With many newcomers lobbying this week, our ‘veterans’ share some advice
By Steve Valk
Thousands of Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers are conducting hundreds of meetings this week with congressional offices to build support for carbon pricing. Many of these volunteers are first-time lobbyists, so we thought it would be good to check in with some CCL “veterans” to see what advice they have for novice advocates and the differences they’ve noticed between in-person and virtual lobbying.
The biggest thing to keep in mind, most agree, is that you’re part of a team, and a successful outcome doesn’t rest entirely on your shoulders.
“The first time I went to D.C. to lobby was both thrilling and mildly intimidating,” said Kate Hudson, group leader for CCL’s Beaufort, South Carolina, chapter. “I wasn’t really sure I was up to the task. But everyone from CCL was then and is now incredibly helpful, open, and supportive, and I came to understand that we don’t need to be experts to be passionate and authentic about our desire to see a price on carbon enacted and climate change addressed.”
Northern Kentucky volunteer Teresa Werner, reflecting on her first lobbying experience in November 2017, said, “You are not alone! Going in as a team makes such a big difference. I had never before been part of a group that was so positive, helpful and organized, which gave me comfort going into my first lobby session.”
Advocates should resist the temptation to talk too much explaining things a member of Congress or their staffer already knows, advises Stephanie Burns, group leader for the Alexandria, Virginia, chapter. “Ask them open-ended questions and try to listen more than you speak. You might be surprised to learn what the person knows or believes.”
“In hindsight, I now realize that I made plenty of mistakes in those meetings,” Stephanie said. “For example, I got into a long economic debate with one staffer. But overall, the experience [of those first meetings] was amazing and empowering. It changed the way I feel about my role as a citizen and it inspired me to lead a new CCL chapter.”
Feeling a little weak-kneed about lobbying for the first time? You might find comfort (and a few laughs) watching this video of CCL founder Marshall Saunders, who passed away in December 2019, talking about the first lobby meeting he attended:
When the pandemic shut down in-person lobbying last year, CCL quickly shifted gears to virtual lobbying and had volunteers conduct meetings on Zoom. While volunteers miss the excitement and energy of being in Washington and the personal connection of being in the same room with the member of Congress, the virtual format has had some advantages, such as making it easier to include community leaders.
“Last year we had two Catholic university presidents join us for our meeting with our Republican senator, something they most likely would not have been able to do if we were meeting in person in Washington,” said Jon Clark, CCL Regional Coordinator for Appalachia. “It means more grasstops influencers can take a little bit of time out of their busy schedules to meet with our teams. These same two presidents are meeting with our other Catholic senator this month.”
Kate in Beaufort says she misses the “vitality, energy and enthusiasm” of the CCL conferences in Washington. “That’s hard to replicate in our current environment, but there are true benefits now to virtual meetings, too.” She said one of those benefits is the ability to have more CCL members participate in lobby meetings.
“Many of our members who might not be able to travel to D.C. can now participate. This can allow us to create far more diverse meetings representing wider perspectives. Younger people, even high schoolers, busy parents, and busy working folk who might not have the time or resources to travel to D.C. can now participate.”
The physical constraints of meeting in congressional offices usually limits the number of participants to five or six. Online, though, the number of participants can reach into the hundreds. Volunteers in Michigan, for example, had 150 participants in a meeting last year with Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.
Amy Bennett, CCL’s Director of Congressional Liaisons and Lobby Days, cautions that the size of meetings should be determined by where the relationship stands with a member of Congress. “A meeting with 150 is great when you’re sensing the member needs a lot of support. It depends on where you are in the relationship. If you’re trying to develop trust, maybe a small meeting is best.”
If the relationship has progressed to the point where the member is on board with CCL’s preferred policy and acting on our requests, large meetings are a great option. That’s been the case with Mike Kelly in Washington state, who had a meeting this month with Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) in which 95 constituents participated.
“He always says in our meetings ‘consider me a partner’ and even invited me to be his guest at the State of the Union address last year. We’re no longer really trying to persuade him. Instead, we’re trying to show broad support in the district for him and also appreciation for what he’s done.”
One drawback, Mike said, is that large crowds can inhibit members of Congress from being open and candid. “They’re not the place to ask about strategy or get frank assessments of topics – it’s not that they won’t be honest, but they will be more cautious and careful about saying what they really think in a larger meeting.”
If lobbying for the first time is pushing you out of your comfort zone, that’s a good thing. Looking back on her first experience in 2015, Stephanie in Alexandria said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect. I felt nervous and excited, and I also felt incredibly lucky to live in a democracy where everyday people like me could walk into these congressional buildings and have real conversations with powerful people.”
Whether walking into a building on Capitol Hill or logging into a Zoom room, meeting with your members of Congress is a transformative experience and one of the most powerful actions you can take to reduce the threat of climate change.