With a monumental climate crisis looming over the planet, individual efforts to produce meaningful change can seem a futile exercise. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lobbying for change is an effective (and inexpensive!) way for any citizen to implement substantive climate policies by mobilizing their legislative bodies.
So how do you talk to your representatives and get them to listen to you? I’ve been on both sides of the fence–as an environmental advocate and elected official–and discovered through much trial and error, what works and what doesn’t.
Know Your Rights–and Power
I remember a former elected official in my local government joking on the dais that when he was first elected, he’d replied to constituent emails. “I learned my lesson after that first week!” he chuckled, going on to explain that since then, he rarely, if ever, replied to emails.
I still remember the oddity of that statement, particularly since our legislative body is a part-time, volunteer position where much of what we do (or should be doing) is addressing constituent concerns.
They’re Called “Representatives” for a Reason
Although he’s in the minority, he’s not alone in believing that the legislative body should be a separate entity, removed from the discourse of irritating citizens. Sadly, these few help widen the divide between elected officials and their constituents, fostering public mistrust in what is now perceived as an inept and shady mechanism for action. The result is reluctance by citizens to take advantage of the power of government and work with their lawmakers to implement meaningful change.
The most important thing to remember is that we are your representatives. Most legislators welcome input from their constituents. When asked what the most important thing a citizen can do on climate action is, my County Legislator Catherine Parker immediately responded: “Reach out to your representatives!” She added that she’s always appreciative when people contact her office, as it’s an important way for her to learn about the important issues facing her district.
So the first step in lobbying for change is to empower yourself by connecting with your elected officials, even if it means being persistent. They’re here to work for you. It’s an inexpensive way for a few individuals to generate substantive change.
What’s the Issue?
You’re now fired up to make a change, but before you start, it’s critical that your message is clear and credible. Contacting lawmakers with a vague plan or idea is not productive for you or your elected officials. They’re there to help but will need a clear picture from you of what it is you want.
Do Your Homework
As you formulate your issue and goals, ensure that all information and research is documented and supported by credible sources. No one, including your representative, will (or should!) support a cause that’s not based on fact.
Conducting the initial research and providing your legislators with all your findings will save them a lot of work. When our reusable bag group lobbied our local Council to pass a plastic bag law, I prepared all background material for our Council members, including legal, economic and environmental data, and I then drafted a plastic bag law for our community. It not only saved Council members time, but it also helped focus them on our initiative and sped up the entire process.
Whether lawmakers and their staff choose to use any of this information is up to them, but you will be sending a strong message that you and your group are prepared, professional, and you want to make this easy for them.
Make it Easy and Understandable
To maintain a consistent message, develop talking points and summaries for yourself and your group. This isn’t just a practical exercise for your group in solidifying the action plan, it also demonstrates to your legislator that you are unified and organized.
Who Are You Going to Lobby? Get to Know Your Representatives
You probably know the names of your senators and member of congress, but do you know all your representatives? There are far more whom you should know and add to your list of people to call upon.
I focus here on legislative bodies, but depending on your issue area, you may want to contact your school board, county executive office, or even the governor’s office.
A key reminder: Exercise your civic rights and vote! Your representatives will be more receptive to constituents who are involved and are consistent voters.
Local Town Council or Board
Start here with your local representatives. You may even know one or two of them. Since local boards are often a launching pad for higher office, it’s beneficial to establish a relationship with them now. In our small town, for instance, some of our local lawmakers have moved on to County and State government, and our current County Executive was a former Council member.
An often neglected, yet critical component of any lobbying for change initiative, your county legislature can pass laws that benefit a much wider breadth of policies. They also can nudge state legislatures to implement environmentally-friendly policies through the enactment of county-wide laws. In California, for instance, the county legislatures led the charge with plastic bag bans, prompting the State to finally consolidate these disparate laws into one statewide ban.
Your State Senator and Member of the State Assembly are two enormously influential representatives. State legislatures have been leaders in environmental action, but are also governmental bodies that have been effective in impeding climate action. As such, they should be included in your lobbying for change efforts.
They’re also accessible. As a local elected official, my state representatives are an important intermediary between state and federal activities, but they are also closely involved with their districts and constituents and usually have time for one-on-one meetings.
While you may live far from Washington, D.C., your Member of Congress has a field office in his or her district with staff that is often drawn from your area. You can contact the field office to set up an appointment, or even pay a visit to the office and introduce yourself to the staff.
Getting Noticed: How to Secure a Meeting
Now that you’ve figured out whom to contact, it’s time to secure a meeting, preferably in person. The first step is to visit the elected official’s website for contact information.
Information to Include
Whatever the mode of communication, make sure to identify yourself and/or your group first, and that you are a constituent.
State clearly what issue you wish to discuss and what you hope to achieve from the meeting with the elected official. It could be as simple as a request to share your or your group’s ideas on a particular issue. When emailing, copy key members of your group who plan to attend the meeting with you. The more people on the email, the more it demonstrates a united group, making a prompt response more likely.
If the issue is complex and requires more information, it’s better to email first with a summary and any attachments. You can then follow up with a call, referring to the email.
Call or Email? It Depends
While the general recommendation is to call your lawmaker, it depends on what level of government you’re contacting.
As a City council member, I know most of my constituents and most likely I’ll recognize the name of the sender. I don’t have a staff fielding my calls and I don’t see the same volume of emails that those in other levels of government receive, so it’s much easier to scan my emails than sort through voicemails from unknown telephone numbers. For local elected officials, therefore, I’d recommend sending an email first and then following up with a call if there’s no response.
For representatives in higher levels of government, visit their website for contact information of any field offices near you. Call first to secure a meeting and follow up, if needed with an email and additional call. In short, be persistent!
Before the Meeting
Congratulations! You’ve secured a meeting. Now what?
Do Your Homework (Part 2)
Know your stuff. I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s essential that you present yourself in a professional manner, with a firm grasp of your issue and goals.
Know your audience. Being versed on your issues is only part of the equation. You also need to know who your legislator is and what his position is on your issue and others. Is he a supporter or will you need to do some heavy lobbying?
Spend time before any meeting learning about your legislators, their backgrounds, key policy areas of interest, and even activities that they enjoy. Sign up for their newsletters, visit their official websites, and take a look at their social media pages. Also, do a brief search to see if there’s any recent news about them and their work.
Hone Your Talking Points
Prepare your elevator pitch. If a group is attending, establish beforehand who will be the spokesperson to lead the discussion. If members of your group have expertise in a certain area they can be called upon by the group spokesperson to elaborate, when needed.
Practice, practice, practice, so you and your group stay on point and are succinct. It’s also important to appear organized, polished, and unified. Prep in advance to minimize the risk of group members interrupting, or even worse, disagreeing with each other at the meeting.
Send a Reminder Before the Meeting
Sending a reminder email to the person you’ll be meeting with serves a few useful purposes, the most obvious is, of course, a reminder to a busy person of your upcoming meeting. If it’s an email reminder, you’ll also be able to provide a brief outline of what you plan to discuss, attach any relevant documents, and include any others on the email who may be joining you. This is not only a helpful summary for the elected official but also serves as a way for you and your group to stick with your talking points.
Lastly, the reminder email demonstrates that you’re organized and serious about the meeting and that you’re doing your best to make it a smooth process for all. In short, you want to send a clear message that you won’t be wasting anyone’s time!
At the Meeting
Be organized. Have all your talking points memorized and any accompanying material ready to distribute. Most importantly, be punctual by showing up for your meeting a few minutes early.
Be courteous to all. Whether your meeting is with a staff member or representative, you need everyone on your side, so establish those relationships now by being respectful and courteous to all.
Know your facts. This is where the homework part comes into play. While you don’t have to be an expert, you do have to have a working knowledge of the issue and be clear in your points and ultimate ask.
Be interesting! Showing up to a meeting and listing reams of data that could have been submitted as an accompanying document, is a lost opportunity to engage your representative. Instead, provide information that’s compelling and interspersed with your personal anecdotes and perspective.
Be brief. Elected officials are busy. People’s minds wander and you want to ensure that your points are absorbed and acted upon, so keep it brief and succinct.
Be a good listener. Listen carefully to gauge the response of your legislator. Does she want more information? Does she have problems with some aspects of your initiative? Has she promised to help in any way? It’s vital that you digest and act upon all this information, so listen carefully and take notes where necessary.
Make it easy for them. Leave a summary of your talking points that you’ll also include in your thank you note. The summary should include the names of all in attendance and contact information.
Be united. This is no time for debating issues with your fellow members. Your message must be unified at the meeting. You might even consider a visual way of showing your unity, by wearing the same color clothing, or pins with an appropriate slogan.
After the Meeting
Send a thank-you note. This isn’t just because it’s the polite thing to do. It also serves as a way to add any main points, attach relevant material, and put your or your group’s name in front of the legislator as a reminder of who you are and what you want. With that in mind, always include your full name and all relevant contact information.
Keep the lines of communication open. Lobbying for change doesn’t end with the conclusion of your meeting. Keep the lines of communication open by following up with any updates, offers to help, or requests for additional meetings.
We’re all in this together. I’ve been a lawmaker and have worked with numerous legislators. The vast majority of them are passionate about the issues they believe in and stand ready to help. Climate action can move faster and more effectively when we take advantage of the untapped resources of our legislative bodies and implement lobbying for change initiatives.