How to Translate Good Intentions into Effective Advocacy

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By George Miller and Alice Johnson Cain

As the new Administration unleashes a flurry of controversial executive orders, our country has entered uncharted waters. A new army of advocates is marching and calling Congress for the first time. The ultimate success or failure of the Administration in bringing about the changes it seeks may hinge on whether those who are part of the initial tidal wave of resistance drift back to their previously apolitical existence or double down on advocacy until they become an unstoppable tsunami.

Marching and calling are a good start, but are only two of many ways to sway policymakers. After 40 years in Congress -- and after being on the receiving end of every advocacy strategy in the book -- here is proven advice for how to turn good intentions into effective advocacy.

Vote and volunteer on the campaign of a candidate who shares your priorities. This is your best use of time in terms of ultimate impact. Campaign activities often start up at least a year before Election Day, and some non-federal races, such as Mayor, will happen in many communities this November. Become an informed voter who casts a ballot in every election. Pay attention to down-ballot races too. School boards manage billion dollar budgets and city council members wield enormous influence over local decisions.

Show up in person. Face-to-face communication is the most effective. Town meetings, which members of Congress host regularly, are an ideal opportunity to share your opinion. Bring a few people with you and wear matching T-shirts or buttons that support your cause. Phone calls and social media tags can be worthwhile but are no substitute for showing up. Between town meetings, meet with staff from your representative’s local office to further express your views.

Focus your efforts on your representatives. Lawmakers care about the views of people who can vote for or against them in the next election. Period. Put the offices of your senators and representative on speed-dial. While it may be satisfying to call others, the fact is that your call won’t be recorded and your opinion won’t be counted. The exceptions to this are the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate, who are supposed to take into account the interests of the entire country. They need to hear from all of us.

Have a clear goal. Be clear and precise about what you want. A message to “save our schools” is less effective than a message to “vote no on H.J. Res 57 to nullify K-12 regulations.” The clearer and more direct your “ask” is, the more likely you are to get it.

Do your homework. You can stay on top of pending legislation by joining email lists of organizations working for causes you believe in. A quick Google search can tell you where your elected officials stand. If you can’t be bothered to find out what a policymaker thinks before a meeting or call, why should s/he believe you will bother to vote in the next election?

Give money. Members of Congress spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising. If you are represented by someone you generally agree with, give them the gift of time to fight for your shared cause by making a monthly recurring donation. If you disagree, donate to a worthy challenger. Consider contributing to candidates in “special elections” that occur when a seat becomes vacant unexpectedly, such as when an elected official joins the Cabinet. Special elections are seen as bellwethers; when the underdog wins, it sends shockwaves across Capitol Hill and can give you more leverage.

Don’t substitute petitions for meaningful action. Petitions lure advocates into believing they have taken meaningful action. This kind of armchair advocacy usually has minimal impact. Sign one only if it is part of a larger advocacy strategy, such as if it will be hand-delivered at a town meeting with press present.

Persist. As you take these steps, you will get to know policymakers and their staffers. Reach out regularly and share what you know until you become one of the “go-to” experts that they turn to when they need information on an issue you care about. Do the same with reporters. Send story ideas, feedback on articles, and letters to the editor. Keep the press strong by becoming a paid subscriber to publications you trust.

Say thank you. When a policymaker listens and responds, take time to show your gratitude. There will be setbacks, but there will also be progress. Recognition and appreciation pave the way for the next win.

George Miller represented California in Congress from 1975 to 2015 and is now on the board of Teach Plus. Alice Johnson Cain served as his senior education adviser for 6 years and is currently EVP of Teach Plus.

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