A Guide to Being Politically Engaged
As advocates for the causes we care about — whether it’s racial justice, environmental sustainability, animal protection, reproductive rights, or all of the above — I know it can be difficult to decide where to spend your time, money, and energy, and I don’t believe there’s one answer.
A good starting point is to ask:
“What issues do I feel passionately about?”
“How can my skills and attributes be used?”
“How can I measure my success?”
“What type of engagement will have a long and lasting impact?”
My work, my advocacy has always focused on education, outreach, political engagement, public speaking, and writing — because they happen to be what I love, what I’m good at, and what I think will move the needle. I believe that when we know better, we do better and that awareness is key to solving problems. I believe that shifting the way we talk about, think about, and behave towards disenfranchised groups will have long-term impacts in terms of social norms.
But I also spend my time being politically engaged, because it’s not enough to change hearts and minds; we also have to change laws. We need laws and policies that protect people and animals from harm, from abuse, from exploitation, and from violence.
Another reason I think it’s important to be involved in the political system is because “politics” is not separate from who we are as citizens; we are all affected — everyone, all of us — by politics, whether we’re engaged or not.
The word “politics” comes from Greek politikos, meaning “of citizens, pertaining to public life.” We are public citizens, and we have little right to complain about how politics affects us — or animals — if we’re not actively engaged in making sure the laws reflect the values we care about.
To disengage means to disown your power. Because if you’re not talking to the people who represent you and the things you care about, someone else is talking to them about THEIR values and what THEY care about. Which would you prefer?
And finally, I just can’t support taking Democracy for granted in any way. It’s a pretty amazing system that — as a human-made endeavor is also imperfect and fragile just as we are — and yet, it’s the best we’ve got. It’s the most successful, long-running experiment we’ve got as long as we, the people, participate. It’s been hard-fought and hard-won, and it means nothing if we, the people, don’t nurture it — we, the people, because the word democracy is built from the dēmos, meaning “people.”
From the moment the U.S. Civil War ended and for the century that followed, scores of men, women, and children were brutally beaten and viciously murdered to stop them from voting and having a political voice. The Southern rebel losers who never let go of their white supremacist worldview tried to silence the voices and votes of freed black men and women and their descendants because they knew that if the black population exercised their will through voting and the political system, white supremacy would have been drowned out by the call for peace, freedom, and protection under the law.
Similarly, how many men actively worked to deny women the right to vote? And how many humans make sure laws are passed to ensure animals are denied freedom, peace, and protection under the law?
People fought and died so that I and others would have the right to vote and be politically engaged. I don’t take that lightly and I don’t take it for granted.
The way this whole democracy works is that we — as individual citizens — are represented by people WE elect to REPRESENT us. So, when we talk about our representatives, we’re talking about those at the local, state, and federal levels. Right now — at this date and time —, there’s a lot of focus on the federal government. People are calling and writing to their elected officials/their members of Congress, and that’s encouraging. So, let’s take a look at what it means to be politically engaged at the federal level.
FEDERAL & STATE
- First and foremost: Know who your federal members of Congress are — both in the House of Representatives as well as in the Senate.
- Add their phone numbers to your phone — for both their DC office and district office.
- Add their email address and mailing address to your address book/contacts.
- Add their phone numbers to your phone — for both their DC office and district office.
BEST WAYS TO CONTACT REPRESENTATIVES: When it comes to contacting your members of Congress, here are tips from congressional staffers, who are the ones on the ground. In fact, if you’re interested in building relationships with members of Congress…start with the staffers. More on that in a bit, but here are the most effective ways to get your voice heard:
- the two best ways are to call them on the phone and to write a letter or postcard. Buy a book of .34-cent stamps for postcards. They’re very effective ways to get your voice heard and have it counted, and I just find it a lot easier than writing a letter, finding an envelope, etc. Postcards are just fast and easy — and effective.
- leaving a comment on Twitter or Facebook is largely ineffective.
- write your letter or send you postcard to the district office rather than DC
- when you call, call the district office; you can call the DC office, too, but it’s more effective to call them at their district office
- emails are also virtually ineffective; staffers pretty much just group them using computer algorithms and send out form letters based on topic and position.
- but phone calls are a different story. Staffers pay attention when the office gets a number of calls about a particular issue. The district office will talk to the DC office to ask if they’re hearing about the same issue, and if so, they take notice.
Do not underestimate the power of your call or letter. A recent article in the New York Times about politically engaged citizens ended with this little gem: “There is an adage on Capitol Hill that five letters from the district about a bill is cause for alarm, and 10 is a full-blown emergency.”
TIP: Don’t only contact your representatives when you want something done — when you want them to vote “YES” on a bill or “NO” on a bill. Take the time to write or call when they’ve done something you appreciate. You can’t imagine how many negative comments members of Congress get. Believe me when I say your positive comment will stand out.
MEETING THEM IN PERSON: Now of course, it’s incredibly effective to meet your representative in person, and as their constituent, you have the right to request a meeting, but I won’t lie…it’s tough to get face time. You can keep trying to do so through their staffers, and you might also consider going to a town hall meeting held by many MoC when they return home from Washington to their home districts during government recesses. Go to these town hall meetings, and don’t go alone! Take a group with you of other animal advocates who have a common purpose and ASK QUESTIONS. Be heard. Make your voice heard.
