Lobbying at the Capital

February 27, 2014

In preparation for our day of lobbying at the capital, we read several inspiring stories. We reminded each other of our skills and became more comfortable with this unfamiliar process. Miriam Stein’s story, “Make Your Voice Matter with Law Makers,” depicted a social worker who, like us, felt unprepared and apolitical. ‘Surely legislators would not want to listen to a ‘lowly citizen’ like her’, she thought. As exposed as it made her feel at first, with practice, she realized she had all the skills she needed to get legislators to listen to her. She also discovered how empowering and rewarding it was to be heard on issues she found so important.

            In class, we glanced at a handout called “Running into Roadblocks” which included “Fifteen Common Boundaries”: “They’re so busy, they wouldn’t have time to talk with me,” “I’m just one person; I can’t do much,” to mention a few. We were asked to circle the three roadblocks we identified with most. Then we handed our circled points to our neighbor and convinced one another that “just one person” certainly “could make a difference”. My partner awakened me to the fact that I am the expert on my bill. The legislators I speak to will probably want to be educated on this issue, and because I am a young person, they will probably be more eager to get on board with my views. It also felt good to reciprocate and let my partner know that she too had an abundance of lobbying skills she was unaware of, and that she would absolutely be prepared and confident come lobby day.

            Next came the more concrete part: research, fact sheets, elevator speech. Emily and I revised our fact sheet over and over until it was pristine. Our peers gave us helpful advice, marking places where language was unclear and encouraging us to finish the page by stating our argument again. Finally, our sheet had all the elements: the argument, the bullet points (or facts), the sources, and a map. Next, it was time to practice our elevator speech. We decided we would take turns sharing information. We decided who would say what, practiced the pitch from beginning to end, adjusting the language every time and getting more confident with every try.

            Then came dress rehearsal Tuesday. We were to try our pitch out on several mentors here at Luther. Emily and I were a little nervous, but we knew we had prepared thoroughly. People milled about, shouting their pitches. The room became loud and we had to be aggressive in order to get ahold of the person we wanted to talk to. Some were eager to support our bill right away; others weren’t so sure. Craig challenged us: “You see, the problem there is, these are criminals we’re dealing with. Who’s to say they won’t run off or go after someone?” It threw us off a little, but Emily and I proudly educated him with our research, and he seemed to warm up to the idea. Tuesday’s simulation was wonderful preparation for Wednesday. Our mentors gave us realistic responses and challenged our arguments, to be sure we had our facts down solid.
            Finally, Wednesday came, and our strong army of Luther social work students marched confidently through the capital doors. We were ready, and no one could stop us. Our particular bill had just gotten passed to the house, so we were a little unsure of whom to get ahold of. We decided to go to the Senate door, with hopes of speaking to Senator Peterson (the originator of our bill). Much to our dismay, Peterson would be busy for the rest of the day. We were relying on her to recommend us legislators! Our mentor, Joanne, noticed we were panic-stricken and approached us: “Who is it you want to talk to?” We explained what had happened, and she immediately recommended we try reaching the Speaker of the House, Kraig Paulsen. She then pushed through the crowd, tore off a yellow slip and shouted excitedly, “Go’head, fill this out!” We scribbled down a note for him and within minutes, a doorwoman ran out calling our names: “You’ll have to go to his office,” she said, though she didn’t seem to know where it was.

            Emily and I bravely asked three strangers where Kraig’s office was before getting an answer. Upon finding the room, we spotted Paulsen, sprinting busily into his office. Yet somehow we worked up the nerve to stop him, “Excuse us, we’d like to discuss this new bill with you. Would you be free to meet with us in the next little bit?” He was taken a-back: “Um, well, I’ve got a meeting, but it shouldn’t be too long…” One of the men next to him chimed in, “No more than twenty minutes,” he reassured us. And they stormed quickly off into his office. Emily and I decided to capitalize on the opportunity to talk to Paulsen, and chose to wait outside his office impatiently. Twenty minutes passed, and his office door still hadn’t budged. We stepped in to speak to his secretary: “We just wanted to let you know that we’re ready to talk to Mr. Paulsen as soon as he’s done with his meeting.” “Do you have an appointment?” she asked. “Well, no, but he knows we’re here, and he said he would be willing to talk to us afterward. We’ve just got to be out of here by three…” She smiled and promised us that we would have the opportunity to discuss our bill with him.
            All this time had passed and we were starting to get nervous. Would he ever come out? Finally, his office door swung open. Emily and I turned to each other: “Finally,” we whispered excitedly, “our moment!” We waited in the reception area eagerly until he was done seeing everyone off. Finally, he came over, shook our hands, and said, “So what is it you wanted to talk with me about today?” Two of his younger coworkers stood around to hear what it was we had been waiting so long to say. Emily and I gave our pitch. At this point, we were more than practiced. The whole speech came out more confidently than I’d ever heard it. I couldn’t believe all this information could pour out of me without any cheat sheet in front of me. Paulsen and his coworkers were impressed. He had heard about the bill passing through to the House, but he had not yet been educated so thoroughly on the issue, and he seemed to truly appreciate our information. He looked even more surprised when we handed him our fact sheet. What he once seemed to think of as an annoyance, a waste of time waiting outside his office, he now saw as two young professionals, who had awakened him to this important issue. His last statement was, “I couldn’t agree more with all the things you just said, and I am absolutely in support of this bill”. The other coworkers nodded their heads and smiled, as if tipping their hats off to us. We shook hands and thanked him immensely for his time.

            Emily and I walked out of his office and rushed down the stairs, beaming with proud smiles. This moment was worth all the revising and the practicing. Stein couldn’t have been more right – what an empowering experience it was. We think of these legislators as our superiors. But on Wednesday, when we walked through those capital doors, we were the experts on our issue. We were there to educate them, and when they stopped for a moment to listen, they were captivated by us: our charisma, the research we’d done, the fact sheets we’d accumulated to support our argument.

            What us social work majors were able to prepare in these few short weeks should be an inspiration to others as well as ourselves. Most of us didn’t think of ourselves as political and many were terrified at the idea of having to approach legislators. Yet each and every one of us was able to set those worries aside and deliver their message confidently and professionally. It makes me wonder how many other things I have the ability to accomplish – strengths I had all along that I had no idea about.

 

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