Picture this: Every morning you wake up at 4:00 a.m. to catch the 4:45 a.m. bus to the train. The next bus arrives at 7:30 a.m. If you miss the 4:45 bus, you have to walk 40 minutes to the train station and risk arriving late to work.
You often think to yourself, “If only there were an express bus that ran every hour.” You’ve talked with some neighbors who are experiencing the same problem. And you and your neighbors all return home at a late hour in the evenings because the bus from your train stop does not run in a timely manner.
Matthew Camp, Director of Government Relations for Teacher’s College, Columbia University, used this example as a possible scenario during our discussion about self-advocacy. Each year, Matthew runs a series of free workshops and programs at Advocacy Academy at Teachers College to teach individuals how to advocate for themselves and participate in active civic engagement. He also publishes Civiclist, a monthly independent newsletter to connect individuals to civic action in their communities. So how can one person find a solution to the problem above? Matthew shared some tips for advocating to make changes.
Figure out who your representatives are
Our local and state officials play a major role in creating legislation that affects our daily lives. However, less than half of Americans know who their local legislators are. Figuring out who your local and state representatives are and how to contact them may require some research; you’ll want to determine who you can contact directly, as well as what issues they care about and on which committees they serve. Matthew stated that there are a variety of officials that we can contact. “It’s not just a member of Congress, but also a community board, city council, town council, state assembly, state senate, house senate, governor, mayor, and school district. Sometimes the attorney general is elected. Right there are 11 people who work for us. You didn't have to vote for them; they still work for you.”
Get on the record consistently
Matthew shared, “You could ask any congressional staffer, ‘How does your senator or member of Congress make decisions?’ And they'll say they need to know what the voters are thinking. How do they know what the voters are thinking? Constituents have to show up not only to vote but express themselves as well. So, being on record matters.”
There isn’t a right or wrong way to contact elected officials. Matthew suggests using the medium with which you’re most comfortable. Whether it’s social media, calling, emailing, or writing a letter, do so as often as possible to get your voice heard.
Tell your story and provide data
If you request to meet with an elected official, come prepared with a specific ask and concrete data. Matthew suggests telling your story to help provide context to your request. In the example of the ineffective bus service, you would want to share how is the issue affecting you: How does it affect your community? What do you think will be a solution to the problem?
Be sure to come with specific data that will highlight vital information. “When you present information, bring quantitative data like ‘hundreds of constituents will be affected by this policy’ or (as in the bus example above) ‘1000 more people will be able to ride the bus every month.’ When you come prepared with information—a datasheet or [an excerpt] of legislation—that helps them … They depend on organizations and individuals to do a little bit of research to help them.”
Partner with an ally
Partnering with other individuals, groups, or organizations is helpful to your cause and makes a difference in getting your concerns addressed. Matthew says we should “think a little more expansively about not going it alone. You don’t want to be the only one to tell your story; you want to find out who are potential partners. Find out who else is doing the work. Ask the question, do the homework, and then guess what? You might be able to go to that meeting with another coalition partner. That gives you power and helps you uplift each other.”
Another way to connect with potential partners and allies is to simply ask elected officials directly who else is advocating on behalf of the issue. As stated by Matthew, “Make a point about being intentional. Ask the elected official, ‘What do you think would be the best next step?’ Here’s the key question: ‘Who else should I connect with?’ If they’re doing their job well, [the official] should know all the players in the community. Their job is to connect you. It’s a way of holding them accountable.”
Want to read more tips for creating change in your community? Visit the Ideas for Action blog.