Visiting and Building a Relationship with your Legislators
If you have not visited your Senators or Representative, the process can seem a little daunting. How do I set up the meeting? Will they listen to me? How do I translate one visit into a relationship that can further serve language education? Still, when I am in Washington, D.C. working with the Joint National Committee for Languages, and I ask the people in our Congressional offices what more I could be doing, they always say that they need to hear from more than just me. The greater number of us who visit and email our concerns, both in times of crisis and on a regular basis in order to create a relationship with the member, the greater sense they have as to the importance of our issue. The constituent’s voice does ring the loudest when it calls.
If you are going to be in D.C. for other travel, make an appointment to see your Senators or Representative while you are there. Think if you have any contacts who might help you in making this appointment, but even if you do not, make that call! You may well meet with a staffer, but you still will end up with a contact in the office who can help you later. Even if you never go to D.C., you can make an appointment in the member’s local office. If you can, find out the name of the staffer who handles educational policy for the member. It is worth the time to make contacts in both offices; you should not think of the legislative process as one taking place exclusively halfway across the country. Constituent voices are sought locally too.
Contact the scheduler for the office you hope to visit; I have included contact information below for both our national and state legislative bodies, though the article I am writing today is developed from my experiences of visiting Washington, D.C. with JNCL-NCLIS. The wonderful staff of that organization has patiently taught me (and re-taught me) all I am discussing here today. Explain who you are and why you want a meeting (i.e., to introduce yourself and your issue to the legislator). Be ready to be flexible on time—the earlier you can work on the scheduling the better. You should request a follow up email concerning the time and date to make sure there are no confusions. Prepare the background information you want to bring with you to the meeting, and have it ready electronically to send as a follow up. Dress up for this meeting—this is the main chance I have every year to pull out my interview suit! On the day of the meeting, show up early to check in; the receptionist may ask for a business card at this point, so have extras with you. Even if you have an appointment with your legislator, a Legislative Assistant or another staffer might actually take the meeting. If you are in Washington, you will find the offices amazingly cramped—do not be offended if the meeting takes place in the hall or even on the move. The important thing to remember is your message; be flexible about how you deliver it. Either the member or the staffer may be running late. Remember: flexibility! Another hint: the staffer will most likely look like one of your students (or very close to it). Do not be fooled by their age; these young people have an incredible amount of responsibility and influence, so take them and their work seriously.
Offer a business card and ask for one in return from each person you are meeting. The meetings are usually short, so be succinct and leave time for questions. Get those in attendance talking about their familiarity with languages—often the staffers in particular are eager to discuss their travel, cultural, or linguistic experiences. Do not assume the legislators or their staff know the importance of your topic, however; sound data backing up your arguments is most helpful. Introduce yourself and your program. Remember that you have a story to tell: the importance of language education to your students and to your school as well as in your community, in the state, and in the world. I have spoken in this space before about keeping yourself informed via the organizations and newsletters out there (WAFLT’s EVoice, November, 2105; http://www.waflt.org/stay-informed-stay-connected/). Now is the time to show your expertise with timely, accurate information: what are the facts and the issues that the member needs to know? You are also the human face of the issue, so have an anecdote ready to tell. Do you have permission to invite the member to visit your program? These invitations are welcome even if the office cannot accept every one they receive. Bring the conversation to a close with two or three key, summarizing points. Along the way, do not be afraid to admit you do not know the answer to a question, but do offer to find out and follow up. Finally, what is your “ask”? General support? A specific bill? If you do not bring up the point, the staffer will, so it is good to think through your answer to that question.
It is good to have a “leave behind” of the information you discuss, a short summary of the points you made, but you should also send a follow-up note to your contacts with electronic copies of what you gave them at the meeting. This is a good chance to restate briefly what you discussed in the meeting as well. Include any follow-up information asked for in the meeting, and reiterate your invitation to visit your program. Thank the staffers again for the time it took to meet with you.
There will be times when there is not much sympathy in the room for our cause, no matter how passionately we believe in our students and what they can accomplish with the knowledge we want them to acquire. Having an articulate response as to why more money should be spent on education is important. Still, be diplomatic and leave room for a more successful meeting later. As tempting as it might be, do not argue when they say something with which you disagree. No matter how badly you feel things went, remember to thank those in attendance for their time.
Another way to develop a relationship is to attend events in the district in an effort to meet the member face-to-face. It is good to know on what committees your Senators and Representative serve. Learn about them to see if you have common connections or interests that would help build a bond. Then you can tailor your message as to the importance of language education to their specific areas of interest and influence. Do not forget the simple, human element, however. Build a rapport by sending good news at periodic intervals. Then you are not just asking for help when your back is against the wall. Follow and act on the alerts at the state and national level, but keep your politicians informed about local news too, especially the good news. They actually want to know what is happening at home so they look well informed too.
If you can arrange for a legislator visit to your school, it gives you an incredible opportunity to articulate long-term goals and needs as well as highlighting the power of language education in action. If you can arrange such a visit, you will have much to think about. Do you have a fact sheet about your program? Can you allow in the press? What sort of release is needed for the students? Who is arranging the photographer? Let the others in your building know about the visit, and remind them that it is not a political statement about the visiting member, but rather a chance to highlight the work of the children. Leave time for discussion during the meeting, and make sure you send follow up letters to thank the member and the staff who attended.
If all of this seems simply too overwhelming, you can still make contact. Email and phone calls count—email really is as good as a paper letter these days. Email is efficient for the offices and still lets your voice be heard. If you did make a personal contact, nurture that relationship via email. In those follow up emails, personalize the message, but get to the point: oh, the volume of email they do receive! As I have said before (WAFLT’s EVoice, July, 2105; http://www.waflt.org/reaching-out-to-D.C./), when there is a critical issue, respond via ACTFL’s Capwiz system or via the personal contact you have now made if you have a little more time. Each contact counts, so make that first step today!
For contact information and more about your members:
US House of Representatives
Wisconsin State Senate
Wisconsin State Assembly