Well, it’s almost here! No, not my annual Golden Girls marathon, but the first day of the 116th U.S. Congress. And with the new Congress comes an opportunity to meet some of the 435 people who work for you, 110 of whom are brand new to Capitol Hill and I’m sure would love to meet you. I can never emphasize this enough, but sometimes advocates I speak with take the term “public servant” for granted, forgetting that they have two senators and one representative (unless they’re in Washington, DC) dedicated to represent their interests in Congress. So, why wouldn’t you want to articulate your interests in person?
Meeting with your members of Congress and their staffs is one of the most important things you can do as a citizen, let alone a TESOL advocate, and you don’t have to travel all the way to Washington, DC, to do it! Your members of Congress have district offices that are close by, leaving no excuses to not schedule a time to drop in. Unfortunately, even for the most dedicated advocates, meeting with a member of Congress can cause a lot of anxiety, uncertainty, and confusion. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a helpful, brief, and (as always) unapologetic guide to meeting with your members of Congress.
1. Find Out Who Your Members of Congress Are in the First Place
This might seem obvious, but I try not to assume anything. Finding the names, email addresses, and office locations of your representatives in Congress is always a good start when thinking about meeting with them. For reasons unknown to the universe, there is no “official” central directory with both members of the House and Senate in once place, but both chambers do keep separate databases that you can access here. There are also plenty of “unofficial” databases you can use…just Google it.
2. Be Persistent…Be Persistent…Be Persistent…Be…You Get It
It’s time to reach out and schedule some meetings. This step probably trips people up the most. A lot of advocates tend to think that members of Congress have giant staffs just waiting to answer the phone or meet with them the next day, but the truth is that the staffs aren’t all that large and not always as responsive as you would hope. Especially in the House where staffs are small, you’re likely to find one scheduler, a handful of aides, and a bunch of interns just hoping they don’t accidentally hang up on you.
The point here is that calling or emailing your members of Congress for a meeting doesn’t always work out on the first attempt. A quick reality check: your senators and representatives serve anywhere from a few thousand people to tens of millions, so patience and persistence is key. It might take five emails and three phone calls to actually get a meeting on the books, but if you stick with it, you’ll get something scheduled. A good tip to remember: If you’re ever having difficulty getting a response, and even if you’re not, always mention that you’re a constituent; that usually grabs a staffer’s attention.
3. Role Reversal: Do Your Homework!
Time to prepare! The purpose of these meetings is to express concern and/or support for various issues impacting the TESOL field, so do your homework. Read up on current TESOL policy issues that you want to discuss, like education funding, immigration, and teacher development. TESOL’s website is a great resource for our recent comments and statements on a number of different policy issues impacting English learners. Your job when you meet with your members of Congress is to be the TESOL expert in the room, and with TESOL’s resources and your wealth of knowledge, experiences, and skills, you’ll have no problem fulfilling that role and leaving a great impression!
4. The Sit Down
Alright, now you can recite all 392 pages of the Every Student Succeeds Act by heart, so what happens now? The meeting. It can be a little intimidating to meet with people you see on the news or at campaign events. Lucky for you, though, you probably won’t be meeting with your member of Congress one-on-one, but more than likely you’ll be meeting with an aide. This actually puts a lot of people off, but let me tell you—it shouldn’t! Aides are your best friends at any congressional office. They are the subject matter experts and they’re the ones who pass off the information you speak about to their boss.
Whoever you meet with, though, just remember to keep calm and have your information ready. Have a story in mind about your time as a TESOL teacher/researcher/student, and how it relates to the issues you want your representative to support, and always remember to stay on message. It’s that simple! Remember to ask for a business card (more on that next), and bring copies of relevant documents about your program or issues to leave behind with the office.
5. The Follow-Up
This is one of the easiest steps in the process, but also one of the most ignored. Think of meeting with your members of Congress kind of like a job interview. You want to make a good impression and you always want to follow-up with a thank you email (with the contact information you got from that business card). If you promised to provide more information on a certain topic during your meeting, this is also a good opportunity to pass that information along. Also, any time an issue comes up in the future, remember that you now have the contact information of the right staffer to reach out to and build a relationship with.
There you have it! Five easy steps to meeting with your members of Congress that anyone can follow. Remember, even if you’re apprehensive about meeting with your lawmakers, it’s an important step to take in your advocacy efforts. At the end of the day, if you’re persistent, do your homework, and stay on message, your meetings will be a huge success and you’ll want to share your experiences with your friends, students, and colleagues. So, what are you waiting for? Go schedule some meetings!