WHAT IS ADVOCACY?
Advocacy means supporting and defending a cause.
- Advocates support and argue for the rights and needs of the poor and vulnerable.
- Advocates also provide them the skills and opportunities to speak on their own behalf.
- Advocates work for justice by impacting the public conversation about an issue, leading to changed responses and solutions.
- Advocacy takes place on many different levels. For example, professional lobbyists advocate for specific legislation, nonprofits advocate for their clients and legislation that impacts them, and individual citizens advocate for a community need or a cause about which they feel strongly. Each advocate uses his or her right to participate in our nation’s democratic process.
- Advocacy is to make changes.
- Advocacy is influencing outcomes.
- Advocacy is giving voice for those who have no voice and helping people find their own voice.
HOW CAN ADVOCACY HELP THOSE WE SERVE?
Effective advocacy can come in many forms. Ultimately, by changing the public understanding of an issue and its solutions, advocacy can lead to a more just world. As an advocate, you make an impact in the following ways:
- You Educate. As an advocate, you can change how the public and elected officials understand your issue and the challenges facing your clients. Some legislators will have in-depth knowledge about your issue. Others will know very little about it. All will be constantly bombarded with information and requests from various interests groups and constituents. Your job is to keep your issue front and center among competing priorities, and shape how the public perceives it and its importance.
- You Witness. Your direct service work at your agency gives you expertise as a real-life witness to the challenges faced by the poor and vulnerable. You can inform public opinion using the data and stories you gather about the needs of the poor, the solutions that would be most effective to address these needs, and the resources required to battle the root causes and effects of poverty.
- You Enlist Allies. As you educate the public and elected officials, you enlist individuals and organizations to support your cause and join a movement for change.
- You Tap Resources. Politics and policy are about the distribution of scarce resources. By educating the public and drawing attention to your issue, you help to raise it in importance among competing causes.
- You Improve Services for the Poor. Using your knowledge of how programs actually work at your agency, you can call attention to policies that are ineffective or create unnecessary barriers to services, and work to improve them. Advocates also hold legislators accountable for their decisions, helping to ensure that they make informed and careful choices.
- You Facilitate Connections between Legislators and Constituents. Legislators want to connect with and be responsive to their constituents. As an advocate, you can facilitate those connections. Legislators will welcome opportunities to better understand their constituents’ needs and build relationships with them. In the process of connecting them to your programs and clients, you will establish yourself as an experienced resource that legislators and their staff will turn to with questions as discussion of your issue moves forward.
- You Empower your Clients. By including your clients in conversations and relationship building with their legislators, you empower your clients with skills and opportunities to speak for themselves.
WHAT IS “FRAMING”?
Not surprisingly, the word “framing” means different things to different people. Advocates sometimes think of framing as using a catchy slogan to attract attention to your issue of concern. Yet framing runs deeper than slogans and messages that change with the context and needs of a specific moment in time. Sonja Herbert of the Berkeley Media Studies Group defines frames as, “… the mental structures that help people understand the world, based on particular assumptions and values.” The idea is that none of us is a blank slate. Every person’s unique framework processes differently the causes and consequences of the actions we see in the world. We receive and understand information and form opinions based on our past experiences and our deeply held values. The legislators and public that you target will filter all of the data and messages you share through their framework and values.
Frames will not only impact how people understand your work and your issue, but also who they see as responsible for solving it and what solutions they believe will work. Examine, for example, how one dominant framework in our culture, the importance of individual choice and responsibility for one’s own success, impacts a conversation about health. Discussing the problem of a rising number of overweight children in low-income urban neighborhoods within this individual responsibility frame leads to solutions like, “Families should exercise more,” or “Parent should feed their children healthy foods.” This framework ignores the context in which individuals make choices about their lives. It ignores the possibilities that an urban neighborhood with heavy traffic may not be a safe place for children to play and exercise, that the family may not own a car or live near quality public transportation to reach grocery stores that do not locate in low-income neighborhoods, or that families scraping by from month to month may be forced to choose lower-quality, cheaper foods over fruits and vegetables. Framing the individual’s choices in the context of an unhealthy community helps advocates to argue effectively for institutional solutions like the construction of public parks, or zoning laws that give incentives to grocery stores and limit fast food restaurants.
By framing an issue well, you can impact how your problem and solutions are portrayed and discussed. The steps below will help you think about how to draw connections between individual stories and their social context as you work to frame your issues.
