Sunday, July 27, 2014

Lobbying with Kids: Immersion Civics "Summer School"

At the desk of U.S. Rep Lacy Clay of Missouri with
the Congressman and RESULTS
I see some folks out there in facebook-land talking about creative ideas or epic struggles to keep their kids from losing academic ground over the summer. How to make math fun, cajoling kids into picking up an instrument, or encouraging reading are recurring themes. These are great discussions. In fact, my kids might love it if I'd use some of those creative ideas!

I'm often a no-frills, no-fun Mommy who says, "Don't even ask to get in the pool or touch a digital device before you've read and practiced music!" But truth be told, I don't really require a lot over the summer. Summer is the time to explore other important things we don't get to during the school year. For instance, how to sand and paint a gazebo to look like the TARDIS on Dr. Who. Or, "what does poison ivy look like?" and OMYGOD-YOUR-STANDING-IN-POISON-OAK-DON'T-MOVE! 

Aside from nature and industrial arts, my kids do engage in another summer activity that goes beyond what they get in the classroom during the year.
I like to call it "Immersion Civics."
Civics doesn't get a ton of attention in school. Reading, writing, and arithmetic get top billing and lately STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are in the news. Yet citizen engagement and lobbying don't make it to the classroom much. So, if summer is a chance to explore, then it's a great time for civics! Here's our story and ideas how you can still introduce your kids to a few actions before summer break is completely over.

Cathy Hurwitt, Chief of Staff for Rep. Shakowksy
explained how my daughter's letters helped keep
an issue at the top of her ever growing in-box.
There aren't really summer camps around here about saving the world using your personal political power. So, I went the Do-It-Yourself route. On a trip to DC, I took them on a guided tour of our democracy. Starting with a walk to see iconic monuments, I took them to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial to talk about of one of the most celebrated American community organizers ever. Then, we attended the 
RESULTS International Conference and Lobby Day where they saw veteran advocates teaching other adults how to lobby for the first time about anti-poverty issues. The climax of the whole trip was going to Capitol Hill to visit six congressional offices in one day to talk about global vaccines! That's a lot of walking and grown-up talking. But along the way, they met adults who were pleased to see them. A few took time to make them feel special. Congressman Lacy Clay of Missouri will always send his aides searching for toys and goodies for small fry that visit his office (plush buffalo that grunt and snort were a hit). The Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Jan Schakowksy from Illinois is a no-nonsense lady, but when she found out my eldest was behind a letter-writing campaign for a water project, she sat down for a little private tutoring session to tell her all about what happened to the letters once they got to the office.

I like my kids to know they have a place at the table
in lobby meetings.
Full disclosure: my kids don't always speak in lobby meetings. Sometimes they have something to say on the topics of  education or hunger because they can relate to those issues. Most times, they watch and talk with me about it later. Sometimes they write letters ahead of time so that they can feel comfortable reading right from the paper. Other times, they deliver letters from their friends and they explain what the letters are about. The important part is that they see the process with their own eyes, know that they have a place at the table, and feel welcome to contribute when they are ready.
Just like immersion in a foreign language helps one naturally pick up words and tones, my kids naturally pick up our behavior, attitude, and even some phrases when they do decide to speak in meetings.
If there were ever a doubt for me that this is a good skill to teach kids and that the lessons were sinking in, they evaporated the day I saw a lobby agenda document drafted by one daughter in third grade after a peer suffered loss of his soccer privileges - unjustly, in her opinion. She and her friends requested a sit-down discussion with the principal and walked through all the logically arranged talking points. I gave her an A+ from Mommy-school.

I'll admit that this level of summer civics isn't for everyone. Just as my friends who are professional pianists are in a great position to teach their daughter advanced piano, my activities allow me teach them in this area. Nonetheless, ANYONE can start hands-on government lessons without even leaving the house. You can teach kids to write a letter to Congress and celebrate when you get a letter back. If they are old enough to have an email account, you can teach them about an issue help them take an online action to send an email to Congress. Both of those lessons can be done in under 30 minutes. If you're especially ambitious you might even let them help you make a video showing other people how to call-in to Congress. Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to find an issue that will make the world a better place help them be proud of themselves and the democracy we live in.

Hand-in-hand, I walk the halls of Congress with my girls.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What IS Social Justice anyway?

