Nothing focuses the minds of the politically-active than an election, but unfortunately, for many people, the first and last time they are introduced to or “speak” to their legislator is once every two years in November. NASW-Michigan and its members are committed – both by the foundation of their education and ongoing commitment to their clients, communitiess and families – to advocacy. And advocacy in this sense – articulating positions on legislation and influencing lawmakers – requires another thing social workers are prepared-for by way of their very profession: building and maintaining relationships. The cornerstone of advocacy is “relationship;” it is easier to do something for someone you know than it is to do something for a complete stranger. And if that “something” is a particular vote, the maxim counts even more.
As you build a relationship with your lawmakers at the state and federal level, consider the following:
· Every lawmaker has either a district office or district office hours. It is a time they set aside to let you speak to them about issues important to you, in the district, in an informal setting. The easiest way to introduce yourself to a lawmaker and build a relationship: call their office and ask to be put on their email list. You’ll be kept up to speed on Lansing issues, and you’ll know when and where their district office hours are.
· Lawmakers are not experts on every issue. A great way to introduce yourself and your colleagues to a lawmaker is to invite them to your workplace for a tour and discussion of your own hot-button issues. If you’re a member of professional societies, volunteer groups or social networks, invite them to those as well.
· When the time comes to correspond with your lawmaker about a particular vote important to you or, say, NASW, the do take them time to do so! Here in the 21st century, email seems to work the best. Be sure to include your home address in the signature line so your lawmaker can verify that you’re a constituent. Real emails from actual constituents get answered!
· When corresponding with your lawmaker and their staff, either by phone or email or whatever medium you choose, the same “rules” for interpersonal relationships apply as in your profession. Even if you end-up in a fundamental disagreement about legislation, and just because they’re your lawmaker, negative reinforcement doesn’t work! Lawmakers can come around sometimes to your point of view; it may take time, it may be a slow process, but it won’t happen with trust and a positive relationship.
· Get to know the lawmaker’s staff, too. First and foremost, they are gatekeepers, masters of schedules and when their boss may or may not be available. They are also information-gatherers, tasked with understanding “both sides” of an issue – and how their constituents feel about an issue – and using that as a gauge for how their boss might want to vote.
· Silence means everything is OK.. If you don’t make your voice heard, a lawmaker has no choice but to “vote with their gut,” or, go with the ideals that they feel got them where they are. If nobody says anything is wrong…or right…legislators and their staff have no way to gauge how The People feel.
· Find information about the content of legislation and where it’s at by going to www.michiganlegislature.org. For information about legislation of specific concern to social workers, of course visit www.nasw-michigan.org!
· Don’t know quite who your lawmakers are or their contact information, especially since many districts lines have just changed due to the last census? Go to www.senate.michigan.gov or www.house.michigan.gov and click “find your…” link.
· For more in-depth discussions about legislation and the legislative process, consider attending NASW’s annual conference or NASW’s LEAD Day on October 30th.