Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Instant legislators

My state isn't doing too well with legislators right now. There is a general pall over the General Court (as they are known) thanks to legal action being taken against two state senators (one involving assaulting four women while the other involves taking bribes) and increased scrutiny of the conduct of two representatives. Then there is that lovely fact that my state ranks dead last in contested races - meaning once someone is elected representative or senator they are rarely challenged in future elections. It is as if they are then handed the job on a silver platter.

At Saturday's convention I ran a workshop called Advocacy for Change! (someone else added the exclamation point). Usually at advocacy (aka how a bill becomes a law) workshops you have the range of folks - people who have extensive experience working in politics and people who didn't know they have both a representative and a senator in the State House. I wanted to do something different then the usual PowerPoint explanation of the legislative process ("the governor files the budget in January and then there is a hearing....).

I set up a role play where folks were assigned jobs. I asked a woman with limited English to be the "first" Spanish-speaking Governor of Massachusetts. I "elected" a young woman with a bright red do-rag the Senator who was also Chair of the Committee. People were assigned the role of business owners, residents who opposed and others who supported affordable housing (clearly that last one wasn't a stretch).

We held a mock State House hearing complete with a head table, "Senators" and "Representative" cards, a table to testify from and a clear mandate to give keep the testimony to one minute. I had given those who were testifying a fill-in-the-blank testimony sheet. They just had to come up with 2-3 important points to justify their support or opposition of the issue before the committee. I asked those who were the legislators to pose tough questions and at times seem disengaged (once when I testified before the Senator now facing bribery charges she loudly opened her mail. Although to "my" newly appointed legislators' credits - none of them had the heart to be mean or rude during the 8 minute hearing).

There was a worry that we were putting people on the spot to perform. To do something they wouldn't be comfortable with. I figured I could coach people through the exercise if it got really painful but it was worth the chance.

As always we were running out of time for the session. The "Governor" went first to speak and I was running around trying to line up the subsequent speakers. Suddenly I heard the young woman with her hair covered in a red cloth say very loudly, "Yes Madame Governor but WHY do you SUPPORT this? How will it help our communities?"

I shot up in the back of the large room and then nearly fell over. She and her fellow "co-chair" kept each testimony at one minute (often with a terse "your time is up!"), grilled people about their positions and gave people a real taste of what a hearing is. Neither of them had been to a hearing of any kind.

But who was the "Senator" in the do-rag? She is 18 years old and only recently got her GED. She desperately wants to go to college but because she doesn't have a traditional high school diploma she can't get financial aid for college. I am going to figure out how to get in her college.

Because in 5 years I want to run her campaign. For whatever office she wants to run for.


Jami said...

FUCK YEAH! I want you to know that I got tears in my eyes when I read this - which is one of the reasons I love you! When that woman runs, I want to give her money. It may not be much, but if you're running her campaign, I'm good for a couple of bucks.

Kate said...

Ah youth.... I remember being spunky, too! And then kids and a day job took over....
But she's cool. Hopefully she'll keep up her spark.

Goofball said...

Some days, some people just fill you with hope, don't they?

Jenn in Holland said...

Fantastic! I took chills reading this. What a fabulous event and what a fabulous find! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I just can't say it enough.