Why Face-to-Face Meetings with Legislators Are Important
Cathy Lyons-Spear, RESULTS Global Regional Coordinator and RESULTS Asheville, NC volunteer
August 11, 2014
Research from interviewing Congressional staff has shown constituents like ourselves that the best way to influence our members of Congress is to meet with them face-to-face and discuss our issues. You may know already what it takes to get a meeting or what you are going to talk about, but do you know why our organization highly values face-to-face meetings in the first place?
Relationship building is by far the key to our success at RESULTS. Building relationships over time enables trust to develop. With trust, you can create influence. Legislative staff provides help in various ways when you have created a meaningful work relationship. However, when you meet personally with your legislator, it affords you opportunities that meetings with staff do not. It allows time to hear who he or she is, such as, what are his motivations, beliefs, biases, and interests?
When you plan your agenda for a meeting, you can allow time to deliberately ask questions such as, “Do you have children? Have you traveled abroad? Why did you chose to be on this specific committee?” You may already know a great deal about your legislator so use that information to ask further questions based on what you know. For example, if you heard on the news that your member of Congress is expecting a baby, saying something like, “I bet you are looking forward to your baby’s arrival” can go a long way in building the relationship.
I’ve gotten a kick out of members of Congress remembering who our group is. Former Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) once said, “I don’t think I meet with anyone more than you RESULTS folks”, even though it had actually been a year since our last meeting. In part, he remembered us so well because we had taken time to know him personally.
Meeting with legislators empowers and engages you. Sharing your values and views with our elected officials is a privilege because of living in a democracy. Yet most people I have met have not had any kind of contact with their federal legislators.
I became a RESULTS partner when my three oldest children were in grade school.
I teamed up with an incredible sixth grade teacher to create service learning projects around hunger with all of the sixth grade classes. One of the projects was learning about their elected leaders and how to speak and write powerfully about hunger to them. Some students were so enthusiastic that they stayed after school to practice speaking; they became the school’s “speaker panel.”
The next project became getting our representative at the time, Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC), to come speak to the classes about children’s issues and particularly about hunger. Mr. Taylor came with his staff and media team. The speaker panel was ready with questions for him to discuss. In his opening remarks, however, he had a question for the students, “What have YOU done for the hungry?” The students all began rattling off a long list of service projects, such as a school wide food drive, cooking at a homeless shelter, etc. He stopped his questioning and listened to what the students had to say. The representative knew he had to pick his words carefully when one student speaker calmly and strongly said,” I am an advocate and when bills are written to help children and the poor, I am requesting you to sign them.” The students, the teachers, myself, and hopefully our Representative felt the power of democracy that day. The student speakers felt their own personal empowerment, perhaps forever.
Most RESULTS volunteers know that the majority of our work is with congressional aides. Face-to-face meetings are not as frequent as we like and most of the time these aides are very capable stand-ins for their bosses in meetings. Yet when you work with aides, you still wonder in the back of your mind if your message is getting through. You ask yourself, “has the aide really run this request past our member of Congress? Does she or he even know about it?” We faced this dilemma several years ago. We had been trying to meet with Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) for years, but to no avail and she wasn’t taking action on our issues. We had experience dealing with several of her foreign affairs aides who had come and gone, but this was the former Director of the Red Cross; she had traveled abroad to many crisis situations and seen first-hand the issues we wanted to talk to her about. Did she know about our requests?
Finally, we got our first - and last - meeting with Sen. Dole five and a half years after she was elected (six months later, she was out of office). The staff told us we had 30 minutes, which turned into almost an hour. Once the meeting got going, Sen. Dole began to waive off her staff to leave her alone. She wanted to be in conversation with us. We were prepared with an inspiring story and she provided us with her own first hand inspiring stories, which left most of us in tears. We told her our requests and learned she was very much aligned with our issues. At the end of our meeting she asked,” Why haven’t I met with you before now?” We had gotten our answer. Ah, a lesson learned. There’s only way to know for sure if your requests are being heard - meet face-to-face.
I have to say, my original question of “Why is meeting with our members of congress important?” is a bit personal. We all have our own “whys” as to why we want to meet with legislators, why we do this work. I will end with my favorite. My daughter, Lindsay, had many times witnessed me planning for lobby meetings and doing other RESULTS activities over the years, all while playing with her Barbies. When she was in second grade, they learned about occupations and each child was asked what his/her parents’ occupations were. Lindsay very matter-of-factly said, ”Well, my Dad builds new houses but my Mom saves the world.” Personally, that’s “why” enough for me.