Thursday, May 31, 2007

Politics for Parents 101

The following article was written by Maureen Flatley and John Meredith. It was written for foster parents and reprinted here with permission of Maureen Flatley, a child rights lobbyist, because it is applicable to mothers who lost children to adoption.

“Some people say time changes things. I say you have to do it yourself.“
- Andy Warhol

Without a doubt, the question we are asked most frequently is, “How can I, just one person, make a difference? Yet from Samuel Adams and the Boston Tea Party to Candy Lightner and Mother’s Against Drunk Driving a single person is behind virtually every major policy campaign in US history.

Perhaps there is no better example of the One Person rule that John’s father, James Meredith. James, as an Air Force veteran and young father in 1961, took one step all alone over the threshold of the University of Mississippi and started a revolution in civil rights and higher education.

One person is where everything begins.

But one person can make a much bigger impact if they understand a few basic principles of political advocacy. Anyone with a fundamental understanding of what they want, who can make the necessary decisions and how to communicate about it.

For years, foster parents and kin have struggled to achieve a powerful political voice in the midst of hundreds of well organized, often unionized public sector programs and thousands of private child welfare programs often represented by well funded trade groups with experienced government relations departments. Yet in a very real way, individual families have far more power than the organizations generally perceived to have the most influence.

With dramatic shifts in everything from political party leadership to public perceptions about the effectiveness of government, effective political advocacy is increasingly originating at the local level, driven by community activists who are not affiliated with any institutional interests. Rather, it has been the small business owners and active family groups that have taken hold of the political process. The November elections were a crushing wake up call to a generation of politicians that business as usual is most definitely over.

But the average working family has little time to educate themselves to the intricacies of politics. More importantly, the process itself can seem overwhelming to even the most experienced operative. However, there are a few operating principles that inform the process. And if you can embrace a few simple ideas, the more complex aspects of the issues will fall into place.

These are a few rules that have worked for us:

They work for you.

Whether you’re talking to the receptionist in your state senator’s office or talking to your U.S. Senator you should not feel self conscious or embarrassed. Your elected officials and their staffs work for YOU, the taxpayer. This doesn’t mean that you should be rude or combative. In
fact, in the immortal words of Nancy Drew, “An air of superiority can ruin a first impression.” When communicating with your target audience be conversational and clear - but don’t be intimidated!

They are not mind readers.

Elected officials serve thousands, if not millions, of constituents, each of whom potentially represents dozens of different issues. While Congress or the legislature is in session they are often called upon to make dozens of decisions about a single piece of legislation. Though most legislators make every effort to hire staff who are skilled in the policy issues of the district, even the best staffers can’t know everything. When you contact their offices, make a simple statement of the facts of your issue, even if you think they already know about it.

Do not make assumptions.

There is no quicker way to lose a political opportunity than to assume your legislator is “bad” on an issue just because they are either a Democrat or Republican. In fact, if they are on the wrong side of your issue they will never have an opportunity to learn about it if you stereotype them or their positions. However, if they know little or nothing about the specifics of an
issue, it’s a terrific opportunity to create an ally in the legislature if you can persuade them to take up your cause.

Do your homework.

If you are going to talk to your local politician learn everything you can about their background, their interests and their track records. If you are advocating for a foster care or adoption issue, nothing is more powerful than connecting with an elected official who has a personal connection to the issue.

Understand how the system works.

If you are seeking to have a bill introduced, amended or repealed it is critical to understand the legislative process, whether in your state legislature or in Congress. Find out what committee has jurisdiction over your issue. Then check to see whether your own member is on the committee of jurisdiction. If not, find an ally who is, preferably with a coalition of their constituents. In any case, never ask someone to do something they don’t have the authority to do.

Ripen the issue.

After John Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson realized that passage of the Civil Rights Act was in peril. He asked Roger Wilkins to go to Mississippi. He counseled him on how to lobby the powerful Sen. Dirksen. He personally couldn’t get out in front of the issue but he quietly, patiently provided advice and encouragement while the constituency for passage grew.
Other people created the political will to achieve final passage. While your issue may not involve the enormously complex political and cultural dynamics around the Civil Rights Act, you may still have to invest in a period of cultivation to achieve your objectives.

Know your friends. Know your enemies better.

While one person can make a difference, most issues benefit enormously from the support of a broad coalition of supporters. But not everyone that you think will be helpful will serve your interests well. Before you engage other organizations make sure you know where their funding comes from, what positions they have taken in the past and whether the positions they will
ultimately take will complement yours. If you are a grassroots parents’ group, inviting service providers to join your group may or may not be in your best interests. If you are a private group, your positions may not by in harmony with those of a public organization. In any case, don’t assume that even your best friends will serve your interests behind closed doors.

Invest in relationships.

Whether you are seeking support from your neighbors or from a large coalition group, don’t just engage them when you want something. Successful advocacy requires almost the almost constant building of relationships. There is no better example of this operating principle than President Bill Clinton. Beginning during his tenure with Boys State, Clinton maintained index cards with the contact information of virtually every person he met. He included in his files information about their work, their hobbies and their other interests. When he launched his Presidential campaign in the early 90's he had compiled thousands of contacts, most of whom were ready to support what was then considered an unlikely bid for the White House.

Don’t be afraid to take names.

Boston attorney and political strategist, Peter Sessa, begins his grassroots training by stating, “You can’t fight City Hall. True or false?” The answer, he quickly volunteers, is “False! You have to take names.” From King George to Bull Conner, the most effective advocates managed to personalize the issue. If your iniative is held hostage by a particular person, don’t be afraid to name names. Holding public officials or other individuals accountable for their postures or performance is fair game in any public policy discussion.

Take a long view.

The great Irish writer, Samuel Becket, said “Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail better.” In politics, patience is in fact a virtue. While some relatively simply issues can be addressed in a few weeks or months, most public policy problems take quite a bit longer to resolve. The average Congressional season is at least ten months. Some issues take multiple cycles to be successfully achieved.

If you can embrace these basic concepts, the details of your agenda will fall into place. From subsidy payments to health insurance for foster care providers to better and more accessible services for the children in your care, almost any agenda item can be accomplished if you come at the issues from a realistic, deliberate point of view.

Maureen Flatley and John Meredith are partners in the Empire Bay Group, LLC a strategic consulting firm with offices in Boston, New York and Washington, DC.

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