April 11, 2016 – If you’ve never sat on a crowded bus or taken a carpool at sunrise to the state Capitol for one of the many time-honored Legislative Education (substitute Action) Days, you really should add it to your bucket list. As one who wants Michigan to become the very best place to grow up and raise a family, you owe it to yourself and your state to help raise awareness about issues policymakers have the power to change. Organized by advocacy groups and professional organizations, an advocacy creates synergy fueled by the power of numbers bringing together strong, united voices to educate and move action.
The 2016 Michigan Kids Count Data Book gives us a county-by-county look at where child well-being stands and a great opener for talks with decision-makers on where we’ve been and where we still need to go. An upcoming opportunity to talk about child well-being and ways to prevent child abuse and neglect is happening on April 19 in Lansing. Organized by the Children’s Trust Fund of Michigan, it’s just one of many opportunities for ordinary people to come together and collectively draw attention to how we can build healthy families and communities.
Whether you’re attending this or another legislative day, here are some tips to help you before you go. Begin by knowing that speaking out is taking responsibility for living in a participatory democratic society. It’s in our national DNA. Your voice, your experiences, your take on life in your community is critically important for elected leaders to hear so they can make informed decisions on policy and budget deliberations. Research shows that only 10-20 percent of voters ever contact their elected officials. If our elected leaders are going to make decisions based on our best interest, they must hear from more of us and especially between election cycles.
What do they need to know? Use data, information and stories to inform lawmakers about what’s happening – good and bad – at home. Raise real-life success stories about programs that help kids and families and identify issues of concern. Stories are often most memorable with lawmakers and help support a case for maintaining funding for the good work at home. Identified concerns help recognize where new efforts should be applied. Consider how you want them to think and feel about what you’re saying. Anticipating the outcome will help you choose what you say and how you say it. Helping to educate decision-makers within a framework for change and providing solutions for problems can be powerful persuasive strategies.
Know your legislator. Know the committees they work with, especially if these are useful to moving your issues. Learn about the issues they’ve championed. Their office and campaign websites are a good starting point for those insights. Also become familiar with knowledgeable staff members who can serve as points of contact after the visit is over. Afterward, also make sure you leave behind something to remind them of your message, whether it’s a description of a particular program, a fact sheet or summary of key points. Lastly, leave them with a plan for next steps. And do take a photo you can share back home or with the lawmaker so they can include it in their communications with constituents. Ultimately, these visits can be the start of opening lines of communications and a solid relationship that will serve you, your issues and your community well long past the legislative visit.
Teri is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.