A few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to participate in GLSEN‘s Safe Schools Advocacy Summit (SSAS). I’ve emerged from it feeling inspired and empowered, which may sound clichè, but it’s how I feel, dang-it. Now, the title of this blog entry is kind of misleading, because I commute to Washington, DC almost daily to my wonderful internship here at Metro DC PFLAG (good grades please, Bill!). However, it is not everyday I visit the beautiful Capitol Building and its surrounding Congressional offices for some lobbying-action.
GLSEN’s event was three days long, with the first two days devoted to workshops and trainings on: the legislative process, lobbying strategies, and detailed information on two very important federal bills: the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act. The attendees were mostly high school students, but there were about 20 adult students, activists, and community leaders (19+) as well, and they were from all over the country. People flew in from Nevada ,New York, Florida…and I commuted from Falls Church. I’ve rarely seen a group that was so active, so passionate, and so diverse as this one was. I emerge from SSAS slightly less cynical of young kids, with their darn music, after seeing the wide-eyed enthusiasm for activism and social justice these kids I met shown.
On Sunday, we took a night-time bus tour of DC. Now I wouldn’t say I take the sights of the city for granted, but I had a great time re-discovering the city I’ve grown up near. I guess I don’t know DC that well, because I had no idea bus tours ran until 10:30 pm on Sunday nights. Honest Abe looks pretty cool at night.
GLSEN did an excellent job of getting all participants familiar with the two bills mentioned above. They taught us how to effective blend the very compelling statistics on bullying with our own personal experiences and stories when talking with legislators and their staff. As one of the GLSEN folks said, anyone can give Congress the facts, but only you can give your story. Wise words, GLSEN.
GLSEN made appointments for all participants for their respective Congressional offices Congressional offices (2 Senate offices, 1 House office) for the third day (Tuesday). As the only participant hailing from Virginia, I visited Senator Warner, Senator Webb, and Congressman Connolly’s offices by myself. Needless to say I was a bit nervous, as I’ve only made a lobbying visit once before with a group as part of an earlier grad school assignment. Fully caffeinated and with my sharpest suit on, I forged on.
The first visit with Senator Warner’s legislative assistant went okay, not great. I felt unprepared, since I arrived at the hotel at 9:00 am only to find out I had an appointment at 9:30 pm, and thus didn’t have my notes/thoughts in order. I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to say, however the legislative assistant seemed receptive to my “pitch” on both bills.
The second visit, with Senator Webb’s office went more smoothly as I had an hour break to sort my thoughts/notes. The legislative assistant asked some tough questions, especially concerning cost and implementation of the bills, but luckily GLSEN trained us well in learning how to answer these tough questions.
The third visit, with Congressman Connolly’s visit was a bit odd. As I began discussing the two bills, I was cut off by the legislative assistant, and assured that “Gerry” would definitely cosponsor both bills because had cosponsored previous versions before, and I did not need to convince him to sign on. Okay then. The legislative assistant I met with emailed me…as it turned out, Gerry only thought he consponsored the bills in the past, when in fact, he never did. My visit apparently reminded him to cosponsor both bills, and it also reminded him to cosponsor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (or what I like to call, lobby for two, get one free). The lesson: never assume your likely allies are doing all they can, sometimes all they need is a friendly reminder from their supporters. As of this writing, I haven’t heard back from Warner and Webb’s office on whether or not they’ll become cosponsors (but I intend to keep checking!)
All in all, a tremendous experience. It’s nice to know that my visits made a tiny splash in Congress. I hope some of my fellow PFLAG’ers and PFLAG supporters will help make some bigger splashes in the future.
-David the Intern