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Lobbying & Political Advocacy

Lobbying & Political Advocacy

Or, Nice Ways to Make Change

While the judiciary has historically been one of the best curbs against theocracy, we should also concentrate on making change through the legislative and executive branches, as well as school administrations. Student organizations have a unique, almost uncanny ability to raise awareness on important issues, and can translate this into meaningful action. This packet is intended as the flipside of the Demonstrations & Protests packet; this one concerns the more respectable, and perhaps more effective, methods to creating change. Don't consider the separation to be too strict; both sets of tactics can be useful, and even intermixed. Most of the resources referred to here are available from our Activist Resources page, which we hope to update often.

In particular, I would like to emphasize the value of using local government as a platform to combat (among other things) intelligent design, civil liberties abuses, and anti-atheist discrimination. The student movement in particular should be working on this level. Students already come into contact with local governments a great deal, and it is at the county and municipal level that students have the best chance of influencing policy. Furthermore, local activism promotes atheist and student visibility in our communities, a direct rebuttal to the charges that we don't exist (the former) or are apathetic (the latter).

There are, of course, many more organizing guides and tactics than I could ever hope to represent here. A good starting point is Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, a grassroots organizing manual that famously begins, "The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away." But don't just listen to me; Alinsky's guide worked pretty well for an upstart named Barack Obama. A distillation of his rules is available here.

Letter-writing campaign:

Write letters to legislators, school officials, trustees, donors, and parents to let them know what's going on! At a tabling event you can give people paper and pens to write their own; alternatively, you can take five minutes at a meeting to have members quickly write their own letters.

Personal and handwritten letters are more likely to be read and replied to than typed or form letters. Be complimentary, rather than combative, but firmly state your case. See AU's guide to Writing Your Elected officials.

Petitions:

Many campus organizing manuals have a one-line suggestion that you "conduct a petition drive", but this ignores how difficult they are to do well. Our website has a document that does into great detail on the ins-and-out of running an effective petition drive here. A few important points from that guide:

  • Don't have a petition drive without a well-crafted, direct, and targeted demand. While petitions are great at generating and demonstrating interest in an issue, unless they point to a very specific change the signers want to see, all you'll have is a stack of pages expressing vague sentiments.
  • As a corollary to that, don't have a petition drive without a specific plan for leveraging signatures. Know how you'll use the list of signatures (e.g., at a public meeting, as part of a media campaign) so the people you talk will know that their signatures have an immediate impact.
  • Your petition is also a great way to harvest information about people interested in your cause. However, keep in mind that they are not signing up to join your group; you can contact them in the future for action (a rally, another petition), but not for a regular meeting.

Calling Legislators / Phonebank:

You can call people for a number of reasons - to alert people to an issue, to ask for their support on an issue (similar to a petition), and to activate potential volunteers. To do this, you'll need a list of numbers to call, which you can harvest from your sign-up sheet. Some tips for making effective calls to public officials can be found in AU's guide to Calling Your Legislator.

If you'd like to phonebank about a state or federal issue, talk to an off-campus group like SCA, AU, or the ACLU. They are likely to have a large list of numbers, as well as access to automated calling software.

Action alerts:

Action alerts refer to emails sent by a watchdog group to notify members of important upcoming votes and actions, and provide you with a way to get involved (send an email to legislators, attend a training, etc.). These are useful for alerting your group to opportunities for activism, something that you can organize around. Sign up yourself and group leaders to these or others:

Dorm-rap/Canvassing:

Basically, going door-to-door to talk to folks about issues and get them involved, either on or off-campus. This should be in the context of an ongoing campaign and not as a general recruitment drive; it's much more effective and useful to do this to, say, get people to sign a petition, write a letter, or attend a rally. More ideas and tips, such as how to develop a rap, can be found in an excerpt from the SEAC organizing guide on our website.

Leafleting:

This is a good way to reach people who haven't or won't stop at your table. Leaflets ought to be ¼ or 1/6 size, and should have a simple message about an issue, ways to take action, an announcement about an event, and (as always) contact and meeting info. If several members stand in a crowded place at one time, they can easily hand out several hundred.

