Politics isn’t my usual blog fare, but after receiving a big response on Facebook to a post about my own lobbying experience, I thought you all might be interested in some more info. Enjoy!
I recently participated in an Advocacy Day organized by NAFSA, the professional association for international educators. This event brought together international educators of all types (international student professionals, study abroad advocates, ESL teachers, and more) and taught us how to advocate for ourselves and our profession with our Senators and Representatives.
Visiting with Sen. Orrin Hatch’s staff in Washington
It was a great experience and my main take away was: anybody can do this! Seriously. It’s not as hard as you’d think, and I’m going to show you how.
1) Think about what issue you want to address.
This one is crucial. It’s important not to go in with too many varied topics or demands. Deciding on one main issue will make your meeting more impactful and will clearly convey your message. For our group, we were there on behalf of NAFSA, so they’d already picked out a couple topics for us to speak about, but they all centered on international education. Keep it simple.
2) Do some research and develop your “ask”
Once you’ve decided what’s most important to you, think about how your Congressperson can help. This is called “the ask”. What are you going to ask them to do at the end of the meeting? This can vary depending on what you’re there to discuss.
If there’s a bill already on the docket and you’d like your representative to vote for it, that’s an easy ask. You can say, “I’d like my Senator to consider co-sponsoring Bill XXX” or “I’d like my Senator to consider supporting this bill.” For example, we asked our Senators to consider supporting the Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, which was recently proposed in the Senate.
You can find all bills that have been proposed at congress.gov. By clicking on your representative’s name, you can find out which bills they’ve sponsored or co-sponsored.
If there isn’t a bill already proposed, that’s ok. You can ask for other ways for your congressperson to support your issue. For certain topics, asking them to make a floor statement in support of your issue is appropriate. We asked our congresspeople to consider making a floor statement in support of international students, considering the current political climate and the recent travel ban executive order.
Maybe there’s something else you’d like them to do. In any case, having a goal for your meeting and a specific action for the Senator or Representative to take will make your meeting more effective.
3) Set Up Your Meeting
While I skipped this part (NAFSA set up all of our meetings for us), any constituent can set up a meeting, and you don’t have to come to Washington do it! Call your representative’s office (local office or DC office, depending on where you’d like to meet), let them know you are a constituent, and ask to set up a meeting to talk about your issue.
Your Congressperson is likely very busy, and the person on the phone will probably tell you as much. But don’t give up hope! You don’t need to meet directly with your rep to get his or her ear. Ask if there is a staffer you can speak with who handles policy issues related to your topic (ie: education, energy, immigration, etc.) Ask if it’d be possible to meet with that person instead. Likely they will be able to set you up with a meeting, and then you’re ready to go!
4) Prepare for your Meeting
At this point you can start to create an outline for how you want your meeting to look. Here’s the outline that we used for our meetings:
- Introduce yourself. Tell the staffer who you are and why you’re there. Bring your business card and don’t be afraid to ask for theirs.
- Transition to the issues. Give your talking points and some statistics that support them.
- Tell a story. This is where you get personal. How does this issue affect you or people you know? Strong stories are always going to be the most powerful.
- Make the ask. Tell them what you’d like them to do.
Keep in mind that you may only get five minutes to make your point (or you may get 30 minutes!). It’s difficult to say how much time your staffer will have, how interested they’ll be in your issue, or if some other pressing matter is distracting them. Prepare to say your piece in a very short amount of time, but come ready to give more information as needed.
Also, do some research to find out how your rep feels about the issue. For example, we knew that some of our reps weren’t so interested in international ed per se, but focused a lot on national security issues. So we tried to address why international ed is actually beneficial to national security, instead of focusing on the personal growth a semester in Thailand might offer a student. Appeal to their interests.
Prepare for push back. Consider reasons your Congressperson may not support your ask. Maybe they don’t want to fund new programs or have issues with the current immigration policy. Practice your rebuttals and prepare for questions.
Finally, if you have handouts that show statistics, overviews of bills, or other documents that you’d like the staffer to reference, you can bring these too. We left a folder at each of our meetings with more information about the value of international education, statistics about state participation, and information about our association.
5) Attend your Meeting
Once you’ve done all your research and prepared your talking points, it’s time to get ready. Make sure to dress professionally and arrive early to ensure you can find the correct building and go through security, if necessary.
Things are constantly changing in government, so it’s possible that the person you’d planned to meet with is busy and someone else will meet with you instead. Just go with it. If you end up meeting with an intern who looks too young for college, just go with it. Remember, these are the people who have your representative’s ear.
If you’re lucky, your staffer will be interested in what you have to say, will have follow up questions, and will give you some insight into what your rep is thinking or doing on your issue. It’s not likely that you’ll get a firm commitment from a staffer on your “ask”, so don’t despair if the meeting ends feeling unresolved.
In some cases, you might end up meeting with someone who’s glued to a cell phone, seems to be in a hurry, or isn’t very responsive to what you have to say. In this case, read the room and end the meeting quickly if it seems appropriate. You can’t win them all.
6) Say “thank you” and then follow up
Be sure to thank your staffer for his or her time, no matter how the meeting went. If you didn’t already get a business card, you can request one now. This meeting was the first step in the conversation, and if you’re so inclined, now’s the time to keep it going.
For example, we invited our Representative to an event on campus, and while our staffer said he’s unlikely to attend next month, they might consider sending a staffer and that we should continue to send invites. Another staffer seemed interested in hearing more about our international student population and we offered to send her more stats and stories.
A couple weeks after your meeting, reach out again and follow up. Ask if there’s anything you can do to support the issue. You’re no longer just an anonymous voice on the phone talking to an intern, so use that to your benefit.
As a note, one staffer specifically told us that she’s fine pushing off meetings with national organizations if needed, but she’ll always try to meet with constituents. While it may not seem like it matters, your vote does count and the staffers know this.
What are you waiting for?
If you’ve gotten through this guide, you have all the information you need to have a successful meeting with your rep’s office. I can guarantee it’ll be nerve-wracking the first time you do it, but once you’re finished, calling your rep’s office about other issues will feel easy.
(Speaking of calling your rep, here’s some insight from a staffer on the other end of the phone line. Keep calling!)
While this advice is based on my experience with federal representatives, you can use it to meet with state or local representatives too. While the process may be a bit different, your state and local reps also want to meet with constituents, so don’t be afraid to contact them.
Let me know in the comments if you do end up meeting anyone and how it went. Good luck!