Thursday, October 11, 2007

Speak out for real

The alternate title for this post was "Pointless Petitions". But this is more than about on-line petitions.

Earlier this month Alex Elliot was engaging folks - like she always does - about something important. It led one commenter to suggest that maybe a petition should be started.

I nearly blew up at the computer.

Spit. Scream. Lose-my-mind-yell at the screen.

The best way to describe my job is I am a social change activist. However, I believe that it makes sense to work within our elected government to make that change happen. I've coordinated campaigns that created state-wide health coverage for all children, successfully secured funding for government programs that support small businesses in urban and rural areas and ensured that laws passed were actually implemented to help the people they are suppose to help. Just because a law is passed doesn't mean it is going to be implemented.

However, the most successful campaigns involve a grassroots "army". Folks willing to take time to let elected officials know that an issue is important for them.

Paper petitions are not the way to do it. Electronic petitions? What a waste of cyberspace.

Seriously. The best way to reach out to an elected official is with a letter. An old-fashioned paper in envelop with a stamp letter. The next best is a phone call. In my state (please note I wrote state not Washington DC) you get a representative or senator's attention when five different people call on an issue. Most states are like that (obviously not large mini-countries states like California).

A petition is useful in certain instances. As an organizing tool to get people engaged to make calls or write letters. As a high-profile way to show famous people support an issue. When 30 business leaders, celebrities or politicians sign a petition and it is published in the New York Times or Washington Post then it gets attention.

But that is all it does is get attention. It doesn't make a policy solution become a piece of legislation or budget amendment. A petition alone doesn't get legislators to vote a particular way on an issue.

So what can you do? Pick one issue you really, really care about. Find an organization that promotes your view and has a viable set of solutions in your state. Then figure out who your state representative and state senator are. And call them about the issue you care about. Tell them why it matters to you and why this policy solution will fix the problem.

Then mark your calendar to call back in 2-3 months. Ask what is going on with the legislation or budget earmark. If they can't answer you then ask them to call back with the answers. If they don't call, call again. Remember your tax dollars pay the legislators' and aides' salaries. You are their bosses. You are not being a pain. It is their job to make government accountable to their constituents. And you are their constituent.

Then call again in 2-3 months. One of my mentors says "a watched government behaves differently". Petitions don't mean you are watching. A phone call does.

Now, for a humorous take on my rant I give you Stephen Colbert.

As it says on the Comedy Central web site, "Make Stephen proud, young people - wage protests from the polite distance of your home computers."

Now make me proud. Let me know of any past phone calls you placed or letters you sent about an issue you cared about. If you do something after reading this post I will sing your praises in a subsequent post. Just do something. Be engaged. Watch our government.

Our government is based on the premise of an engaged population. So please, be engaged.


Jenn said...

You know, I've never called my representative?

aimee / greeblemonkey said...

Thank you thank you thank you thank you!

Can you please call my whole email list and tell this?

P.S. I have met with reps from Diana DeGette's office and with Senator Ken Salazar himself. How ya like me now???

cathouse teri said...

Love it, love it, love it!

I posted it at my blog. Linky love to you. :)

soccer mom in denial said...


Now, since I know you in person that was a very brave thing to admit. Keep in mind I will now harass you until you make a call. I'll even help you figure out your state rep.


We continue to be simpatico - No?

Oh Teri,

Linky love from you? What a wonderful way to start a very early morning.

Now off to our organization's annual meeting in the middle of the state. Nothing like driving in the dark first thing in the morning.

Virtualsprite said...

You've just confirmed everything I've ever suspected about petitions. Thank you!

Since I'm a journalist, I have the amazing position of being able to write articles about proposed legislation and then give instructions on how best to support/combat it. (Both sides... we have to be fair.) It's always startling to me how uninformed people choose to be. I won't stand for it. Not on my watch.

Jami said...

Yay for SMID!! Petitions are almost useless and online petitions are less effective than that! (Info here.)

If you're pissed off about something, get off your ass and DO SOMETHING CONSTRUCTIVE about it! Yes, I rant about stuff over at my place, but I also follow most of those rants up with letters and/or phone calls and/or emails. I just don't write about doing that because it's not that interesting.

Loved Mr. Colbert!

Amy Barry said...

Amen Sista! I am a Planner for a City (I do new development review, subdivsions, commercial development, etc.) Nothing is more irritating than petitions. They are helpful up front to get a feel for how many people are interested and have concerns, and some inkling of what the concerns might be, but if you really want to see something change you have to provide REAL input and follow through. Tell the City and the Developer exactly how the proposal affects you. Tell us what you think needs to be changed, and how, and why.

Guess what? When people make reasonable requests and suggestions for changes often times they happen!

But just saying you oppose something, what do people expect that to accomplish?

Well articulated post! Thanks - Amy

Jenn in Holland said...

And now is the time wherein I fall to my knees in worship of she who rants with perfection.
That is a brilliant piece of advice and encouragement SMID.
May we all listen and collectively get up off our whining a**es and DO SOMETHING ABOUT SOMETHING.

Man, you are cool.

painted maypole said...

this is really great. I have sent e-mails, but I imagine that a real LETTER gets much more attention, because an e-mail is little more than an internet petition (which I have always been suspicious off). Thanks for the kick.

soccer mom in denial said...

Sprite -

To be fair, petitions can be a terrific organizing tool to get a campaign started. But in and of itself it cannot be seen as sufficent action for change. And welcome to my site. Thanks.

Jami -

I always agree with you. If someone is pissed then do something about it. Don't moan and groan. You are contributing to the problem if you just moan and groan - even if you do it "publicly" on your blog it doesn't reach a broader audience or one that can effect change.

Do people really think their elected officials read blogs?

Amy B -

Why hello to you! You've been awfully busy commenting. Thanks for being probably the only person, besides me and my mentor who helped set up this blog, to read nearly every post. I would think your position in city government puts you in a great place to help make change happen!

JiH -

You seem to be pissed about something. Don't you think you should do something about it? Start a "let's be nice" campaign? I could help you get in touch with a national magazine reporter....

Maypole -

In my state, emails to elected officials don't work unless you have a working relationship. Often legislators assume the emails are massed produced or simply cut-and-paste jobs. They pay attention to phone calls and letters. Now your great state may be different.

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I do this pretty often. I think my most recent badgering was about Schip.


Alex Elliot said...

Thanks for the explanation! I'm going to send your post link to a bunch of my friends.

soccer mom in denial said...

Jen -

YOU BADGERED ABOUT SCHIP!?!?! That's my baby federal policy. Oh another reason to love you.

AE -

Welcome back! Didn't want to bug you while on vacation but glad to know this post answered your original question.

Flower Child said...

As someone sort of related to an elected official I will verify that letters matter. That's why they have people whose full-time jobs it is to do correspondence. They take it seriously. They have meetings about it. They serve bagels at these meetings.

And if you live in DC you get NONE of this. So for the rest of you, please write and call. We don't get a voice. And we still pay taxes.

chelle said...

Great post. I never thought to call, but my Dad has a few times.