Speaking Up: Tips for Young People to Advocate Effectively

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This post was written by NLC summer interns, Priscille Biehlmann, Molly Coleman and Olivia Myszkowski.

2014-Pic-of-Interns-with-Sen-Franken

As National League of Cities summer interns, we recently had the chance to try our hand at federal advocacy on Capitol Hill. All Minnesota natives, we met with members of the Minnesota delegation to discuss NLC’s positions on immigration and education policy.

For young people invested in public service and political decision making, direct conversations with congressional staff and representatives can serve as a powerful learning experience. In sitting down with congressional staff, we were able to speak both as involved constituents and as representatives of the National League of Cities.

We were charged with emphasizing NLC’s commitment to strong federal-local partnerships in support of community school systems, along with the League’s support for comprehensive immigration reform. We also had the chance to spend time talking about our personal investment in these issues as Minnesota voters, and to hear feedback from staff about our representatives’ positions.

As we spoke with representatives and their staff, the importance of youth involvement in federal advocacy was reinforced time and time again. Minnesota 5th District Representative Keith Ellison was adamant that input from young constituents influences his votes in a meaningful way, emphasizing that one personal story from a young person often cuts to the core of an issue and resonates more deeply than numbers, charts and data can.

Speaking directly with elected officials at the federal level might seem daunting, but with the right approach, effective federal advocacy is possible even for the youngest of civic-minded citizens. If there is an issue that you’re passionate about, the following tips can help you productively communicate your thoughts with your representative:

  1. Be Punctual and Flexible. Be sure to arrive to the meeting 10 minutes in advance, but be prepared for last minute changes in scheduling. Members of Congress and their staff have hectic schedules, so it’s not uncommon for a meeting to be interrupted, delayed or canceled. On the other hand, the unpredictability of a congressperson’s schedule can sometimes be an advantage. Though our meeting with Rep. Ellison’s office was initially scheduled to be with one of his legislative aids, the Congressman had some space in between meetings to sit down with us for an impromptu discussion.
  2. Be Upfront and Personal. Be clear on what you are requesting and ask directly for his or her support. Reference the legislation you are addressing, including the bill number and title, if it is available. Describe why the issue is important to your community using specific and personal example
  3. Be Brief. Plan to have only about five minutes of speaking time to get your message across clearly and effectively. Because of the risk of interruption from votes, schedules running late or last-minute emergencies, that may be all the time you’ll have.
  4. Conclude Clearly and Follow Up. If any commitments are made, summarize them at the end of the meeting to ensure that everyone understands what has been decided. After you return home, e-mail the Congressional staff you met with to thank them for their time, briefly reiterate your position on the issue you discussed, and provide any further information the staff member may need.

As cities strive to have their voices heard on the legislative issues in front of Congress, harnessing the youth voice can be an effective way to stand out in the crowd. By incorporating young people into an advocacy strategy, cities can often make a more powerful, and therefore more memorable, statement.

Additionally, it is clear that young people have a unique perspective on many of the issues most directly related to city governance. Given the number of city services specifically targeting Millennials, from schools to workforce training programs to juvenile justice reform efforts, it is critical for local elected officials to not only reach out to this population, but to find ways to keep them actively engaged. NLC has many great resources to help you boost youth civic engagement in your city.

Members of Congress are there to serve their constituents, but these constituents often have to be willing to take the first step. By encouraging citizens, especially young people, to become actively involved at the local level, they are more likely to exercise the power of their voice at all levels of government. When city leaders take the time to energize and engage the youngest members of their communities, they are equipping an entire generation to be civic-minded and politically astute.