BASIC FRAMING TIPS
Do Your Homework: To frame and issue successfully, be sure to understand the current frames used to talk about it. Most legislators and the public, form opinions on issues based on media coverage. Track your issue in the media – both print and electronic. Imagine that you are not an expert on your issue and ask yourself questions like these:
- What do articles and reports tell you about the problem?
- Why is it important and who cares about it?
- What are the solutions, or who should fix it? If you find your issue framed in a way that will not support your solutions, think about how the data and trends you have seen at your agency could help tell the story another way.
Define Your Core Values: Facts, data, and policy arguments can intimidate people who could be potential champions for your cause. You may find it more effective to connect to people’s values. Values connect to our emotions and shape our motivations for taking action. Think about these questions:
- What values are central to our vision?
- What values will resonate with our target audience?
- How can we show that this problem impacts all of us? (Refer to Catholic Social Teaching on the common good to help answer this question).
Communicate Within Your Frame: Once, you define your values and frame for discussing your issue, work to communicate it in every message you create. Messages will change as your advocacy targets and strategies change, and no two advocates will deliver a message in the same way. However, if you speak within your framework of values you will remain consistent, but flexible. The Berkeley Media Studies Group and The Praxis Project recommend that messages within your framework clearly answer these three questions:
- What’s wrong? Focus on a specific part of the problem rather than trying to explain the entire issue. Try to show how individuals are impacted by social institutions.
- Why does it matter? Communicate your underlying values here.
- What should be done about it? Who and what are involved in the solution? Communicate an achievable, concise action step.
MEETING WITH YOUR LEGISLATOR
Arranging the Visit
- Visits can be scheduled through the scheduler (appointment/calendar secretary). It is best to set up the meeting two or three weeks in advance. Meetings are usually scheduled for about half an hour but you may just get 10 to 15 minutes. A parishioner (parish representative) making an appointment with a legislator listed for his or her parish must reside within the legislator’s district, for obvious reasons. However, medical, educational, political and other professionals and experts who attend the meeting with the parishioner need not be from this district.
- Clarify the purpose for the visit. Get Acquainted? Express Views? Seek Action? Identify who will be attending. You’ll increase your chances of meeting face-to-face with the Member by having a group meeting of constituents who represent different experiences and backgrounds. This broadens your base and influence.
- Depending on legislative developments, it may be necessary to meet with staff rather than the legislator. Since legislators rely heavily on their professional staff’s opinion, this is also a very important meeting. Staff can provide you with access and, if they are sympathetic to your position, can become a trusted voice in the ear of the legislator. If your legislator decides to adopt one of your causes, it is the staff that will do much of the work. Ask to meet with the Legislative Director (LD) or Legislative Assistant (LA) who handles the particular issue you wish to talk about.
Planning the Visit
- Develop a succinct agenda. If going with a group, agree on your goal and message before hand. Show a united front; divisiveness is both irritating and confusing.
- Assign a facilitator – Agree on who will facilitate the meeting in advance. The facilitator will make introductions; keep everyone on time and on target; ensure that all issues have been presented and close the meeting by reiterating any follow-up items and make appropriate thank you’s.
- Do your homework. Have well-reasoned facts and figures on your issue(s) ready, but do not be overwhelming. Be ready to answer questions and (when necessary) respond to counter-arguments.
- Decide who will speak regarding which issue or legislation.
- Make decisions before the meeting regarding how to handle questions.
- Be sure all participants in the meeting are politically astute. Know the extent of the legislator’s district, committee assignments, number of terms served. Know the legislator’s voting record, and/or position, on the issue(s). Know that lawmaking process and what legislative actions are required. http://thomas.loc.gov is an official source of United States Federal Legislative information. Another good source is www.votesmart.org that gives you the voting record of your legislators on bills that are organized by topics.
- Limit the number of issues you want to cover. Do not overwhelm.
- Prepare a “leave-behind” information packet. This packet can include fact sheets and stories supporting your issues, bundles of constituent letters, and any appropriate briefing materials. A specific request for action should also be included (two to three paragraphs articulating the legislative action requested, and why that action should be taken).
During the Visit
- Arrive Early. Be sure to arrive early. Legislators are very busy and sometimes fall behind schedule. Be prepared to be flexible, and if you have multiple visits in one day, allow plenty of time between them to account for long appointments and time needed to find the next office.
- Be Respectful of Time. Ask the legislator for the amount of time you have with him/her. This will help you to adjust your visit to cover all your topics and focus on the most pertinent points.
