In 2011, I had an opportunity to attend my first ever National Urban League Legislative Policy Conference and what a defining moment that experience was for me. The National Urban League, the nation’s oldest and largest direct services civil rights organization, provides their affiliates and their volunteer auxiliary, the National Urban League Young Professionals a platform to take a seat at the table with members of congress and petition the National Urban League’s agenda. There we were, 5 Urban League affiliates from around the State of Florida with their Young Professionals Chapter Presidents and members sitting at a table with Sen. William “Bill” Nelson and his staff pleading out our concerns about voter suppression, economic disparities in our communities, the decrease of funding for critical social programs and so forth.
My fellow Americans, CLOSED MOUTHS DON’T GET FED! As I sat among those around the table, I watched Sen. Nelson discuss his position on various policies in place or being proposed and I watched as his staff feverously jotted down notes. It was at that moment that I realize that if you are not at the figurative table, more than likely your interests are not on the agenda. If your interests are not on the agenda, then you are out of sight. If you’re out of sight, you are out of mind. So often we take a seat back and complain from the sidelines about what is not being done, where are our African-American leaders, where is black Jesus…what are they doing? The reality is our civic leaders cannot carry the mantle by themselves. There is power in numbers, there is power in solidarity.
We must always remember that our local and national elected officials are elected by us to serve us, their constituents, and to be our voice. We must hold them accountable for what we elect them to do. They must understand that if they do not do the people’s work, by the power of our votes, they will not return to office for another term. It is imperative that we engage with our elected officials and present our issues, concerns and agenda.
I have to admit that I was once one of those apathetic individuals. I had no interest in civic engagement or public policy. I was someone who said, “they got this”, as if I was certain that “they” knew what my concerns for my community and my family were. When I took the seat at the table in 2011, I then understood the influence these elected officials have, and furthermore the impact that public policy has on one’s life. With the disappearing of the middle class, the looming student loan bubble burst, immigration reform and increasing gun violence, now is not the time to be apathetic. Now is not the time to be quiet. Now is the time to be alert, proactive and galvanized.
How can I take my seat at the table and make my voice heard? First things first, familiarize yourself with public policy and know what is currently on the agenda. Sites that I like to reference include:
Find out which members of congress represent you. I recommend http://www.usa.gov/Contact/US-Congress.shtml. Once you’ve taken note of the contact information, REACH OUT TO THEM! Call their office, send an e-mail, write a letter, contact them on Twitter or Facebook or personally visit their office. (YES, YOU CAN VISIT THEIR OFFICE!)
Should you decide to call their office, know the facts about the issue you would like to discuss. Know that more than likely you will speak to a staff member. Find out where they stand on your issue of concern. If you are calling about a specific bill, make sure you identify which bill and be able to articulate why you support or do not support the bill.
If you write via mail or e-mail, be sure the letter is no longer than one page and it’s also recommended that you send only one letter or email per issue. Make sure to address the letter correctly:
To a Senator:
The Honorable (full name)
__(Rm.#)__(name of)Senate Office Building
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
To a Representative:
The Honorable (full name)
__(Rm.#)__(name of)House Office Building
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
I by no means consider myself an expert in civic engagement, galvanizing nor public policy. However, I understand that being quiet will do me no good. I do not want to sit on the sideline complaining, I have to do my part. My charge to you is to get empowered and understand that you have a place at your representative’s table! Your presence is your voice and there is power in it. My fellow Americans, apathy is not acceptable, get engaged and make your mark because if you do not, someone else will make their mark on you.