As we learned from the massive engagement effort involved in opposing several of President Trump’s cabinet picks—and the Republican Senators who failed to listen to their constituents—this is not always easy or 100% successful, unfortunately. Which illustrates exactly why that passion needs to be joined by persistence. Only a sustained effort over time is likely to succeed. In fact, the Trump administration, by running through so many controversial issues so fast, is likely counting on “resistance fatigue”—an attempt to overwhelm the opposition to the point where a movement either loses either momentum or interest. So what can our citizen engagement efforts do to overcome this?
- Join or support organized groups: Many of the contacts with elected officials can and will be made through staff of organized groups. Their role is important because they have resources to gather vital research, the capacity to officially testify, and infrastructure to repeatedly deliver the message. But for the cause to succeed, in many cases it will be civically-engaged citizens individually or part of an organized group just speaking up and sharing their stories, that will most likely impact the politicians’ decisions. Why? Because they are the voters.
- Commit to persistently raising your personal voice: So, for those voters, there are several ways one can communicate to elected officials. You can write letters, make telephone calls to their offices, make use of social media, or just show up in their office requesting a visit, at minimum with staff. For me, telephone calls can be most effective. When the phones light up, it gets everyone’s attention. The phone call is immediate, not delayed by delivery time nor put off with the task of opening the mail or email or easily sifted through, as many of the form letters or pre-written messages can be. It can also be much more personal, when delivered with some passion. As I’ve shared before, the number to the Congressional Switchboard is (202) 225-3121, and for Kansas, look up your legislators to get their contact information. A recent example where this paid off in Congress was a few weeks ago, when they were going to eliminate the Ethics Committee. All hell broke loose. Citizens didn’t like what they heard, and most importantly, they let the individual members know. Within hours after the telephones lit up, the plan was reversed. It was citizens making it clear how they felt, and it was truly spontaneous. Will you always get your way? Most likely not, which is why persistence is key. So your voice—and yes, even your voicemail—matters.
- Stay informed, and have a long memory: There are many ways to keep an eye on the issues that matter most to you. Make use of the technology at your fingertips to support fact-based journalism, follow feeds and social media accounts that keep you informed on issues, and find ways to archive or keep track of particularly informative content—so it can be used and referenced later when the time comes for action. There are also services to help reference specific legislation or follow issues as they come up. For Kansas, the State Library services can be particularly helpful. They can be contacted by phone (through their toll-free legislative hot line, 1-800-432-3924, or via text message at 785-256-0733), email, or even a live chat with a librarian through their website. Reference and research librarians are available to answer questions on legislation, legislative procedure, state government, or policy issues, and your calls are confidential. Again, be sure to remember what you’ve learned when it comes time to engage or cast your vote.
- Build community: Build a network that’s ready for the long haul. Events and rallies are effective for bringing people together, but what can you do to keep that momentum going and/or keep the group connected when engagement will be needed down the road? This is another area where technology can be very helpful. For both formal and informal networks, organization and communication are critical. Your social groups, book clubs, and civic organizations are all networks that can be mobilized, and they function because each member has some sort of "buy-in." So establish a routine that you’ll stick to, and don’t forget to have some fun in the process. You’re all there for serious business, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the time together. Some of my best memories have come from the community that is formed by a committed group of people who care. A sense of community can help ensure that all members have a connection to the group and a way to help “recharge their batteries” for a sustained effort.
- Engage civilly: If your group is ready to start talking to fellow voters, be ready to do so with respect, civility, and factual accuracy. One quote that helps with this is, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” To put it simply, listen. What are they saying? Where are they coming from? Then, you can begin to introduce your thinking. Is there any common ground? If so, start from there, and work your way out. If not, what is the real root of the disagreement? Get beyond politically-charged rhetoric, focus on the real issues and the source of disagreement. If you reach the root and are at an impasse, agree to disagree, but do so very specifically. In other words, if you don't agree on something, at least acknowledge the grounds for the disagreement, and keep future engagements either focused on, or working around, that—without delving into the realm of personal attacks or looking to drum up “alternative facts.”