Saturday, September 12, 2009
Organizing a Teach-In or Townhall Meeting
Without question, meeting with and developing long-term productive relationships with legislators is the most effective form of grassroots lobbying. This is true for representatives at the local, state and national level. Visits with members of Congress can be arranged in Washington, DC or in the members' district/state office. Typically, members of Congress are in the district every Friday to Monday and in Washington on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Make sure you allow enough time to schedule the meeting. Budget at least two weeks lead time for a meeting with the member as opposed to a staff person.
On Staff Level Meetings
Many people assume that if they are only allowed to meet with a staff person, it is because they are not being taken seriously and their meeting will not have an impact. This is not at all true. Members of Congress rely very heavily on their staff people. Staff people are the gatekeepers in a congressional office. They decide what information makes it to the member's desk, what constituent concerns are communicated most strongly and very often staff people will even decide whether or not a member of Congress will sign onto a resolution or not. Developing a good, solid relationship with an influential congressional staffer can make you a more effective advocate than if you were able to meet with the member. Sometimes meetings with members of Congress are a quick handshake and a photo-op and don't allow for much substantive discussion. Very often, the substantive work is done at the staff level. That is not to say that developing a relationship with a member is not worthwhile. Just don't discount the importance of staff people.
Understanding Staffers' Needs
Congressional staff people tend to be young, overworked and underpaid. They are usually called upon to juggle numerous issues and may not be familiar with all the issues on their agenda. They rely very heavily on organizations and individuals that can explain complicated issues to them in a concise and clear way. If you can show a congressional staffer that you can be a resource for reliable, concise information about the Palestinian/Israel conflict, he or she will value your relationship. Staffers also need to be cautious. They do not want to give their bosses bad advice or recommend a course of action that can mean political suicide. When it comes to the issue of Palestine/Israel, the risks are high. That makes it critical for you to show a congressional staffer that you are a constituent who votes and that you speak for many other voters in the district. This can be demonstrated by the people you bring with you to a meeting, or by the number of faxes you can generate on a given topic.
Note: Faxing a letter rather than mailing it is much more efficient and effective. Changes implemented after 9/11 to how mail is delivered on Capitol Hill mean that letters can sometimes take months to reach a congressional office.
Preparing for the Meeting
Do Your Research
Gather some key information about the legislator, like committee assignments and voting record. Also, check each members' official website for a short biography that can help you identify ways to make a personal connection in the meeting. Maybe you attended the same high school or both share a love of scuba diving. Personal connections can put the member at ease and help him/her remember meeting you.
Assemble the Group
Decide who will attend the meeting. It can be very effective to assemble a group that reflects the breadth of agreement with your position. This could mean inviting representatives of different religious communities or a coalition of community leaders. You do not have to assemble an all-inclusive group for one, big meeting. It can be more effective to ask groups of 3-5 people to schedule separate meetings. This means that the office is meeting with concerned constituents 5 times a month rather than one, and that can make a more significant impression.
Select Topics and Requests
Meetings with members of Congress do not usually last more than 15-20 minutes. Staff meetings can run much longer. It is critical to be prepared with a few talking points (contact Global Exchange for the latest updates) and one or two concrete requests. The two key reasons for meeting with congressional offices are to educate them on the issue and to hold them accountable to the will of their constituents. The most common mistake many activists make is leaving a congressional office without asking for anything! What you ask for will depend on your legislator's past voting record on the issue or reaction to your information.
Positive: If your legislator has a good voting record or reacts positively to your message, you can ask that he/she:
• Signs a favorable resolution (does not sign a negative resolution)
• Makes a public statement in support of your position at a community event or with the press
• Introduces a resolution or drafts a letter to the President urging a certain policy direction
• Organizes other members of Congress to support a similar policy direction
Neutral: If your legislator has a neutral voting record or no firm position on the issue, you can ask what it would take to get him/her to take a position or be convinced. This can be as specific as asking how many letters or phone calls from constituents the member would need to be swayed in one direction or another.
Negative: If your legislator has a bad voting record on this issue and seems firm in his/her position you can ask that he/she do no harm by:
• Not taking a lead on efforts that are detrimental to peace.
• Not introducing bills, sponsoring resolutions or speaking out in the press in support of unbalanced policies.
Make sure to involve everyone in the meeting. Make sure everyone understands the desired outcome prior to the meeting. Assigning certain talking points to each person helps everyone prepare for the meeting and have something to say. Identify one person to lead the meeting. This helps keep the meeting flowing and allows one person to make sure all the important points are covered. Also assign one person to take notes. You may want to do a practice session before the actual meeting.
Assemble information and materials about your topic to leave with those you are meeting. But don't overwhelm them with paper! It is a good idea to leave a written record of any specific requests you are making of a legislator, whether it is asking that he/she sign onto a resolution or an invitation to attend a community function.
Confirm the Appointment
• One week before the meeting.