- Be Courteous. Be positive, friendly, polite and respectful, but direct when you interact with your legislator or member of staff. Do not worry if you do not actually meet with your legislator. Members of staff are the experts on their issues inform the legislator regularly, and often actually write legislation.
- Introduce Yourself and Your Issue. Offer a firm handshake. State the purpose of your visit – why you are there. Emphasize that you are a constituent – that is key. Never assume that your legislator or a member of staff will remember you from a previous visit, as they see many people regularly.
- Be Local and Political. Use examples from your personal experience and work at your agency to bring a human face to the issue. Begin on points of agreement. Be politically savvy, connecting your issue to your legislator’s priorities and the best interests of constituents and the legislator’s community. Include powerful alliance members who agree with your position.
- Be Specific. There are no permanent enemies; and no permanent friends. Don’t attack or beat-up your legislator regarding his/her position or votes. Recognize his/her concerns. Speak from a position of trying to solve the problem.
- General Questions.
- What problem is the proposed legislation trying to solve?
- If not the best solution, is the legislation a reasonable and fair solution to the problem?
- Are there better solutions that would be prohibited or by-passed with the passage of the legislation?
- Are significant “bad ideas” included in the legislation that looks on the surface to be a “good idea”?
- From a faith perspective, we need to consider the common good and potential impact on the least among us.
- Answer Questions. Be prepared to answer questions. Never give false information. If you do not know an answer, be honest and promise to get back to the legislator and staff (and do!) You don’t need to be an expert.
- Make Your “Ask”. Ask what position your legislator takes on the issue. Ask even if you think you already know. Hearing how your legislator communicates his or her point of view will help you to better craft your message in the future. Then, make a specific request for an action that you would like your legislator to take. Asks include:
- May we have your commitment to vote for (or against) a specific piece of legislation
- What can we do now or next week to foster our outcome for this bill?
- Can we count on you to (hold a hearing; speak to your fellow legislators; distribute our material to fellow legislators)?
- Can we get back to you next week/month regarding this bill?
- Establish Next Steps. Determine who will follow up with certain action steps after the visit. Offer to assist the legislator. Will you send more information? Will a member of staff call you after speaking with the legislator? Be sure to leave your full contact information. Ask about what is the best way to communicate with the legislator in the future.
- Thank you. Thank the legislator or aide for their time.
Following the Visit
- Debrief. As a group, debrief immediately after the meeting. Determine what was effective and what wasn’t. Personal visits always increase a legislator’s awareness of an issue. However, the effectiveness of such a visit increases markedly when accompanied by follow-up actions.
- Send a thank-you note or email which reinforces your message and the local impact, restates an understanding of the legislator’s position, highlights the main points of the visit, and concludes with a personal story which surfaced during the conversation. It should also include any additional materials or information she/he may have requested.
QUICK FORMAT TO CONDUCT DISCUSSIONS
- Create an Open Climate. Introduce yourselves; thank the legislator for thee meeting and state some favorable position they have already taken (if one exists).
- Present your Message.
- Make a Specific Request for Legislative Action. Then, let them know what action you are requesting. A specific request for legislative action will allow you to control the meeting. You have not set the agenda. If attempts are made to divert discussion, simply, and politely, return to your issue. Finally, if the legislator seems supportive, seek a commitment. If the legislator remains opposed, ask her or him to keep an open mind and remain neutral.
- Be responsive to your legislator’s questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t fake it or bluff. Say, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you on it.” Then DO IT.
- Don’t overstay your welcome. Conclude the visit by again extending the appropriate thank you. Reaffirm your intention to forward any information or materials which were requested by the legislator.
- Send a copy to other members of the group and those who are directly lobbying on your behalf. If the visit was held with a staff member, still address the letter to the legislator with a copy (cc) to the staff member.
HOW DO I FIND OUT WHOM TO CONTACT?
To find anyone’s legislators:
- Vote Smart
- United States Senate
- United States House of Representatives
- The White House
- California State Assembly
- California State Senate
WHAT DO I SAY?
Regardless whether you send an email or a letter, you should include your return address and keep your communication short and to the point. Use the same guidelines for Advocacy meetings in your written communication. State your position, use your framing, and make the “ask”.
WHAT DO I SAY IF I CALL INSTEAD OF WRITING?
If you telephone the office, be brief. An example is: “I am a constituent and I urge (Senator ______, or Congressman _______ or Assembly member ________ to vote no on AB 27.”