in the middle of your speech.  This rule is also good to apply to scheduling meetings. Again, Representative or Senator are busy people, and if you are flexible with the time you meet them, they will appreciate it.

6. Share personal stories

Whether you are there alone to share your comments or concerns about issues or representing a larger group, be sure to make it personal. Why did you decide to take the time to be there? How do the issues you are bringing up affect you personally? What moved you to come speak about them? The stories are what really get through—they make you a real person who has real connections and was passionate enough to share them.

7. Always thank them

One of the most important things you can do is thank them for their time. Say thank you at the beginning and thank you again after. Be appreciative and respectful of their time no matter how the meeting goes, and follow-up with a note to their office thanking them and asking again for their support.

8. Celebrate! You did it!

No matter how your meeting went, you can always take away the excitement and the accomplishment of having the meeting in the first place. You made them aware of your concerns and passions, and at the very least got it on their radar.

I remember nervously pacing the hall outside my Representative’s door before my first ever meeting. I was with a group, but I was doing the introduction. I was the constituent and the first impression to set the tone, and the pressure was building. As I was trying to hide my shaking hands and think calm thoughts, someone gave me some advice that has stuck with me: “you are their boss, and they want to hear from you.” It’s easy to be skeptical, but when the staff is always engaging and you hear the appreciation in the Congressman’s voice when they know how far you’ve traveled, you know your actions matter.

You can find more information about your Representative here and schedule your meeting with your Senator here.

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