By Alexandra Dufresne.
This article was originally published in Yale News on 1 February 2017, and has been reposted with permission of the author Alexandra Dufresne.
You are smart, hard-working and creative. You care about people. Perhaps you are heartbroken by what is happening to your country.
But maybe you are majoring in biology, English or music. Perhaps you hope to become a writer, a doctor or a musician. Maybe you have no idea what you will do after graduation. But you know you aren’t like that guy in college who wore a suit to class and talked about politics the way your brother talks about baseball. You don’t like to ask for things. You find protests vaguely embarrassing. You’re not political. In fact, you hate politics. Besides, you’d probably be lousy at it.
I understand. I used to hate politics too. When I first started advocating before the legislature for abused and neglected children, I was terrible at it. It was like watching a game of cricket: even after I had learned the rules, it still made no sense to me.
But I taught myself to become political anyway. I didn’t have a choice. My clients were children. They couldn’t represent themselves.
I am afraid you might not have a choice either. Because politics isn’t like art or physics or music — you can’t delegate it to the small percentage of people who appear to love and excel at it. A representative democracy works only if everyone’s views are taken into account.
Because lawmakers do not know what you think unless you tell them directly. They do not read your college essays, bumper stickers, T-shirts, song lyrics or Facebook posts. In college, ideas matter; in the real world, ideas matter only to the extent that you act upon them.
By definition, the people at greatest risk in a representative democracy are those who cannot vote legislators out of office: noncitizens, children, some people who have been convicted of felonies and people who have not yet been born. To be effective, they need consistent, concrete support from those with voting rights.
But what can you do?
Consider the one or two issues you care about the most. You do not need to take political action on every topic that comes through your Facebook feed; rather, pick an issue, then own it deeply and consistently.
Determine whether policy on your issues is made at the federal level, the state level or the local level. Not all important work happens at the federal level; indeed, the most critical work on many issues often happens at the state and local levels. And in state level decision-making, a call from a constituent who is a “real person” is worth many calls from professional advocates.
Connect with an advocacy organization. Ask how you can be most helpful.
Learn the names of your state and federal legislators. Put their phone numbers into your contacts. For federal members of Congress, if you can’t get the right person on the phone, try calling their local office. Do you prefer emailing, texting and signing online petitions to making an actual phone call? Me too. But calls are much more effective, second only in impact to in-person meetings.
Remember what your parents taught you about manners. Tell the staffer who answers the call who you are, where you live (they will want to make sure you are a constituent), what exactly you are asking the senator or representative to do, and why you care. Make your request specific, succinct and timely. Thank them. Be firm but never rude.
You may simply not want to do this. It may be intimidating. Worse yet, it may be embarrassing, unseemly. It could make you feel overeager and awkward: vulnerable and presumptuous at the same time. And there’s no guarantee of success.
But this is where courage comes in. Courage isn’t in doing what comes naturally. It is rarely about one grandiose, beautiful self-sacrificing gesture. And it isn’t about doing what’s right when success is a sure thing. Courage is doing what is awkward, tedious, annoying and inelegant in the face of uncertainty. It is stepping in to cover for someone else because someone must. And it is taking small, incremental steps every week, every month, every season, every year until it becomes a habit.
If this is your first time calling, you will be nervous. I was. Call anyway. Soon enough you’ll be a natural.
Alexandra Dufresne was dean of Morse College from 2005 to 2007 and was a former lecturer in Ethics, Politics & Economics. She now resides in Switzerland.