When handing out leaflets, be friendly but outgoing - thrusting a leaflet into someone's hands will usually get them to take it. Since many will be thrown out, a way to reuse them (and reduce paper use) is to have a clearly marked Discard box for unwanted leaflets.

Because high schools often have more restrictive policies on leafleting (and free speech in general), high school students may find this information packet helpful.

Letters to the Editor & Op-Eds:

Letters to the editor are an easy way to generate buzz about an issue of concern. They're constantly checked by the staff of politicians, so this is a great to let them know how their constituents feel! Our media relations guide has several resources devoted to writing letters and getting them published.

Opinion pieces are longer than a letter to the editor, but much more prominent. It's not worth your time to regularly write op-eds, but if there is an important issue in your campus or community, especially one that concerns your group directly, an op-ed is a great way to make your position clearly known. The ACLU has some guidelines for writing an op-ed.

Meeting with Elected Officials & Staff:

Taking the time to talk to your elected officials personally is the most direct expression of your concern and interest in an issue. Some groups sponsor Lobby Days, which your members can attend en masse. If that's not an option, simply call and make an appointment to speak one-on-one with them or their staff. Simply go there and explain that, as a constituent, you are concerned with a particular issue for certain reasons, and that there are a number of other constituents who are similarly concerned.

For more tips on these meetings, our website includes some resources on working with public officials here. Also see the ACLU's guide on their website.

Proposals & Resolutions:

Submit a resolution or measure to your local legislature or student union. You have the best chances for success if:

  • You can get a member of the body to introduce and fight for it. See if you know someone 'inside' who is sympathetic to your views.
  • Be specific in your proposal. Address a general issue with a detailed way of confronting it, and include a timeline for implementation. If the proposal requires any sort of expenditure, be sure to look up prices and sources beforehand.
  • Back up the proposal with visible signs of support - petitions, polls, a letter-writing campaign, rallies, and endorsements from faculty or prominent leaders.
  • Don't think that a resolution can't have an impact; simply getting your town to affirm church/state separation, for instance, is the equivalent of hanging a sign reading "No Theocrats Need Apply". The ACLU has some resources on how to pass a community resolution here, as well as a sample resolution you can modify here. You should also take a look at the resolution for Church-State Separation Week that Michigan State Freethinker Alliance was able to push through their city council.

Public Hearing / Town Hall:

You can either attend a public hearing put on by the university/town council, or conduct your own. The former is probably easiest, and generally more respectable. Most towns have a procedure for signing in and validating your residence if you want to speak; be sure to check the meeting rules on how this can be done. Bring back-up materials such as polls, petitions, and information to make sure your issue gets a full hearing. The best way to come out in force while being heard is to bring interested community members who can be visually identified (i.e. buttons or t-shirts), while selecting one or a handful of speakers to present your case.

Holding your own town hall will allow you to more closely control the agenda, and can be a very effective publicity stunt. If, say, discrimination against the non-religious is being tolerated on campus, you can invite school officials to a panel to express their views and hear concerns; even if they don't show up, this can be a useful community forum. However, be sure to maintain control and prevent the event from turning into a circus, which will reflect poorly on your group and campaign.

Rallies:

This is a more orderly and focused variant of a protest march. See the Rallies organizing page from the SEAC organizing guide, and the Demonstrations & Protests activity packet.

Polling/Referendums:

Polling will allow you to demonstrate that there is widespread support for your campaign. Develop an unbiased question on an issue of concern ("Should the university continue having a religious invocation at commencement?"). Give the poll to a significant percentage of the student body and announce the results via press release.

You may be able to place a referendum (binding or non-binding) on your school's student union ballot. This will ensure that the whole campus has a chance to answer, and will be much more visible; however, if it goes against you, there's no way to hide it, and you will have to put in some work simply to get it on the ballot. Check your student government's constitution to see the rules governing this.

Voter Registration:

You should do it! Generally, you can register in your hometown or your college town, but not both. Search for information on how to do it in your state; you can also register at any place that grants driver's licenses.

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