25 July 2015

Lessons from the Hill: 3 Tips for Getting Involved

Update: This was updated to include relevant links for further information. 

Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Councilfor the Social Studies Summer Leadership Institute in Washington DC. Two educators represented the California Council for the Social Studies at the Institute. During the course of the Institute my colleagues and I toured the Newseum and had a private tour with the writer of their Vietnam War exhibit. We also learned about the state of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA...or commonly, for the most recent version, No Child Left Behind), including the differences between the House and Senate versions of the Bill.

One of our major assignments at the Institute was to meet with our representatives in the House and Senate. My California colleague and I were able to secure an appointment with my Congressman, Mike Thompson, and dropped by to visit her Congressman. He happened to walk up as we began talking with his education staffer, so we had a second meeting right in the hall. We also dropped off information in our Senators' offices, but they and their staffers were busy debating the amendments to ESEA that day.

This is the fifth time I have been to Capitol Hill to discuss Geography Education or Social Studies education, and it got me to thinking yet again about the importance of participating in our government (think: don't complain if you don't vote). Most of the Social Studies teachers I have talked with have not visited their state or national legislators and don't seem to participate in government beyond voting. There are things that Social Studies teachers CAN do to get more involved in government. I offer three tips:

1.     Become informed about issues, including education policy, and vote. You don't have to be an expert on every issue and you don't even have to vote on every issue, but DO cast your vote for the candidate who best aligns with your values and the issues that matter to you. Don't forget that your local community needs your votes on issues that are important right in your backyard (Should plastic shopping bags be banned in your community? Let your elected officials know!).
2.     Write to your city, county, state, and national officials and let them know how you feel. I recently wrote to my city hall to express concern over an uneven sidewalk in my community. Within a week or so, that sidewalk was clearly marked so that others didn't fall. Now, I'm not sure that my email was the immediate cause of the change, BUT it added to the voices of others who had communicated about the sidewalk issue. Most elected officials communicate by email, so don't worry about having to get a stamp. In fact, when you're writing to your Congressional delegation, it's BETTER to email since all regular mail has to be scanned before arriving at the office. Tell your elected representatives how you feel about issues important to you. Offer solutions. Request a meeting at the local office with a staff member. Just LET THEM KNOW. Look up your representative here and your senator here.
3.     MEET with your elected official. Go to City Hall or the county Supervisors' chambers or the State Capitol, or to Washington DC. The farther you are from your local government, the more lead time you need to give yourself to secure an appointment. I've found that a minimum of 3-4 weeks is needed to get an appointment with my Congressman in Washington. Be patient when trying to schedule an appointment and make it clear that you are willing to meet with a staff member in order to get your voice heard. Sometimes our elected officials' political views don't match our own. That's okay. You still need to let them know where you stand and they ARE representing YOU. Be polite and agree to disagree. I've learned that it's not that scary to talk with elected officials or their staff. Just have your talking points ready (take a notecard if you need to) and have fun.

As Social Studies teachers we should model civic behavior. Your voice DOES matter so let it be heard.