Sometimes I struggle with the fact that there doesn't seem to be an English word or phrase adequate to sum up what "social justice" means to me. As I encourage parents to introduce social justice issues to children, it would be helpful to have a concise and child-friendly way to describe it as a starting point. 

business dictionary I looked up says social justice is "The fair and proper administration of laws conforming to the natural law that all persons, irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, possession, race, religion, etc, are to be treated equally and without prejudice." I like some of the concepts there...laws, fair, treated equally, without prejudice. But I wish we had a phrase with something more of a dash of personal responsibility that can even encompass our living world as well.

There are two concepts I borrow from other cultures that come closer to defining social justice as I understand it and as I live it. "Tikkun Olam" from the Jewish faith and "Ubuntu" from South Africa. As I am neither Jewish nor South African, do please bear with me with a dose of patience as I describe these concepts as I've come to understand them.

Tikkun Olam 
Tikkun Olam is a Hebrew phrase for a Jewish ideal often referred to as "repair of the world" or "healing a broken world." It involves working toward a time of peace, which doesn't mean just ending war, but achieving prosperity, health, and justice for all. It is a purpose in life for humans and the reason for mitzvot (the plural of a word more commonly heard, "mitzvah"). Mitzvot are more than just good deeds we do to be closer to G-d. They are actually commandments to act.

Personally, it appeals to me to think that Tikkun Olam and the doing of mitvot are commanded by G-d. That might not be everyone's cup of tea if you are not of a faith that believes in a creator or if you are just a person that doesn't like to be told what to do. But even without religion, one can still respect that the Jewish faith isn't just saying "Hey, G-d's got it covered and is going to take care of everything. Sit back and enjoy the ride." It seems to me to say quite the opposite. As a mom, I see it as a reflection of my own attitude towards my kids when we brought home pets, "I gave you a great gift and now it's up to you to take care of it. It's yours. I'll help you, but you are the hands that have to do the work for this wonderful responsibility." So far, that's working for the kids. I'm not so sure it's working for humanity. 

Ubuntu is an African worldview coming originally from the Bantu people and popularized during political transformation in South Africa. I've seen it translated to "human-ness" or "humanity towards others," but that falls short of the mark. Essentially, it's saying that a person is a person only in relationship towards others. In "No Future Without Forgiveness," Bishop Desmond Tutu describes it as a common bond between people such that when one person's circumstances improve, everyone gains and if one person is tortured or oppressed, everyone is diminished. There is strong idea of ethical responsibility with this notion of shared identity. For example, if someone is starving, we are all collectively responsible.

Ubuntu has a humanistic approach that gets at the heart of responsibility that I embrace. In both Tikkun Olam and Ubuntu, responsibility for the world and for humanity rests firmly at our feet. If something is your responsibility, you don't just randomly throw scraps of your excess money or used clothes at it for charity. If it's your responsibility, you treat it like a job...make it a priority, come up with a strategy, address it smartly and effectively.

I like "Tikkun Olam" and "Ubuntu" better than "Social Justice." Maybe they roll more exotically off the tongue and make it seem more hip and attractive to me, but I think it's more than that. There's something more poetic about those notions that suggest a oneness of the human extended family.

What is your favorite way to describe social justice? 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Advocacy Made Easy: The Town Hall Meeting

Me, pretending to be a U.S. Senator ready
to answer your town hall questions
What comes to mind when you think of the words "Town Hall Meeting"? I think of the Town Council scene in the movie "Footloose." I also think of Patton Oswaldt's 100% Improvised Star Wars filibuster on NBC's "Parks and Recreation." (Wait...I have to watch that again...OMG...hilarious genius...) Believe it or not, there is some semblance to reality in those fictional scenes of democracy in that citizens are addressing elected officials in a public forum. Let me answer some questions about what town hall meetings are and offer tips on how you can add them to your advocacy toolbox.

What is a town hall meeting? It's an informal public meeting typically open to everyone and held at a public space like a library, municipal building, or school. "Town Hall" can also simply refer to a format where attendees generally get to voice their opinions and ask questions of elected officials, staff, or election candidates. They might have different names - like, "Kitchen Table Talk", "Constituent Breakfast", or "Listening Session" - but anywhere the public is invited as active participants instead of spectators is generally thought of as a town hall meeting.

When do they happen? Summer is when many U.S. representatives and senators hold them because they come home to the district from Washington D.C. during August recess. Some members of Congress hold weekly "town hall"-type meetings for visiting constituents in Washington D.C. Some have staffers do them throughout the year even in their absence to create another way for constituents to get information to them.

