Social justice means that everyone has a place at the table of opportunity and is not continually dependent on charity. Successful advocacy frequently depends on developing relationships with legislators. The first time I visited our state senator with a large group of Latino immigrants, I was not prepared for his yelling at us that they didn’t belong here and should go home. I had to fight back the tears. However, after numerous other meetings, I realized that was his style. Now that he knows us, he is much more cordial.
Building relationships takes time and more than one visit. Plan your visits to start building relationships and advocating for and with the marginalized:
- Research and understand the issue. The Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns (MOGC) is a terrific resource. Know the official’s position. Those of us who have worked with the marginalized may know more about an issue, such as immigration reform, than our legislators. We can educate them as well as the public.
- Try to take several others with you, especially constituents and those directly impacted by the issue, such as undocumented immigrants or someone doing direct service. Mention the faith communities and group affiliations of participants. Some officials like statistics, but most are touched by and remember individual stories. Wisconsin’s transportation secretary often repeats a story he heard about a disabled couple who NEED public transportation to go everywhere, including jobs.
- Remember, you do not stand alone! When you get Action Alerts from MOGC or other organizations, remind the official that many people in your organization have similar views. But don’t say that Maryknollers support a particular position unless it is affirmed in MOGC statements. State that the Catholic Church and every mainline church support your concern, if this is the case. Mention others who are working on this issue: Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, etc.
- Agenda. Some have found dividing up the following agenda among different individuals helpful.
* Thank the official (or aide) for their time confirm the time allowed, and make introductions.
* Lay out the simple agenda. Give a brief background of the issue.
* Let the impacted individual(s) tell his/her story.
* Make your “ask” of the representative, i.e., Will you support..?* If yes, thank him/her. If no, ask for another meeting or if they will study the issue or meet with someone else, etc.
* Thank him/her for their time.
* Leave behind some kind of handout about the issue and your contact information.
It may be helpful to assign a timekeeper to keep the agenda on track.
- Stick to your principles and values, and be clear with your “ask”. It is your Representative’s job to decide where the money should come from to fund your program (but not from programs that protect the poor and hungry!).
- Follow up your visit with a thank you note reminding them of the issue and any actions that were discussed. A local newspaper could be copied. Be sure to thank them for a positive vote or other action.
A personal visit is most effective, but we can also advocate through personal letters, telephone calls, email, and prayer. However, as we heard at a recent rally for the refugee children from Honduras, prayer is not enough! Also, consider returning a few months later to ask the legislator how the issue is progressing and if there is anything you can do to help him/her. Sometimes they need local people to be very vocal. Letters to editors, peaceful demonstration, a postcard campaign, or emails from many supporters help to bolster the position.
With support from other local, statewide, and national groups, ESTHER actually got an important policy change for medium-sized public transit systems in the last federal transportation bill. We followed up on a local public meeting offering personal testimonials and stories with many face-to-face meetings both in Appleton, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC.
Note: These advocacy tips were inspired by ESTHER, WISDOM, and Gamaliel training and from Matt Cato, Director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace, Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon.