Recently an issue has come up in our district. The issue of the day is preschool for children. A number of us are so upset about the fact that in our state, most of the public programs taking care of children 0-4 years of age will be cut. Not only cut, but totally eliminated. The State Senate feels that this is the only way the state in which we live can save money. The only options left, then, for this age group will be those found in the private sector–daycares, which to many families cost a fortune.
This discussion is not about that particular issue; that topic has already been discussed in another recently published paper. Rather, it is about a technique used by a local not-for-profit, faith based organisation that can be used to get the attention of legislators everywhere. It has been used for years to get people out of prison who are unjustly convicted–and to strike down laws everywhere that are unjust vehicles used against the poor.
The practise to which I am referring is letter-writing. If done correctly, it can galvanise almost an entire legislative body from making an unjust decision affecting a number of people, to making a fairer decison for all.
So you ask, “How can a letter that I personally write possibly affect the laws of the land?” If done correctly, it can happen. Yet, as with everything else, there are steps which must be taken to make sure it’s effective and not just something the intended readers read briefly, with maybe a cursory glance, before turning it into shredder food.
First, your campaign must target a specific issue, like transportation or preschool, that the writers feel very strongly about. Your letters can’t just be a bunch of mumbo jumbo about a plethora of issues. They must be grounded as well as focused. Pick a concrete issue and stick with it, showing your willingness to fight for it. Be polite, show the people to whom you are writing the respect due them as lawmakers. Use the proper terms of address, and get their last names correct.
Not only, then, must your letters target a certain topic you want to see change in, it must target a specific person. It must target the legislator directly responsible for effecting change in that area. For example, don’t direct letters to an obscure representative from Oshtemo, if you are looking for more monies for preschool education to be pumped into Kalamazoo County. For that you would want to target someone on the Financial Committee, the group responsible for making sure the budget for next year is in place. Set your sights on the person who controls the money. Remember the second great Golden Rule, according to Murphy’s Law: He who has the gold rules the roost!
So the best thing to do is to carefully Google everyone involved in the decision making process concerning an issue. For example, for childhood education, Google all state legislators involved in deciding the budget, as well as people on the education committee. Know their names and their party affiliations. And also, know the party line on the issue. Not to sound partisan, but that will tell you a lot about their position, and how you should approach this individual. For instance, would you really approach someone for more money on health care, if their stance on the issue is that insurance is a matter of personal responsibility and not government intervention?
That might, in fact, actually work. Once upon a time at the beginning of the war for the retention of the preschool program, a certain legislator was against it. But through letters, as well as meetings with him, our group somehow persuaded him to become our champion. But we had to approach him respectfully, outlining our reasons for the position we took.
Along those same lines, decide an angle for writing your letter. As I learned at a Gamaliel leadership training last summer– do not focus on your self-interest, but find out what that of the person you are trying to persuade is. For instance, if the person’s self interest is money, appeal to his sense of financial well-being. It doesn’t do any good, for example, to make an emotional appeal about the well-being of our children to a legislator whose constituents’ main concern is to save tax dollars. Instead, you need to write your letter so that it states that the money spent on education is not a waste of tax dollars, but is an investment in our future. Either we invest the money now, many working on the preschool issue said, or we invest it later when we must build prisons to lock these uneducated men and women up thirty years from now. This is one reason why getting to know information about the target of your campaign is so very important.
Another key element in forging your letter is to do a search on their voting record. Does such a document prove a tendency to vote in favour of people or in favour of monetary issues, corporations, big businesses, and the like? The latter trend, indeed, would probably suggest an interest in latter.
Using these tools, we can come to a consensus on who should be addressed. And it should be agreed upon if it is to be a group project, for you know what Scripture says about a house divided!
The next thing to do is to come up with a rough draft of the letter signed by the group. Make it concise and to the point, according to what the legislators you are writing to value the most. It is very important that it is thoroughly proofread, for it should be nothing short of professional. It should be a missive that is signed by all members of the group.
It has also been suggested that one should write one’s own personal letters, mixing them in with the group letter as well. Despite the fact that the group letter clearly should be typed, personal letters should clearly be handwritten. This increases the chances that it will be even read, for very few people would think of writing a lawmaker in that manner.
Whatever you do, do not send emails. Emails are deleted by the staff members of legislators daily. You’d be surprised at how many emails they get. If these folks are anything like you or me, they don’t want a flooded email account. So with a click of a button–they are all history.
Letter writing, if done correctly, can be very powerful. With the right people being contacted, and addressed the right way, using the correct angle according to their self-interest, you can persuade a long-standing “con” into a “pro.” Remember, letter writing is a tool you can use to powerfully effect change at the grassroots level.