What you can do: Call on me

So you’re mad as hell, not gonna take it anymore, and you’re ready to make some calls. That’s excellent! You already know how to contact your federal, state, and local elected and appointed officials and you’re ready to get going with a cup of tea, a fully charged phone, and a script.

But let’s take a break for a moment, just a little one, to talk about how to most effectively communicate with elected officials. The first thing you need to know if that if an official isn’t your elected official, they don’t actually care all that much about what you have to say. Sure, I could call Senator-elect Tammy Duckworth’s office and ask her staffers to tell her that I want her to push harder on disability rights. They’re going to ask me for my address and contact information, and when they find out I am not a constituent, they may pass my concerns on to Senator-elect Kamala Harris or Senator Diane Feinstein, and they’ll likely tell me to contact them directly, as well.

There are a lot of reasons for this but one of the most fundamental is that I am not Duckworth’s constituent. I may be affected by decisions she makes, I may benefit or be harmed by things she’s worked on, but I didn’t vote for her. The people of Illinois did. And they are counting on her to represent their interests, not those of some rando from California. It would be inappropriate for her to act on anything I told her to do (not that a single constituent ever triggers action either) because she’s not my senator. She might appreciate it if I dropped her a line saying I liked something she did, or congratulating her, but if I am concerned about policy, she’s not someone I should be contacting.

That’s right. Sitting there with a list of contact information for every single person in the Senate, or in Congress, and going through one by one is a waste of your time, and it’s a waste of hard-working staffers’ time as well. So what isn’t a waste of your time? I’m glad you asked.

If you can, visit an official’s local office (easy if it’s the mayor, a little more challenging if it’s your Representative or Senator) and talk with someone in person. If you can’t do that, call. If you can’t call, send a letter. If you can’t do that, email. Staffers triage the information that comes in and some information is weighed more seriously. It’s hard to ignore someone knocking on your door, but it’s easy to lump ’emails about H.R. Whatever Number’ into a batch and send out a bulk canned response. I hate phones, so I feel you if you’re not thrilled at the prospect of calling, and it’s fine to have a short little script to use. Staffers are typically very friendly and interested in talking to people, though there are exceptions to the rule.

Before you contact someone, make sure they’re the right official for the job. In addition to the President and Vice President (accountable to everyone), you have your Senators and Representative, as well as the members of your state assembly. You have county/parish and city officials. You have the people who oversee local, state, and federal departments and agencies. If you want to complain about a traffic light or a racist bill, make sure to contact the people who are actually involved with that thing and can make a change happen. Sure, I could talk to the mayor about a traffic problem, but I’d be better off talking to the Director of Public Works, who in turn might tell me to talk to CalTrans, depending on the situation. I could complain to the California Secretary of State about racist pending legislation, but, like, there’s nothing they can do to help me.

By courtesy, people generally pass callers along to the right office and may forward concerns, but you can skip that stage by going to the right person in the first place. Talking to the right person also allows you to work directly with them when it comes to collaborating on solutions. If you say ‘I want a traffic light at This Street and That Street’ to the mayor, she can pass it on to public works, and they might not do anything because they know they’ll never be able to afford a traffic study and get approval. If you go to directly to public works, they’ll tell you that, they’ll ask why you want a traffic light, you’ll say it’s because of safety, and you can sit down to talk out ideas for resolving a safety issue.

Be realistic. Sure, you could contact your state assemblyperson and say that you’re upset Trump got elected and you want them to do something. But there’s not a lot they can actually do about the election and the processes involved. What they CAN do, however, is proactively pass legislation to protect civil rights in your state, so ask for that. Be concrete. Say ‘as a transgender resident of this state, I am very concerned about my ability to access restrooms, locker rooms, and other public accommodations. I am asking you to introduce legislation that would affirm my right to use the bathroom that most appropriately aligns with my gender.’ Creating a clear, actionable item is super helpful for staffers, as well. Saying ‘We got 40 calls today about civil rights’ isn’t as helpful as ‘We got 20 calls from trans people asking for protection, 12 calls from undocumented immigrants requesting assurances for sanctuary cities, and eight calls from disabled people concerned about losing state assistance with personal care needs.’

Get to know staffers. Sign up for mailing lists. Get interactive so that when you come forward with concerns, people know who you are, they know your history, and they know you’re engaged and involved. Put yourself out there as a volunteer, too, because that can be a great way to get on the inside of policy decisions while also supporting elected officials you like. It can also help you learn more about what is and isn’t within the purview of a given office, and how to connect with people who can make the changes you want.

A lot of very nice and well-meaning but terrible advice is circulating right now about contacting elected officials, so it bears noting here that you need to use your resources well and wisely. Contacting random officials in a place you don’t live isn’t a meaningful or effective use of your time (though if you want to support key races you are more than welcome to donate money). There are also some people you shouldn’t even bother contacting except in very specific circumstances — judges, for example, don’t take calls from constituents because that could prejudice their cases, though you may be able to file an amicus brief in certain cases.

When you have an issue you want to contact elected officials about, narrow it down. Get specific. Ask yourself why you want to contact the government and what outcome you are expecting. Sometimes, it’s easy — calling a legislator to ask them to vote against a bill you dislike, for example. Other times, it’s more nebulous — you want police reform in your town but you don’t know what that looks like. So research. Arm yourself with information about best practices and tools that work, and then contact the relevant officials (say, the sheriff and/or chief of police, public safety committee, mayor). Your time is valuable, and it’s worth it to make sure it is used well.