Advocacy is Like Jazz: Face-to-Face Meetings and the Building of Champions

Lisa Marchal, Senior Global Grassroots Associate
August 25, 2014

As a pianist and a vocalist, I’ve spent countless hours of my life in rehearsals. Self-guided practice, voice lessons, and rehearsal sessions led by a conductor . . . no matter what the style, each rehearsal has had the singular purpose of helping me become a more proficient musician so that I can affect the lives of others through the beauty and power of music.

In my journey as a musician, I’ve had the great good fortune of learning a bit about the remarkable American art form of jazz. A skilled jazz musician can fool you – you think that what’s happening at the keyboard or on the guitar is messy and off-the-cuff. The spontaneous essence of jazz does mean that the piece is truly being created in the moment, right before your ears. But it’s not without a foundation. When I started playing piano at age 7, I didn’t start playing songs at first. I learned my scales. Those scales would form the foundation of anything I would play for the rest of my life. Musicianship is undergirded by the basics of music theory. You first learn the basics, and you refresh yourself on the basics for your whole life as a musician. Only then can you riff.

My colleague Jos once pointed out all sorts of people practice and rehearse – musicians, actors, athletes. Why would advocates be any different? That’s why we roleplay, practice laser talks, and refine meeting agendas. We are rehearsing the basics of our success. Then we can improvise and riff.

What does this have to do with a face-to-face meeting with our member of Congress? This is where rehearsal and improvisation culminate in a unique chance to help build our legislators into champions for the end of poverty. In a face-to-face meeting, a member of Congress benefits from our knowledge of the basics of the issues we’re working on – what’s at stake, and what we know the legislator can do to make a substantial difference. We can become familiar enough with these aspects of our campaign work that they become more natural to discuss . . . and then the real conversation begins. We respond to the comments and concerns of the legislator. We pledge to follow up with reliable information in a timely fashion when we’re given a question we can’t answer (which will undoubtedly happen). We inject our own personal passions and perspective, and the member of Congress can, too. We riff, going with the flow of the conversation so that we can respond to the member of Congress not just as a public servant, but as a person. We get to the heart of things, both with the essential that we’ve rehearsed, but also with the rich conversational improvisation that can only happen when we add our heart to the conversational mix. As advocate Anne Child has said, we may see an opening in the interaction to take the conversation to an even grander crescendo than we could have ever imagined! (I love that image.) Face-to-face meetings and the conversation that comes after – it’s how champions for the end of poverty are created.

Advocacy is like jazz. Keep rehearsing. Keep playing. Together, we’re making something beautiful for this world.