Another way to get your voice heard is if you run an advocacy group or PAC, invite local staffers to show up to your events. Let them talk to people you work with and set up meetings. Staffers love to get out of the office and meet with constituents and learn about different issues people care about. Take them out and show them what you care about. Invite them to see what you’re working on or what you’re concerned about. They take that all of that the office with them. Staffers have a lot of influence, and they’re worth spending time cultivating relationships with. Because, if the staff knows you, when they have a question about a piece of legislation or an issue, they’ll know who they can call. This is all about cultivating relationships.
CONTRIBUTIONS: But one-on-one face time directly with your representative? It’s very difficult, BUT I will tell you this: being a donor…does help. It’s not a guarantee, but you’re more likely to get face to face time if you are a contributor, because they expect it means you’ll most likely be a contributor in the future. Like it or not, donors have more sway. And yes, the higher the contributions, the better the chances are that you and your cause will have a louder voice.
Legislators know that they could lose their job in two or four years, so they literally want you to help them keep their jobs. That’s all it’s about. But here’s where your dollars can have a real impact. Donate to campaigns when it’s clear they are animal-friendly. Talk to them about animal-unfriendly positions they may have. They might just need information you have. If they stick with animal-harmful positions, tell them that’s why you’re not supporting them. Support and vote for them when it’s clear they are animal-friendly. Tell them why you voted for them. Tell them you’d like to continue helping them make the most compassionate decisions about legislation. Give them (and their staffers) information about animal issues. Don’t assume they know the issues you do. Support them and let them know why you do.
CREATE A RELATIONSHIP: Politics is all about relationships. Create a dialogue. Tell them what you care about. Encourage them to support animal-friendly legislation and oppose legislation that will harm animals. ASK THEM WHAT THEIR POSITION IS on a particular bill or policy. I think many individuals are intimidated to call, and if that’s the case, then write, but there’s nothing to be intimidated about, and you have every right to ask the staffer who answers what your representative’s position is on a particular issue.
BE KIND: And I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: be kind, whether you’re talking to a staffer or talking directly to your representative, whether you’re writing a postcard, leaving a message, or talking to them in person. Be kind. Imagine for just a moment being on the receiving end of an angry constituent. As justified as your anger may be, your irascibility will not get you what you want, and your anger doesn’t get you extra votes. You still get only one vote — regardless of how angry you are. Persistence, clarity, articulateness, and passion are all appropriate, as is kindness.
PACS, LOBBYISTS, AND LEGISLATIVE FUNDS
Political Action Committees (or PACs, for short) exist for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. They can serve business or labor interests or ideological interests. They can be formed to support/defeat federal or local candidates. The benefit of a PAC is that money can be pooled to support (or defeat) candidates.
While there are national PACs for animals, there are regional and local ones, as well. Here in Oakland, I, along with fellow dedicated and engaged activists, formed our own political action committee called East Bay Animal PAC, which is dedicated to electing animal-friendly legislators, passing animal-friendly legislation, opposing anti-animal legislation, and educating legislators and the public on local animal issues.
(You can join our mailing list to stay abreast of the work we’re doing, and most importantly, a contribution to our PAC would be most appreciated. $5, $10, $100 — whatever you’re able to do goes directly towards us working with local officials to enact animal-friendly policies.)
Of course you can consider starting a PAC yourself. Some people create PACs around one particular issue; some — like ours — are in it for the long-haul based on a cause, but either way, it’s an option for you if you’re interested in upping your political game for animals, especially at the local level.
Now, sticking with the local, as I said about national engagement applies to local politics:
- add representatives’ contact info to your phone
- call them
- make connections
- meet them in person
- work with staffers
And at the local level, you’re almost guaranteed to connect with your city council members (or aldermen or commissioners — whatever they’re called in your area) directly. Either by showing up at city hall meetings or setting up a meeting with them at their office or participating in neighborhood events they organize. Remember…these are YOUR representatives. They represent YOU! They work for YOU!
You should absolutely know the name of the city council person who represents you in your district. Get to know them. Develop a relationship with them. Work with them on issues you care about.
At a time when so many people are focused on the national stage, it can become a distraction from all of the opportunities and potential to work in the local arena. It doesn’t mean it has to be black and white; of course you can engage with your federal representative, but truly, where I know I feel most empowered, is when I’m working locally. I have to say it’s a pretty awesome feeling to walk into a room and have my mayor know my name, and she associates me with animal protection because of the work we’ve done with her (and other city officials).
Not only because there is real work to be done and real accomplishments to be made but also because there is a real opportunity to prime local representatives to be mindful of animal issues whose ambitions may be greater than their own backyard.
In other words, imagine you being the one to help them be mindful about all the ways animals should be considered when they’re drafting legislation — as they work their way up the political chain of ambition. They may one day be state senator, governor, federal member of congress, or president. That’s how it works. And helping them look through the lens of animal protection now while they’re accessible increases the chances that they’ll continue to look through that lens (also with your support…) as they pursue their political ambitions.
The ripple effects can be huge, as I tell in this story.
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