• The morning of the meeting.
Conducting the Meeting
• Start by thanking the person for meeting with you.
• Connect with the person by acknowledging something in common or by asking a question. (Example: If it is an aide, ask what brought them to work with the representative). While this can be effective in breaking the ice, don't spend too much time with small talk. Members of Congress and staffers are very busy and you want to make sure to have the time to cover the substance of why you requested the meeting.
• Introduce yourself and the other members of your group. Describe who you are and what you do in the community.
• Explain why the issue is important to you. Show that the issue is personal and communicate your concerns on a personal level.
• Show that you are local—legislators pay particular attention to constituents. You need to show that your support can help the person get reelected.
• Acknowledge your legislator for any previous positive actions. Find something to thank them for, even if it is only that they have not done anything negative.
Presentation of Issues
• Stick to your agenda and assigned roles.
• Involve all of the participants.
• If you have traveled to Palestine, consider bringing photos of checkpoints, demolished homes, etc. Visual aids like these can personalize the issues and are very effective.
• Be honest and don't claim to know more than you do about an issue. Do offer to get back to the person with an answer if you are not able to answer during the meeting. But only do this if you know you will follow up.
• Keep the lines of communication open. Give the legislator a chance to express an opinion. If he or she is supportive, don't be afraid to ask for help in advancing your issue and in contacting other like-minded legislators.
• Keep the communication positive. Never burn bridges. Even though the legislator or the staff person is rude or uncooperative never lose your cool, argue or threaten.
• Make specific requests and ask for an immediate answer.
• If the representative (or their aides) are unwilling to make a commitment, set a date for a follow-up meeting or a time you can call the office for an answer.
• Ask what would be required to get the representative to do what you are asking. You can ask how many phone calls or letters would make a difference.
• Carefully record any questions, objections or concerns.
• End on a positive note and thank the representative or staff person for holding the meeting.
• Ask for business cards if you have not already done so and make sure to leave contact information and written material they can look over.
• Fill out the Lobby Meeting Report (available in the Global Exchange lobbying toolkit) and send it to Global Exchange.
A Word on Framing the Issue and Staying on Message
When deciding how to frame an issue with a representative, it is important to distinguish between your own connection to the issue and what will appeal to a member of Congress. Members of Congress can be risk-averse and concerned above most else with getting reelected. Given that mindset, it is key for pro-just peace activists to frame this issue in a nonthreatening way AND in a way that communicates to the representative that he or she will be held accountable to voting constituents who want to see more balanced, constructive policies. This is not a matter of deception. It is a matter of choosing your words effectively with your goal in mind.
Whatever your specific request of a representative, your message should include asking them to focus on the goal of advancing peace for both Palestinians and Israelis. This can include the following talking points. The last two years have been disastrous for both Palestinians and Israelis. Unless a settlement is reached that ensures peace, security and freedom for both peoples, neither side will be truly secure or free. America has a responsibility to pursue constructive policies that can advance the cause of peace. This is good for both Palestinians and Israelis, and for Americans. One-sided resolutions that uncritically support Israel or only condemn Palestinians do not advance the cause of peace. They damage America's credibility abroad and entrench those with extremist, anti-peace positions.
Ask that the representative judge whether or not to sign future bills, resolutions or letters by asking a few key questions:
• Is this piece of legislation balanced?
• Does it uncritically support or condemn only one side of the conflict?
• Does it offer both sides incentives to make the compromises necessary for a lasting peace to be achieved?
Don't Let Remarks Like These Side-Track You
Representative (or staff person): I am (My boss is) a strong supporter of the state of Israel.
Activist: We are not here to ask you to stop supporting Israel and to start supporting Palestine. We're asking you to support policies that are both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. Until a just settlement is achieved between Palestinians and Israelis, neither people will be able to live normal lives in peace and security. Do uncritical and unbalanced policies that only perpetuate the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis really help Israel?
The answer above will allow you to keep the meeting focused on your message and goals. The representative's comment should not be seen as an opportunity to convince the representative of all the reasons you may believe Israel is not worth supporting or why Palestinians should be supported instead.
Representative (or staff person): The Palestinians cannot be rewarded for terrorism.
Activist: Violence against civilians is certainly condemnable. It is clear that both sides have paid a high price in civilian casualties. It is our hope that a just peace settlement will ensure that no more Israeli or Palestinian civilians will be killed in the violence of this conflict. That is why we are asking you to support balanced policies that can bring both sides closer to peace.
The representative's comment should not be seen as an opportunity to discuss the fact that three times as many Palestinians—the vast majority of them civilians—have been killed in this conflict or to convince him/her that Israeli state-sponsored terrorism should not be supported. It will be difficult to let comments like these pass without wanting to set the record straight. But if you only have 15 minutes of a representative's time, you will want to stick to your message, raise the issues your group agreed upon prior to the meeting, and make sure that you have time to ask your representative for something.