Jan. 14, 2015 – When I was a 19-year-old Michigan State University college student I was hired as an intern in a Detroit lawmaker’s legislative office. In my totally realistic teenage mindset I smartly arrived for duty expecting to help champion important, headline-making legislation. Instead, a wry office manager greeted me with a husky manila folder and thrusting it in my unwelcoming arms instructed me to start writing: congratulatory letters, condolences and appropriate replies that she would instruct me on in cases of specific constituent concerns. Pouring into that stack of intimate personal stories, that’s what I did — every Tuesday and Thursday – for an entire semester.
What I learned is that the daily bread of a legislative office is all about what people are experiencing back home. Their struggles and troubles, celebrations and milestones. That is what I learned from the man I worked for, a public servant who served for nearly four decades with distinction (before seniority-ending term limits) in the House and Senate. Over the course of those years, he demonstrated the critical nature of constituent services for getting to know what really matters to people in a personal and meaningful ways.
Today, one-third of Michigan’s incoming state Representatives and Senators are newbies in state government. Some may have local representative experience that put them in touch with the issues weighing closely on citizens’ minds; others come to Lansing because they won a campaign. Maybe they succeeded because they had a competitive edge, more fire in the belly, the right political leanings, or an ability to outspent, out-organize or out-perform the other guy.
Maybe you voted for him/her, maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter either way. Starting now is when all citizens should begin thinking about molding campaigners into the political servants we all need to shape public policies that give Michigan’s the children and families, especially those who have been under-served and under-represented, a stronger chance at a brighter future.
Our children won’t make it unless they get the education they deserve, a chance for a safe and healthy environment to live in, and at the most basic level, particularly important in a state where one-fourth of all babies are born into poverty, food and medical care to strengthen the body and spirit.
You can make a difference by telling your story and opening a line of communication with your representatives in Lansing today. Tell them what’s important in your community, what children and families need to be successful, what you’re observing about gaps in services and programs that do exist, how they can help to make things right. Write an email, send a letter, make a call. Believe that everyone has an important story to tell, an opinion of value. Make your voice heard for our children’s sake! Here are some tips for reaching out.
1. Letters should be brief, kept to one page. Be respectful in tone.
2. Introduce yourself in a few lines: I’m a veteran schoolteacher, a new mother/father of a child with special needs, a parent trying to make it off public assistance. Etc.
3. Make your point. Are you advocating for a particular piece of legislation, or writing to detail a troubling issue perplexing your neighborhood, community, school. Spell it out. Make a case. Use arguments that have been thought out. Use details that highlight the issue’s relevancy to the home district.
4. Before signing off, describe how you plan to follow-up and how and when the representative’s office can reach you.
5. Make sure the communication is properly addressed. For a listing of Lansing lawmakers, see the House website and Senate website.
Politicians make it to public office because of vote totals. True public servants are remembered because they identify issues worth fighting for based on the experiences and needs of their constituents back home. Become an advocate for children and families and help shape the public debate. Get the conversation started. Reach out to your lawmakers today.
Teri Banas is the communications director for Michigan’s Children.