This is the first in what will be a regular series, Your Activism Guide, designed to make feminist activism more accessible and help you take the power you deserve.
Purpose: Introduce yourself to your members of Congress.
Process: Set up meetings now to drop by local offices (even if you don’t have a specific request, even if the legislator tends to vote against your interests).
Payoff: Existing relationships can bring the most unexpected of benefits.
A few days ago, the American Association of University Women and National Women’s Law Center hosted a Tweet Chat to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which reversed a Supreme Court decision that had effectively gutted the ability to sue for wage discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Joining the conversation to answer questions was Lilly Ledbetter herself.
This is a topic that gets me all hot under the rubber toe caps. Women continue to be paid less than men, and while restoring the intent of a law passed in 1964 was a necessary step, we will not end wage discrimination without a more robust law. A bill exists: It is called the Paycheck Fairness Act. Important provisions include closing loopholes so that employers would be required to demonstrate genuine reasons to pay women less than men, and providing employee protections so you can ask others what they are getting paid without getting fired. Discrimination thrives on silence.
And, last year, Republicans. Then every Republican in the Senate voted to block debate of the Paycheck Fairness Act (barring discussion, not even voting against the bill or amendments!). So I asked the question: All Republicans voted to block Senate debate of the Paycheck Fairness Act. What can we do to engage them the next time?
Here’s what Lilly Ledbetter said:
It got better. Everyone’s favorite (okay mine) advocate and hipster Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro jumped in:
And what they said is absolutely correct. Let’s take this a step further to establishing relationships with your members of Congress now, because the story I’ll share intersects with this issue (although existing relationships can help you move the needle on any issue you care about). In 2006 I was an advertising copywriter in Minneapolis, not a professional feminist, and I took the time to call Senator Norm Coleman’s office in St. Paul to set up a meeting with a staffer who worked on women’s issues. (One of the things I remember most vividly about that day is how much my coworkers were amazed that I was wearing a skirt, heels and hose for my lunch break trip – hoodies and flip flops were the usual uniform.)
Let’s be clear: I did not consider Senator Coleman my buddy. His actions had a tendency to make my eyes roll – and those were the less noxious actions. I considered him, in a word, hopeless. So much so I would come to work on a second campaign against him in time, on that occasion supporting Senator Al Franken (who took the seat, yay!). I won’t lie, the meeting with Senator Coleman’s staffer was awkward, but I would do it again in a heartbeat and encourage you to do the same. Basically we sat down for twenty minutes or so, and got to know each other. I identified a few issues I was fired up about, and acknowledged that while the Senator and I didn’t agree on much, I would be glad to work together as opportunities arose. We exchanged cards. Bam. Done.
Fast forward two years later to an editorial published in The New York Times in May 2008:
Americans saw the mirror opposite last week when Senate Republicans rejected a far more modest piece of civil rights legislation, the Fair Pay Act. Just six Republicans broke with their party to join Democrats in supporting the new bill, which is needed to counter a noxious 2007 Supreme Court decision that made it largely impossible to enforce the guarantee of equal pay for equal work contained in Title VII of the 1964 law.
The short list of Republicans voting in support of the Fair Pay Act included Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Missing was John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Just weeks earlier, I had been on a trip to Washington dropping off letters with a large group of activists from many states brought in for a Fair Pay Act lobby day at various Senate offices. Most Republican offices didn’t allow us to speak with anyone. We had that experience in Senator Coleman’s office. But then, as we were walking out, I recognized the guy I had met with two years earlier. I called him by name and he recognized me back, and said, Erin! to the surprise of the group. (Apparently he had worked his way up and moved to the Washington office.) This gave the larger group the relationship we needed to break through the front desk filters and make our case to Senator Coleman’s staff. While he could have broken ranks to with his party to do the right thing for a variety of reasons, and likely did, no doubt that conversation with a large group of advocates well prepped to discuss the Fair Pay Act weeks before had an impact.
Relationships really, really count. Even if the member of Congress tends to vote for your interests like almost never. Even if you are not a professional activist (I wasn’t at either of the times referenced in this story). If you are reading this, you care about making the world a better place — so make your relationships now. You really never know when it will come back to help you.
So how do I introduce myself to my members of Congress?
Let’s go step by step:
- Look up the local offices for the members of your state and federal representatives – both House and Senate. If you don’t know anyone in an office, use the contact form to ask if you can come in for a short meeting to introduce yourself to a staffer who works on women’s issues.
- If you want, invite a few friends to come with you. Whether it’s just you or a small group, decide in advance on three different specific issues you’d like to say you really care about (for example, student loan debt, reproductive rights and wage discrimination). You can research what’s going on in Congress, but you don’t need to act like a lobbyist for an introduction meeting. Just be prepared to say from personal experience how these issues affect you and others like you.
- On the day of the visit, don’t feel like you have to go overboard, but dress professionally (no shorts, etc.). If you don’t have some through work or a school club, print up some free business cards on the Internet with your contact information to leave behind. If you feel like bringing an article or a fact sheet about an issue you care about, go ahead, but that’s not required. First impressions count.
- Once you’re in the office, be friendly. If you usually disagree with the legislator, it’s okay to acknowledge that, just be clear that you’re visiting as a resource in the community and you’re eager to work together on areas where you can find common ground.
- When it’s time to go, shake hands and look them in the eye. Thank them for their time. A short follow-up email would be nice.
If you haven’t done this before, it might feel strange, but don’t worry. You don’t have to be an expert or an extrovert to pull this off well. The whole point of this meeting is to have a point of contact for a time that might come when you really, really need it.
What about you? Do you have experiences relationship-building with congressional offices? Tips? Glory stories? Share them in the comments.