Do people really yell? It's definitely a possibility, but that depends on how many emotional citizens show up. Even then, it's usually not a cinematic mob scene. Yet these types of meetings are where programs like The Daily Show are able to dig up some gems because these meeting are where real, everyday citizens can hold their elected officials accountable for their actions in DC. This is democracy at it's raw-est (not necessarily finest) form.

Why should I advocate at a town hall meeting? Because you'll make yourself visible to your member of Congress and to your community. You'll build upon your public reputation. Plus, your member of Congress will be giving you an answer on the record in front of the public and possibly the media.

What is the format for taking questions? This varies. Sometimes questioners must line up at microphones. Sometimes a member of Congress will call on people who raise their hands. I was just at one where less than 20 people showed up, so the aide literally went down the rows, front to back, asking each person to state their issue in 2 minutes or less and allow time for the aide to respond to each and every participant. 

With those questions out of the way, here are some general tips of how to advocate at a town hall meeting. Remember, the format will vary, but these are suggestions that apply to most all town hall meetings. For more details, see this guide from that will take you from the first steps of finding out where the meeting is to crafting your message and presenting at the meeting.

  • Talk to someone who has attended one before - even an aide. Find out what the format will be and get tips from their experience with your particular member of Congress.
    Senators Durbin and Kirk in IL are not immune
    to the lure of cute children in polite families!
  • Invite friends/allies who will also speak on your issues. With a big crowd, you may want to sit separately and try some crafty birddogging techniques. This is not my specialty, but essentially you have people in different areas in the room forcing the official to come back to a topic even if he/she is trying to evade the issue.
  • Show up early. This is about logistics and relationship-building. We showed up early to an Illinois constituent breakfast in DC with our children and BOTH senators made a bee-line to talk to us as soon as they entered the room because they wanted to talk to the cute little girls!

  • Sit up front and wear a logo T-shirt of your org. You want to be noticed and remembered.
  • Write down brief, clear remarks on your issue and end with a "yes or no" question. There's nothing wrong with reading from a paper, but be sure to end with asking them to take a clear action. 
  • Raise your hand right away if that is the format for choosing questions. Be "first, fast, and high" and keep it up there! Think Hermoine Granger in Potions class (even though it didn't work out that well for her...that was Hogwarts, not Congress)
  • Say something personal about yourself. Give some context for why you personally care about your issue, so other people can see themselves in your shoes. For instance, "I am a mother of young children who cares deeply about their health. When I found out that  1.5 million children - 1 every 20 seconds - die in developing countries because of lack of vaccines, I was horrified."
  • Be brief and polite. No one wants to be there all day nor be insulted.
  • Focus on story more than statistics. People are much more likely to remember a touching story rather than a bunch of numbers. For example, my colleague told a story he saw on a Gates Foundation video about a woman who personally vaccinated thousands of children and concluded powerfully saying, "She just needs our help to get the vaccines!" If press are present, they might ask you to repeat your story for their news outlet.
  • Address the audience as much as you address the member of Congress. If possible, turn your body and have eye contact with some of the audience and the member of Congress as well. Town hall advocacy is public awareness as much as lobbying. You may find like-minded people in the audience who might want to join your group. Or, conversely, you might educate someone who thought they were opposed. 
  • Use your loud, clear speaking voice. You want everyone to hear about your issue AND the name of your organization. Now is the time to be bold and be heard. Speak the truth...even if your voice shakes.
  • Bring all your printed media and leave behinds. You might be permitted to give a packet to an aide.
Now, because this is a mom-blog, here's the million dollar question:

SHOULD I TAKE MY CHILDREN? Maybe. Ask yourself if your children can easily sit through a religious service without causing a disturbance. Then, think about the time of day, what the venue will be like, and if any controversial adult topics are likely to be shouted about. I did not take my kids to a standing-room-only, evening town hall with my U.S. Representative the year the controversial Affordable Health Care Act was passed and adults did NOT behave like adults.  If I'm pretty sure the town hall has a photo op for everyone, will only last 1 hour, and everyone will behave, I'll bring my kids. I also bribe them with lollipops, which are portable and keep their mouths quietly busy!

Good luck and please leave a comment about your experience if you go to one!

Not everyone is excited about town halls as I am.
Use your best judgement on whether you attend with kids.