So you’ve read last week’s post on citizenship for dummies; you sign petitions and call/email your Members of Congress; you vote when practical. Congratulations! You’re ahead of most people on citizenship points! But shit is still fucked up, and you want to do more, which is AWESOME. Welcome to How to Citizen 201.
Showing up in person can be very powerful. The local advocacy group for your issues also organizes inexpensive yearly trips to your State capitol to argue your case in front of your state Congress critters. They arrange transportation and train you in what to say, and frequently offer scholarships in case the fee is a hardship.
August is a very special time for us Beltway lobbying minions. Congress empties out of DC and goes back to tour their districts in a whirlwind of barbecues, town halls, news appearances, factory tours, photo ops, handshakes, and baby-kissing. Basically, this is their most concentrated opportunity to meet their constituents. DC also reminds us of its true nature as a swamp during August, so if I plan events elsewhere, I can get out of here! As a non minion, I encourage you to see what kinds of events are in your area, and attend. Pick your favorite cause and tell the Congress critter that you hope they keep it in mind. They will most likely ask you when YOU’RE going to run for office. Consider it!
Give money to campaigns you believe in. If you give small amounts, they will, by and large, continue asking for small amounts. Nobody’s going to shame you for not buying $1,000 a plate schmoozing dinners. More than the actual amount of money, what counts is the extent of their donor rolls and how ACTIVE they are – that brings in the big donors, because, again, it represents likely voters, and people want to back winning candidates. Obama made political gold out of the fact that so many of his donors were “average Joe’s” donating below the cap. Again, little and often. Alternately, donate to the advocacy efforts of causes you believe in, where small amounts might make a bigger difference to their budgets. Campaign finance is really weird. People go into massive amounts of debt for campaigns, and it basically just sits on the books and never gets collected because there’s enough of a legal smoke screen between the campaign and the candidate’s personal fortunes. If you donate to a campaign that does not use all its money, they are legally required to offer it back to you, but if they don’t hear from you it will be put into the next election cycle’s pot.
I also highly recommend joining a protest. If you manage to stop traffic, THAT will definitely make lawmakers notice! Protests can be fun! They’re full of clever signs and cute people who are passionate about what you’re passionate about! You could get on TV!
Getting arrested at a protest is a rite of passage for every young policy wonk, and was recently described by a friend as “eight hours with the coolest group of multigenerational women I’ve ever met.” Civil disobedience arrests are planned out in advance among the protest organizers, as a headline grabber. It’s extremely unlikely that you will be randomly arrested just for being there – you have to go to a training the night before, and are given many opportunities to back out. If you do choose to be arrested, there’s some paperwork, and a fine, seldom even a night in jail. DC’s jail is Metro accessible!
Got some time in the leadup to an election? Volunteer to help get out the vote! It can be super rewarding because you’ll meet people that might not have voted but for contact from you. There are lots of groups from both parties or no party. Whether phone or door to door, you will remind people of the election, help them register to vote, arrange a ride to the polls if they need it, and remind them of your issues if you’re volunteering with a partisan group. The campaign usually gives you a list of likely voters to approach, so you’re not going to be chased off with a shotgun!
So you’ve made it this far. You’re hooked on making a difference. You want to know how to make a bigger difference, by leading a campaign, starting your own social media petition, or promoting an issue that no one else is covering. While that’s outside my expertise, I recommend that you check out the New Organizing Institute, which has lots of downloadable resources and in-person trainings for aspiring advocates. Good luck!
I’m going to leave you with some words of wisdom from Ani: