(Editor’s Note: We wrote this after the 2016 election. We are in the process of updating it.)
In the aftermath of the 2016 election cycle, as we navigate the Trump presidency and the GOP-controlled Kentucky government, one counter-trend has become apparent: Activism is growing, and growing exponentially. Whether it is the numerous independent grassroots groups like Indivisible that have sprung up across the nation, or the surge in interest in running for office, or the amazing mobilization of everyday voters that has so far saved healthcare coverage for most people, the evidence is clear: more people are actively trying to make a difference in policy and politics than ever before.
With that in mind, Forward Kentucky offers this guide to being an effective activist, aimed especially at those getting involved for the first time. We’ve included a number of resources and web sites that you can use and bookmark. And, while much of this will seem relatively basic, there may be some new tips for even the most experienced activist.
We hope you find this helpful. Email us (Webmaster@ForwardKY.com) with any suggestions you might have. And, if you know of others who could benefit from this handout, point them to the Effective Activist sign-up page (ForwardKY.com/effective-activist-guide), so they can get their own copy.
1. Know Your Stuff
The first step to being an effective activist is to know your elected officials, your topic, where those electeds stand on that topic, and where you want them to stand, and why.
A. Know your electeds.
Look up each of the elected officials that represent you at all levels of government, gather all the contact info you can for each, and add them to your contacts list.
You may be thinking “Wow, that’s a lot of work.” Fortunately, there are numerous web sites that make it easy to find this information with just a few clicks.
For Federal electeds, it is easy: just go to the U.S. House or U.S. Senate web sites and use the search tool at the top. You’ll then be able to go to the web site for your Senator or Congressperson, where you will find their office locations, their phone numbers, and usually a contact form you can use. If you dig around some more, you may also be able to find their staff names listed, which can be very helpful if you know a certain staffer is working on your topic.
The U.S. House: https://www.house.gov
The U.S. Senate: https://www.senate.gov
One site you should bookmark and explore is Ballotpedia, which bills itself as “The Encyclopedia of American Politics.” There is a Ballotpedia page for Kentucky statewide elected officials, from governor on down:
Kentucky page on Ballotpedia:
Kentucky General Assembly
Another site that you need to bookmark and explore is the information-rich site of the Legislative Research Commission, or LRC. You can use this site to find and contact your legislators, track bills, research statutes, and more.
LRC Home: http://www.lrc.ky.gov
LRC Find Your Legislator:
LRC Find Your House Rep:
LRC Find Your Senator:
LRC All Legislators by County:
When it comes to your local elected officials, you are somewhat at the mercy of the webmasters of your local government. Some counties and cities have excellent sites that make it easy to find and contact your electeds; some have a basic site; and some, unfortunately, have no site at all, or one where the information is hard to find.
One example of a good combination of data and web technology is the MapIt site of Louisville Metro government. Enter your home address, and it will give you a wide range of information applicable to your address, including your various elected officials, with links to their pages.
MapIt Louisville: http://mapit.louisvilleky.gov
There’s one more site to mention: Contacting Congress. While it sounds like it only does Federal officials, it actually includes state-wide, state legislative, and local officials. It is one of the richest sites out there, and one you should bookmark and use often.
Contacting Congress: https://ContactingCongress.org
B. Know your topic.
This is one of those areas where many activists fall short. They have the passion, but do they have the knowledge and understand the nuances? Can they talk intelligently about the issue?
While you cannot be an expert on every issue you care about, you CAN learn the basics. And we mean knowing more than the talking points you hear from either the news or politicians.
Obviously, Google is one tool you can use. Often, though, you are better off starting with Wikipedia to get the “lay of the land” and to create better searches to use in Google.
Try to build a list of good policy sites that you trust. They can lean progressive, but your main criteria should be content that is fact-based and research-driven. Here are some that we use often:
Center for American Progress: https://www.americanprogress.org
Kentucky Center for Economic Policy: https://kypolicy.org
State Innovation Exchange: https://stateinnovation.org
Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy: https://itep.org
Forward Kentucky’s Policy Page: https://forwardky.com/category/policy/
If you are working to pass or prevent a piece of legislation, it’s critical to have your facts straight on the bill itself. Here is a list of the minimum information you need to know about a bill:
- The bill number, which includes which chamber it originated in (H for House, S for Senate)
- The type of bill, also usually included in the bill number (B for bill, R for resolution). Note that bills and joint resolutions enact laws once passed. Other types of resolutions are used for other purposes, but do not have the force of law.
- The legislative stage, or where the bill is in the process
One of the most frustrating things for legislators is dealing with activists who don’t understand about the legislative process, and wind up contacting the wrong person at the wrong time. If you are opposed to a House bill that is still in committee in the House, contacting your state Senator about the bill is usually a waste of time for both of you.
Here, then, is a basic overview of the process a bill follows to become law. This is fairly generic, and will change depending on whether the bill is a Federal, state, or local one.
|Filed||One or more sponsors have submitted the bill for official assignment of a number in their chamber|
|In Committee||The bill has been assigned to the appropriate committee for study and possible changes (“mark up”). If the committee does not pass the bill on to the floor of the chamber for a vote, the bill has “died in committee.” If the committee approves sending the bill to the floor, the bill has been “reported out of committee.” It is critical to know which committee has the bill, because contacting the members of the committee is often your best chance to have an impact on the bill.|
|Scheduled||The bill has been placed on the chamber’s calendar for consideration.|
|Floor Debate and Vote||The bill is debated on the floor of the chamber, possibly amended, then voted on.|
|Referred to Other Chamber||If the bill passes in its originating chamber, it is then referred to the other chamber for consideration. There, it typically has to go through the same process, beginning with assignment to a committee.|
|Conference Committee||If the other chamber does not change the bill significantly, then the vote in the second chamber may be the final action on the bill before sending it to the executive for signature. On the other hand, if the second chamber changed the bill substantially, then a conference committee would be formed with members from both chambers to work out the final wording of the bill. If the conference committee cannot agree, the bill dies. If they can agree, a conference committee report is prepared, and both houses have to approve of that report. If they do, the bill is then sent to the executive for signing.|
|Final Actions||The executive has three possible actions regarding the bill: sign it into law, veto it, or ignore it. If the executive vetoes the bill, the legislature can try to override the veto. If the executive ignores the bill while the legislature is in session, the bill becomes law anyway after ten days. If the executive ignores the law while the legislature is out of session, the bill dies. (Note that these rules are different for state and local legislative bodies.)|
There are various ways to track the progress of a bill.
A resource to bookmark and use is the BillWatch site on Kentucky.gov. There, you can set up alerts, follow bills, and build a profile of topics you care about.
There are also these other resources provided by the LRC.
Bill Status Line: (866) 840-2835
Committee Meeting Info: (800) 633-9650
LRC Session Record (note session number):
At the Federal level, there are a number of options for tracking bills:
Congress.gov Legislation Page: https://www.congress.gov/search?q=%7B”source”:”legislation”%7D
Where your electeds stand
It is important to be clear on exactly where your elected official stands on a given issue. We want our representatives to be capable of good analysis and even nuance, but we sometimes then punish them for just that nuance.
There are a number of ways to learn your elected’s position on either an issue or a bill. Press releases and public statements are key, as are less-formal methods such as social media accounts and conversations you may have with them.
Depending on the importance and longevity of the representative, and the seniority of the chamber (local, state, Federal), there are third-party sites that help you track the positions of your representatives. Here are a few:
On the Issues: http://recent.ontheissues.org/Issues.htm
C. Know what you want.
Now that you’ve gathered all this information, you have to answer the most important question: What do you want to see happen? Do you want the bill killed, or amended, or passed? In total, or in part?
Next question: Can you provide your reasons? Do you have details to support those reasons? If you were on an elevator with your elected, what is your elevator speech? Does it answer the Why question?
Here is an example of a well-prepared “issue on the elevator” paragraph. Note that it is only an example, as we have not researched these statements.
I want you to vote against House Bill 999, the “No Mac and Cheese in School Lunches” bill. We need to keep mac-and-cheese in our school lunches because it is one of the most nutritious foods we serve, ounce for ounce, and provides more protein for the money than any other food on the menu. In addition, studies by Harvard and UCLA show that almost every child will eat mac-and-cheese, thus lowering the amount of food we waste.
2. Choose Your Tools
Now that you know the topic or bill you want to affect, the details of that topic or bill, where it is in the process, and which elected representatives you want to contact, it is time to choose your tools.
Using your phone to make a difference is one of the easiest, yet most important, things you can do. Taking two minutes to call and leave a message has more impact than you might think, because numbers add up.
The best idea is to add the state and Federal numbers below to the favorites on your phone, so you can call whenever you have a few minutes.
When you call, include the following:
- Your name
- Your city
- The issue or bill you are calling about
- What you want your representative to do
- And briefly, Why you want them to do that
There is a good article at Attn that gives more detail about calling, especially about the value of calling the local office and not the one in the Capitol.
There are three ways to go:
- Call the Congress main line at (202) 224-3121. You will then be prompted to enter 1 for the Senate and 2 for the House. Once there, you enter your ZIP code, and you get connected to your rep’s Washington office. At that point, you’ll either speak with a staffer, or get to leave a message.
- Call your rep’s DC office directly, using the information you gathered earlier.
- Call your rep’s local office.
For state issues, use the LRC comments line at (800) 372-7181. Your comment is transcribed verbatim verbatim (so be careful what you say) onto what are called “green slips.” They are then collected and given to your rep. It is impactful to see a legislator with a handful of green slips regarding a particular issue.
You can also call the main line at (502) 564-8100, and ask for your legislator’s office, where you will get their office staff. Typically, you would leave a message, as it is hard for electeds to have time to talk on the phone. You can ask for a call-back, but leaving the message is usually just as effective.
Note that many legislators also publish their “regular job” work numbers, and even their home and cell phone numbers, so that their constituents can contact them when they aren’t in session.
The same concepts apply, except that you might have more luck getting them to call you back. Leaving a message is still a good idea; reps respond to the voices they hear from, not the ones they don’t.
You probably think that email would be a great way to communicate with your electeds. Unfortunately, so does everyone else, so the volume of email has become so overwhelming that most elected officials ask a staffer to read it and make a tally of Pro vs Con. This doesn’t mean you should ignore emails; it can be important to add a tally to the count of emails on your side.
However, if you are going to try to use email, take the time to make the message both personal and brief. Form messages lose their punch after the rep reads the same words for the twentieth time.
For the members of the state legislator, you can use the email addresses or forms found at http://www.lrc.ky.gov/whoswho/email.htm. Some legislators also publish their personal emails, and are okay with getting communications that way.
Believe it or not, fax machines still exist, and faxes can actually be a good way to deliver a personal message quickly. ResistBot (described below) offers faxes as one way to deliver your message.
4. Social Media
Most electeds use social media as another form of press release: broadcast it through posting to various social media channels, then pay no attention to the comments coming back.
Some electeds, though, will engage with you via social media. And some may not engage, but they do read the comments (or have their staff do it). So, if you follow the rules below about “being human,” you may be able to use social media to get your voice heard by your elected.
One of the most interesting and useful tools for activists is ResistBot. Simply by sending a text saying “Resist” (without the quote marks) to 50409 on your mobile phone, you will be connected to the ResistBot.
Once connected, the ResistBot will walk you through taking the action of your choice. At first, all you can do is send a fax. As you use the tool more and more, you “unlock” more and more features, including having ResistBot dial the office of your Federal reps so you can speak with their staffers without having to remember the numbers.
Note that ResistBot only works (for now) with Federal level representatives, Senate and House.
To learn more about ResistBot, including what’s coming next, visit https://resistbot.news.
6. Personal Letters
In these days of all-electronic communications, personal letters can be surprisingly effective—IF they are original and not form letters. Telling YOUR story in the letter is the most effective way to use this tool.
7. Personal Visits
It can actually be very effective to visit the office of your elected officials, IF you follow the rules under “being human” below. You will probably not get to speak with the elected directly, as they are tremendously busy and over-scheduled. However, the fact that you took the time to come speak to the staff will make an impression.
On the other hand, you can ask for a personal meeting to be scheduled at a time that works best for you and your elected official. Tell the staffer who you are and why you want to meet. Assuming you can get the meeting, follow the 3 Bs:
- Be on time.
- Be respectful.
- Be concise.
Also note that sometimes it is more effective to meet with a staffer than with the elected directly. The staffer may have more time, and if you get the staffer assigned to your topic for the elected official, will often be quicker to grasp your argument, since it is their area of specialty.
In these days of hyper-partisanship, it is easy (TOO easy) to forget that the persons you are dealing with, including the persons on the other side of the issue, are just that: Persons. Actual human beings, with feelings, relationships, goals, and their own set of joys and sorrows. (As a friend says, “Everyone has their own box of rocks they carry around.”)
So, when trying to be an effective activist, remember to treat these other humans as you would want to be treated:
- Be respectful.
- Do not yell at them, call them names, or demean them.
- Focus on educating and informing. (Be sure you have your facts straight!)
- Engage them as you would any person you do not know, who is doing a job, either for you or with you.
One of the key things to remember in doing political activism is that change takes time. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t give up. Enlist allies to work with you, and get creative with how to utilize each group’s members.
So whether you have written once or five times, faxed once or ten times, or called once or twenty times – write that next letter, send that next fax, make that next call.
And remember – There are forces and groups that are counting on you to get tired, get discouraged, and stop being an activist. When you do, they win.
So above all: Keep going. Keep fighting for progressive values, for real change, for the Kentucky we all want for us and our children. Keep making a difference. Be that most special, that most valuable of all people: