Communicating with Legislators

    0

May 7-8 is National Library Legislative Day. This article by Debra E. Kachel provides 4 easy steps to help library advocates prepare for communication with their elected officials. Also included is a downloadable “Working List for Legislators” where you can list names and phone numbers of your representatives; links to useful sites are also provided.

Legislators are elected to represent the views and needs of their constituents, work for the people, and serve communities that often have a diverse set of needs. Clearly, issues concerning school library programs are not high on the list of legislative priorities, perhaps because not enough school library advocates have been heard. Being “heard” by the legislator involves not just the number of voices, but the relevance of the message and quality of the appeal. The following steps can help library advocates prepare strategically for communications with their elected officials.

Step 1: Know Your Legislators  

School librarians may have two sets of legislators who represent their school’s interests: those who represent a home as well as a school address. It is important to clarify this when contacting legislators:

“I am a constituent in your district and seek your support for…”

“As the librarian at XYZ Middle School, I am requesting your support for…”

Always use a zip code + 4 digits to properly identify the legislator since several legislators may represent a large area or school district. Also, be aware that legislative districts sometimes change due to population shifts.

Just as one builds relationships with a new neighbor, teacher, or colleague by finding similar interests, places, or people, likewise, developing rapport with a legislator requires time to connect. Do some research to find out the issues the lawmakers support, where they live or the schools their children attend, where they went to college, and their previous careers. It is also important to know the committees on which they serve and their seniority (power to influence their peers). finding a common connection and mentioning it shows greater interest in their political career and voting record (click here  or on the image below for the worksheet:  “Working List for Legislators” pdf).

Since all citizens are represented by both federal and state legislators, be sure to address federal issues to U.S. Congressmen and women and state issues to your state officials. This tends to be the greatest gaffe in contacting lawmakers. You need to also understand the parameters of their authority. Federal legislators establish guidelines or regulations to provide consistency across all states that align with federal laws. Examples of federal laws are ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as No Child Left Behind, Title I, and Children’s Internet Protection Act or CIPA). Seventeen states have mandates or requirements for school librarian staffing written in law or school code often based on student population (“Requirements for School Library Programs”). Unfortunately, in recent years, districts have been granted waivers to ignore these requirements or the mandates are simply not enforced. Often, it is the district’s school board that ultimately decides levels of library staffing.

Step 2: Know the “Ask”

To influence legislators to do something concrete requires one of only two types of “asks:”

  • The first type of “ask” involves a situation that is detrimental or unfair to student learning or in violation of existing laws relative to education. In this scenario, present the evidence, tell an emotionally-appealing, real story of its impact, and ask for advice to rectify the situation. Ask the lawmaker to help solve the problem and, if possible, provide ideas for a solution. Often this approach is effective when an injustice or unfair situation is clearly presented that solely exhibits concern for students. It is informative for the lawmaker, yet recognizes and honors his or her authority and power to solve problems for constituents.
  • The second type of “ask” identifies a pending piece of legislation by title and bill number, explains its relevance to the legislator’s constituents, and asks for support to pass or amend the bill. In this case, present factual information and, if possible, relate a personal story about students and the library to appeal to both the “head” and the “heart” of the legislator.

ALA’s Washington Office employs lobbyists who decide the federal “asks” for all types of libraries. The District Dispatch (http://www.districtdispatch.org/ using the search category “school libraries”) and ALA’s Legislative Action Center, also known as Capwiz, (http://capwiz.com/ala/home/) are two excellent sources. Capwiz also has preformatted messages to email to U.S. Congressmen and women.

Check your state’s school library association for state “asks” and information on pending state-related issues. For example, the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association currently has an “ask” or “call-to-action” requesting $5M in the state’s education budget that funds library projects including ACCESS PA and the POWER Library databases. Organizations usually publish talking points and background information that help the school library advocate discuss the issue with legislators.

Step 3: Making Legislators Care

While sharing a personal story about a struggling learner or the inequities of resources among schools in a legislator’s district helps lawmaker’s understand an issue; getting them to personally witness the situation more strongly impacts the request. Therefore, invite legislators to the school library to witness the school librarian in action and provide an opportunity to talk to students and teachers. While it’s important to put on a “good show” for school visitors, don’t be reticent about sharing the needs of the school library program to better address student needs. Remember, advocating on behalf of the students cannot, or should not, be challenged, and it showcases putting their interests above all else.

Another strategy for building legislator support is demonstrating broad-based support for an issue. Seek alliances with outside supporters who represent larger organizations. For example, take the PTA President and/or the public librarian along when visiting a legislatorLegislators pay more attention when they see a united front on an issue that impacts more than one constituent group. Working with the state’s library and education associations, as well as the state PTA, shows legislators a strong alliance to rally support for the issue.

Step 4: Effective Communications

The most effective way to ensure that a legislator is understanding the issue and recognizing its importance is face-to-face communication. Ideally, set up an appointment and visit a legislator in his or her local office, taking along a few additional advocates. Legislators are less distracted and pay more attention in their home offices. Preplan the office visit deciding who will say what within a timeframe of fifteen to twenty minutes. Practice the talking points. If the legislator continues the conversation beyond this, it indicates success in getting his or her attention. Have a one-page handout summarizing key issues and a few important talking points with contact information of those attending as well as their roles/positions. Invite the legislator to your school and then follow up with a handwritten thank you again extending the invite.

After a face-to-face meeting, mark a calendar for the next two-week increments. On those dates, call the legislator’s office to follow up. Ask if there has been movement on a bill or if he or she has thought of ways to resolve a situation presented to them. If the legislator asked you to contact other lawmakers or other groups for support, be sure to report on those actions. Follow-through is important in building relationships with the lawmakers.

As with any relationship, check back in, either by email or phone, several times a year to be sure there is action on the request. A one-time visit, email, or phone call is not likely to produce results unless it is in concert with many others, such as a state or national library association’s “call-to-action.” There is definitely power in numbers; these organized legislative requests are highly effective when the voices of other organizations are included.

Persistence Pays

Developing a working relationship with a legislator is more like a marriage than a kiss. It is a long-term relationship with responsibilities by both parties. The school library advocate needs to inform and show legislators school inequities and how the academic success of students is being compromised due to current conditions. The message must be addressed to the appropriate lawmakers with valid evidence and personal, real stories. Of equal importance, if expecting legislators to act on a request, is a responsibility to seek out other voices who support the “ask.” Demonstrating to lawmakers that the school library advocate has the organizational skills and connections to rally other supporters, including state or national organizations, speaks volumes of the dedication and persistence needed to enact change. Legislators are more inclined to work with such advocates to create a “win-win.” Frequent follow-up calls, visits, and emails send the message that this advocate cares deeply about the issue and is not going away until there is some resolution. As the volume of voices increases, coming from alliances with other organizations, legislators will act to meet their constituents’ needs.

Originally published in School Library Monthly 30, no. 5 (February 2014).

Further Reading

“Requirements for School Library Programs: Summary by State.” PA School Library Project. 19 February 2013. http://paschoollibraryproject.org/content.php?pid=289948&sid=2382956#14948222; Kachel, Debra E. LSC 5531 School Library Advocacy LibGuidehttp://faculty.mansfield.edu/senate/cans/2013/April%2030/LSC5531-DKachel-FA2013.pdf; Levitov, Deborah D., ed. Activism and the School Librarian: Tools for Advocacy and Survival. Libraries Unlimited, 2012.


Debra E. Kachel, MS, is a retired school librarian and online adjunct professor for Antioch University Seattle and McDaniel College, Westminster, MD. Kachel earned her master’s degree in information studies from Drexel University, Philadelphia. She is a contributor toActivism and the School Librarian: Tools for Advocacy and Survival (Libraries Unlimited, 2012) and is the 2014 recipient of AASL’s Distinguished Service Award. She currently serves as the Legislative Liaison for the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association. You can follow her on Twitter @SchLibAdvocate.

Join the Discussion