(c) by Mary Griggs

Participating in democracy by voting is just one part of how the citizens of a community and nation can make change. The part that is often overlooked, or under appreciated, is that your voice can make a difference. Use the summer months for more than a holiday from the daily grind – use the time to constructively engage with your elected officials.

In July and August, take the time to share your thoughts with the people who represent you in the Louisiana legislature and in Washington. The Louisiana Legislative session ended in June and you can meet in person with your elected officials when they are in their district offices. In August, the United States Senate and House of Representatives have a session break and many will come back to their home districts then.

Visit www.legis.state.la.us/ or www.house.gov or www.senate.gov/ to find contact information for the local office of your congressperson.

You can also use these sites (or Open Congress) to refresh your memory about how they voted on pay equity, anti-bullying, education, abortion, or other bills of particular interest to you.

Call and ask for the scheduler and set up a date and time for the meeting. Don’t be disappointed if the first time you can only get a meeting with a staff member—be aware that many legislative aides wield considerable influence.

Be sensitive to their time constraints and only plan on 15 minutes for your presentation. Many times they will set up blocks of thirty minutes but might be running late or want to talk about something else first. Be polite but firm to express the essentials of your point of view in the time allotted.

Have a few written points that you want to convey at the meeting. Sharing your personal story will usually prove most persuasive, so don’t rely entirely on facts and statistics.

If your elected official has been in opposition, prepare a few rebuttal points for the most likely arguments they may use against you. If your elected official is supportive, thank them and let them know if you are available to testify on behalf of this issue when it comes before committee.

It is always a good idea to have something to leave behind so that they or their staff can refer to it afterwards. Try to localize the talking points or fact sheets to Louisiana or to their district – for example, saying this measure will help kids who are being bullied isn’t as powerful as saying, “Last year, there were 33 suicides in St. Tammany Parish, 5 of whom were individuals under 19 years old. If bullying played even a minor part in those young people’s deaths, shouldn’t we do everything we can to prevent anyone else’s family from suffering?”

Make sure your address and other contact information are with the packets so they know whom to contact for more information. If there are groups or organizations ready to mobilize on this issue, include that information, as it shows that you are not alone.

Collect business cards from everyone in the room and remember to send a thank you note after your meeting. Follow up with them prior and during the next legislative session, so that they know that you are a committed constituent.

In Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” I hope this post will help you use your whole influence on your elected representatives this summer.