By Kim Lew
Self-Advocating to Congress
Do you have a concern or issue you would like addressed by the government but feel powerless to do anything about it? I’m here to tell you not to despair. I recommend speaking to your congress-member and senators.
Special Olympics Capitol Hill Day
To illustrate, let’s examine Special Olympics situation. Each year, Special Olympics needs funding for its Healthy Athletes program and its school inclusion program, Unified Champion Schools. What did it do? It created Capitol Hill Day. The past two years, I was able to participate as an Athlete Leader from Special Olympics Northern California. Please, allow me to tell you about it.
Capitol Hill Day brings together Athlete Leaders from all around the United States to meet with congress-members and senators. A great deal of work goes into preparing for this extraordinary day. Special Olympics International organizes the entire event. It sends out letters to all the congress-members and senators to request meetings. Those who are available and want to meet with Athlete Leaders schedule a meeting. However, in general, it was actually the legislative assistants that were in the meetings. But that was okay because the legislative assistants not only are liaisons between elected members and their constituents, but they are also experts who help draft laws and provide advice.
To prepare for the meetings, Athlete Leaders attended trainings. First, we learned what Special Olympics was requesting from congress and why. Next, we found out about the government’s budgeting process. Finally, we were taught how to craft personal speeches to tell our stories and how the Special Olympic programs have benefited us. This was extremely important because our stories are compelling and what the congress-members want to hear. Each Athlete Leader wrote a unique speech and then practiced it many times.
At last Capitol Hill Day arrived! Each Athlete Member with a Special Olympic staff member from the athlete’s state met with congress-members, senators, or legislative assistants from their state. I had meetings with legislative assistants and found them to be genuinely interested in what I had to say and supportive. My meetings always ended with the staff member asking for the funding Special Olympics needs. Unfortunately, since the budgeting process is still ongoing, I am unable to say if Special Olympics will receive all the funding it requested. But, since it is a nonpartisan organization and receives bipartisan support, I have no doubt that Special Olympics will receive some, if not all, that it requested.
Steps to bring your issue to an elected official’s attention
While you may not have a large organization handling all the logistics of meeting your representatives, you can still take part in this process. Here’s what to do. First, write a concise paragraph describing your concern/issue. Next, decide what you would like to see happen. This is going to be your “ask.” After that, if you do not know who your congress-member and senators are, use this website to find out. Now you are ready to get contact information. For your senators use this webpage, and this page for representatives. Then,
I strongly suggest making an appointment, particularly in light of Covid’s disruption of services. Go to your congress-member’s or senator’s website to get instructions on how to make an appointment and finally follow those directions. Remember, each representative has his/her preferred way to do this. Some say it is faster to fax your request. No matter the particulars, I highly recommend obtaining a face-to-face meeting when your senator/representative or field agent is at his/her local office. (You do not have to go to Washington, DC to have a meeting.) According to EffectiveActivist.com, the Congressional Management Foundation found that these meetings are one of the most effective ways to influence elected officials. They are more influential than emails or letters and even phone calls. However, depending on the status of COVID, you may need to meet over Zoom.
Appointment request fax template
Thoughtco.com suggests using the following template when faxing your appointment request:
[Your Address] [Date]
The Honorable [full name]
U.S. Senate (or U.S. House of Representatives)
Washington, DC 20510 (20515 for House)
Dear Senator (or Representative) [last name]:
I am writing to request an appointment with you on [date]. I am a member of the [your group, if any] in [your city], and I’m concerned about [issue].
I realize that your schedule is difficult to project at this point, but it would be ideal if we could meet between [time] and [time].
I believe [issue] is important because [1-2 sentences].
My home address is [address]. I can also be reached by phone at [phone number] or email at [email address]. I will contact your office during the week of [1-2 weeks before the visit] to confirm the details of the appointment.
Thank you for considering my request to meet with you.
Write your story
What next? While you are waiting for your appointment date to arrive, write your story. Remember, to include plenty of details. Why is this concern important? How has this issue affected you and others in your district? Your representatives mostly wants to know the impact of your concern. Anyone you meet with will be a busy person, therefore, your meeting is likely to be short. Carefully craft your speech to highlight the essential information. Make sure it is about your story, how the issue is affecting you, and how the resolution you want will change things for you. Remember, you can write up something with more in-depth information and data as a “leave behind” with the representative. Be certain that your speech is no more than five minutes long in order to leave time to answer questions the person may have.
Once you have perfected your speech, it is time to practice it. Don’t skimp on this. You want to be able to speak fluidly and you can only do that if you are comfortable with your speech. If you are afraid that you will forget something you wanted to say, it is okay to write your speech down and bring it with you. However, during your meeting, it is important to establish a connection with the representative. To do that, you should look up throughout your speech and not read the entire thing off the paper.
During the meeting
When you meet with your representative, keep the following things in mind. First, when you give your speech, speak clearly and confidently. Next, it is imperative that you are polite and do not get into a confrontational argument if the representative disagrees with you. That does not mean you cannot debate, just be sure to stay cordial. End your presentation with a specific request to let your representative know exactly what it is you want. For example, you might say, “Please vote yes on the upcoming bill for…” or “We are requesting $2 million to fund…” You may be asked questions. If you do not know an answer, simply say that you will follow up with the answer. Then, make sure that you do!
Go for it!
That’s all there is to it! Don’t forget to send a thank you card or email. I want to encourage you to make yourself heard. Let’s ensure that Abraham Lincoln’s statement, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” continues to hold true.
Kim Lew is an adult autism and mental health self-advocate. She grew up in Silicon Valley when it was still the Valley of Heart’s Delight. She graduated from Smith College with a degree in Mathematics. Kim was diagnosed in her 40s with Aspergers. Although she has struggled with Major Depression since her early teens, she wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her 30s. She is an active Special Olympic athlete and as a Global Messenger she often MCs events for them. Kim currently teaches second-graders in an after school program.