Don’t Limit Yourself to Armchair Activism

Stay tuned for a guide to federal advocacy to be released August 2017!

In today’s political climate, you’ve probably been angered by some news story or another coming out of Washington recently. And in terms of animal protection, the last few months have been frustrating. For example, the USDA’s removal of animal welfare records, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s veto of a proposed ban on the sale of puppy mill pets, and Breed Discriminatory Legislation banning Pit Bulls have raised the hackles of animal rights activists across the country.

Many of us channel those frustrations into indignant tweets or Facebook posts. We may sign and share petitions demanding justice. But we aren’t reaching out to legislators directly. People are hesitant to contact lawmakers for lots of reasons. First, many people don’t know how. Fortunately, the House of Representatives’ website is set up so you can easily figure out who your representatives are and then links to your representatives’ website and contact information.

Most congressional staffers recommend calling the district office rather than their office in Washington, D.C. For one thing, the people working in the district offices sometimes have a better understanding of local issues. A staffer for Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA), a dogged advocate in Congress for animal rights, recommends “definitely calling your district office. All calls are registered in the IQ database, which gets sent to DC for the representative to read.”[1]

For those of us who are worried about saying the wrong thing, a San Francisco-based husband and wife team created 5calls, a database of Congressional issues that provides helpful tips and templates for each phone call. But whenever possible, make your phone calls personal. Explain to your representatives why the issue matters to you.

Hearing individuals’ stories helps lawmakers to see why their action on an issue matters. It also gives them a reference point when arguing for change with other legislators. Don’t feel like you need to be an expert on a topic in order to make a phone call. The staffers who take your calls are not going to quiz you on the issue. They are just trying to relay your thoughts to your legislator.

Some people think these phone calls will take as long as a call to their insurance provider or a conversation with customer service. In reality, 5calls reports that a typical phone call to your Congress member’s office should take less than a minute. That might even be less time than signing an online petition! And it’s absolutely more effective.

Because online petitions are so easy to create and sign, sometimes they carry very little clout. Anyone can start or sign a petition practically in their sleep. A phone call shows dedication to a cause to legislators. A caveat – that’s not to say that petitions don’t have value. Petitions are a great way to rally supporters on an issue. Just make sure that they are used in conjunction with other forms of activism, such as town hall attendance, phone calls, and protests.

The most effective appeals to lawmakers are ones backed by a large group. The more voices you can muster, the more powerful your message will be. It is much more difficult for a legislator to skirt around an issue if their office phones are ringing off the hook.

While mass emails are sure to give staffers lots to wade through, phone calls are both more powerful and more likely to elicit a response. However, it is important to note that all communications to lawmakers are heard, whether they be an email, a letter, a phone call, or even a fax.

And if you want to go above and beyond, look into attending one of your representative’s town hall meetings. These are a great way to speak with your Congress member face-to-face and hear their opinions on an issue. Make sure to ask lots of questions — media outlets tend to be present at these meetings, which will hold representatives accountable for their answers.

Just remember: social media and online petitions are great ways to encourage others to take action, but if you really want to see change, get out your phone and call your representative. Always make sure to be respectful – being rude gets your nowhere.

A final note: some legislators are in office because they have your community’s best interests at heart.  Some aren’t. But none of them are mind readers. Each federal legislator represents hundreds of thousands of people, it’s up to you make your voice heard.

[1] K. Herbert, personal communication, June 2, 2017

Kim Herbert

Cornell University: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Candidate for Bachelor Science Degree in Animal Science, May 2018. Guardian to Phoebe, a Brittany Pointer, and Chester and Harley, two tuxedo cats.  

“I am so excited to be interning at For All Animals because I want to become a more effective advocate for animals and help others to do the same!”