My colleague and I have just arrived at a restaurant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Surveying the scene, I spot two legislators I want to speak with. After saying hi to other colleagues, applying my nametag and grabbing a drink, I make my way to a state senator. We make eye contact as I approach, and I immediately launch into my pitch: an invitation to visit Kutztown University’s campus with a bipartisan group of legislators to sit in on a class and meet with faculty and students. She doesn’t hesitate to say yes.
For the second year in a row, I have participated in my faculty union’s Legislative Days during the first week of June. The first evening is for the legislative cocktail hour, and the next morning is for sit-downs with legislators in their offices. This year, about 50 faculty members from across our 5,500-member union met with legislators who represent the districts that are home to, or adjacent to, the 14 Pennsylvania State System universities.
Even educators without the benefit of a union-organized event can meet with their state legislators to request funding, talk about how all students need functioning and well-funded schools, and invite lawmakers to a Legislative Day at their school. Showing up in person in a state senator’s office and having a face-to-face conversation makes a much bigger impression than an email, a tweet or a phone call. Here are five steps to getting it done.
Have a plan and create talking points.
Even if this statehouse visit is just you and a few of your colleagues, educators are uniquely situated to organize, research and discuss education-related issues with clarity, passion and precision. A one-page list of the most relevant and striking statistics and data about your school, along with highlights of important points, will help you stay focused. This list can also be left with a legislator or a staff member. State legislators, regardless of party affiliation, are often eager to hear real, unfiltered stories and will agree to meet for the chance to listen and possibly brainstorm ideas. Use whoismyrepresentative.com, type in the ZIP code for your school and find state senators and representatives. Then plug in the ZIP codes of your group’s home addresses and add those senators and representatives to the list.
Pick a summer day and set up the meetings.
Ask when the legislators are in session when you call to set up the appointments. Work your visit around the open sessions during the summer or breaks in your own schedule. The administrative staff and schedulers who work for these legislators are often quite helpful and may suggest days that are better than others. Another option is to set up meetings when the lawmakers are in their home offices.
Divide and conquer.
If possible, meet each legislator in groups of two or three, which will provide them different insights and perspectives. Each member of the group can share responsibility for talking points. Or each educator can visit three or four legislators in a morning. Meetings are usually 15 minutes. Be polite, civil, assertive, friendly and flexible. Adjust to the moment once in the door. Many of the conversations I’ve had with legislators are completely off the talking-point list but have resulted in substantive and positive interactions. Building relationships should be the priority.
Have ideas and pitch them.
During my last visit with legislators, I asked their thoughts on New York’s new free-tuition plan for students at public institutions and whether they thought something similar might work for the Pennsylvania State System. That led to brainstorming about where the money might come from and how the move might increase enrollments (which are down) and increase the legislators’ tax base (by requiring students who take the tuition waiver to stay in the state for several years after graduation). Be willing to listen to the legislators’ concerns and be prepared to counter with ideas of your own. Don’t be afraid to suggest a risky idea. They will remember your imagination, commitment and willingness to think outside the box. At the legislative cocktail hour I attended, the state senator smiled as I approached, gave me a hug and after we chatted for a moment, she said, “You always have such good ideas!”
Invite the legislators to your school.
Inviting each legislator to a Legislative Day this fall was the unexpected twist to my visits. Our day will provide the legislators the opportunity to sit in on a college class, talk with faculty and meet with students. Every legislator I spoke with was enthusiastic, intrigued and excited about this event. Every educator can propose such a day. Imagine the alliances and advocates we might gain in statehouses across the nation!
While in Harrisburg, one of my colleagues said she thinks legislators will tell us what they think we want to hear and then do what they want anyway. Such cynicism is understandable after years of budget cuts and increased partisan tension, but I see these meetings differently. I believe in the educators of this nation and our ability to persuade legislators to become our partners. We can build coalitions, creating allies and advocates at the state level.
Now is the time. Meet. Ask. Pitch. Invite. Show up. It matters.
Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.