A Former Congressional Staffer On The Most Effective Way To Mobilize The Government
While individual action can spark real and reverberating change, a lot of progress—especially in regards to the environment—comes from laws and regulations. So while cutting back on plastics, adopting more mindful consumption habits, and switching over to renewable energy are all steps in the right direction, contacting your elected official is a leap there.
But from the outside looking in, the government can seem like an intimidating, impenetrable force that's hard to push in any direction. It's easy to imagine a Washington, D.C., office crammed with piles and piles of letters, chock-full voice-mailboxes, and computers flashing with unread emails. And, according to insiders, that's largely true—but there are ways to make sure your voice is heard above the chorus.
Whether you choose to write, call, or meet with your congressional representative (whom you can find here), here are some pro tips for effective engagement, from a former congressional staffer and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group:
1. Avoid mass communications and make it personal.
Staffers typically divide mail—whether it's an email or physical letter—by topic and send the same automated reply to all of them. This is a way to share the Congress member's stance with constituents in a quick, efficient way, but it's hardly personal. "In a clear majority of offices, the response a constituent receives is not derived from the member themselves, or even approved by the member before being sent to constituents," the staffer says.
Avoid a cookie-cutter response by making your note as unique to you as possible. Pull in relevant personal experiences that show why you care about this topic and explain (succinctly!) what you'd like to see done about it. "The best way to write your member is with a detailed, reasoned, and thoughtful note that includes personal anecdotes conveying your passion and concerns regarding an issue," the staffer explains. "These notes often warrant an individualized response, and if compelling enough, may even make it directly to the member."
If there's a topic that you and your peers feel particularly passionate about, you can also make an event out of letter writing. The NRDC recommends pulling together some pens, paper, and envelopes for a little activism party. That way, you can keep one another accountable for writing a note and give one another advice on how to make your messages even stronger.
2. Don't lose your cool.
Anytime you call your Congress member, you'll be directed to an intern or low-level congressional staffer, who are instructed to listen to you (usually for up to five minutes), jot down some notes on your position, and then file the notes into the same categories as the mail. They'll respond by speaking vaguely of the member's policy position, but they won't divulge any information you can't find with a simple Google search. While it's easy to get worked up about issues that are important to you, attempting to turn the call into an argument will not help your case.
"In today’s political environment, rife with passionate disagreement, it’s easy to barge into a member’s office upset, call and scream at an intern, or write a note admonishing one for their position," the staffer says. "If you are seeking to engage a member you know you disagree with, you are never going to engage them effectively from an angry or combative posture. When you share your position with an acknowledgment of another’s viewpoints, your engagement with a member you disagree with is twice as effective. Today’s political climate won't change one bit until we learn to work together and find common ground on the issues."
The NRDC recommends jotting down a few details you want to highlight when you call, including a line about why the issue at hand matters to you personally. So if it's related to the environment, maybe you could go into the outdoor areas in your state you've seen change over the last few years. Making a more fleshed-out script ahead of time might help you stay on track too, especially if you're an introvert.
3. Focus on your own representative.
"Most congressional offices do not engage and will not respond to correspondence from individuals who live outside of a member’s congressional district," the staffer says. Even though particular Congress members are often portrayed as heroes or villains of a particular cause, you'd be better off meeting with your own rep than chasing these figureheads. While an in-person meeting at a government office may seem out of reach, any citizen can request one at any time. It's a lengthy process, though, and you can't just show up in D.C. expecting to talk with your congressman. But pass an initial screening and you may be able to meet with a member of their staff face to face.
"To request an in-person conversation with your member, simply call the member's offices and ask for the contact information for the member's scheduler. It is very likely the office will give you the scheduler's information and you may request your meeting through them," the staffer says, though from there you'll likely have to pass through a lot of other people before you're put on a schedule. "The scheduler will determine if the request is a 'member-level meeting.' This typically means that the individual or group placing the request is either a meeting that the member would appreciate or would benefit the member politically. If the meeting with staff is taking place in D.C., and the member is in town, it's likely that the member will drop by the meeting to say 'hello' briefly."
Attending town halls are another way to speak your mind about issues in your community. Refer to this Town Hall Project Map to find the next coming to your area.
Looking for more ways to become an everyday activist? Check out what actions these green leaders see really making a difference.