The first challenge to "getting going" as a political advocate is simple to identify. Even in thinking about political advocacy, the question "Where do I start?" can be enough to discourage a person from going any further. The good news is there is an easy answer to that big question.
First, get clear about what general or specific areas you are most interested in. For the purposes of this blog, we will assume health advocacy is at the top of the list. From there, your interests may become more specific and include topics like Medicare reform, Organ Donation policy, or research dollars for a specific illness. Whatever your area of concern, don't worry if you have no idea who to talk to about it. Just start anywhere.
1. If you don't already know, learn who represents you. Each state has their own website listing members of the general assembly and what areas of the state they represent. In the internet age, we have a great advantage to "starting anywhere." To find your state's website you can google "(Your) State Legislative Website Directory" or "(Your) State General Assembly)."
You can also start by visiting www.ncsl.org (National Conference of State Legislatures). There you will follow the "Resources and Directories" menu, follow the link to "State Legislative Websites" and click the page's link to this directory.
Once you find your way to your state's general assembly website, the formats may vary slightly state to state. Look for menus related to "Representation" and follow them to specific fields asking for your district, zip code or county. The websites will provide you with the names and contact information for House and Senate members meeting your criteria.
2. Contact your representative by dropping by, making an appointment for a face-to-face, calling or emailing. Speak to them or to their assistant. *Rest assured, Legislative Assistants are the gatekeepers to people and information. They can help you!*
3. Don't worry if the first person you contact is not interested in or involved in your particular area of concern. Remember the rule is Start Anywhere. When you reach the representative or, more likely, their assistant, tell them briefly about what areas of politics you hope/plan to become involved in or learn more about. Follow this short introduction with the question "Can you direct me to someone who is currently working on the issues I care about?" If they don't know, they will likely know someone who knows. It may be a phone tree, but you will get to the right person eventually.
Does My Visit/Call/Email Really Matter?
The short answer is : Yes! by law all visits, calls, and emails must be logged. Your input is counted.
The longer answer is : It Depends!
There are ways to more or less effective when reaching out to representatives. It is said:
1 face-to-face is worth 10 phone calls
1 phone call is worth 100 emails
It takes 7 contacts by a constituent before they become recognizable
The more personal you can make it, the more effective your advocacy will be. Get to know your representatives and let them get to know you. For maximum effectiveness, they need to know you by name.
The average state representative is considered to be part-time and makes very little income. At fist glance this may seem noble but, in practice, it dramatically narrows the demographic of individuals capable of taking on such a position. For most people working for under $15,000 a year (the salary quoted in May of 2010) with a wildly unpredictable schedule is simply not an option. This unusual circumstance primarily leaves room for individuals who are retired or independently wealthy to take on the role of house or senate representative.
These individuals often come from a background of privilege and many have lived within the world of politics since birth. While this demographic certainly warrants respect, it also warrants caution. For a person of color or a person living with chronic illness, it is fair to wonder if this demographic is equipped to speak on behalf of a world they likely do not know intimately. When you ask "Who represents me?" the answer is: You and people who have walked a similar road. We can not depend on those in office to comprehend the nuances of our experience. Our stories must be told. Our stories can influence political views. Our stories matter.
The bottom line, my friends, is we have a voice in the political arena. Once we are armed with all of the information we need and prepare ourselves to be effective in the political arenas, there is no reason why we can't be a part of the change! Political advocacy is waiting for you, if you so choose. We need your voice.