5 things to know when advocating on Capitol Hill

Deerfield Academy students with U.S. Rep Jim McGovern

by Ethan Thayumanavan


In April 2015, I attended Save the Children and Save the Children Action Network’s Advocacy Summit in Washington D.C. On the last day of the summit, I had the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill to speak to my members of Congress about early education. As we headed into our first meeting, I was incredibly nervous about speaking with my legislators and their staffers about early education. I was worried that I would be unable to answer questions they would ask about early education, and I was worried that they wouldn’t listen to me, a kid who wasn’t even of voting age.

But I found that speaking about early education came easier than I had thought.

The staffer with whom I met was engaged and animated, and I grew more comfortable talking about early education with each passing moment. I realized that it would be easy to talk about an issue that I am so passionate about, and the important thing was conveying that passion to the person with whom I was meeting.

Here are five things I think you should know when meeting with your legislators on Capitol Hill:

  1. You might be speaking with a staffer, not a legislator.
    Your representatives and senators are very busy people, so it’s important to realize that you may have an appointment with staffers, not your legislators themselves. That doesn’t make your meeting any less important. The staffers will bring what you’ve told them back to their boss, so the legislator will hear about the issue you want to bring to their attention. In addition, individual staffers also often handle specific issues, so bringing an issue to a staffer is just as effective as bringing it directly to a legislator. If you can get the staffer invested in your issues and your goals, you’ll have a voice inside the legislator’s office advocating with you.
  2. They are excited to hear from you.
    Your members of Congress are your representatives; they are on Capitol Hill to represent their constituents. Hearing from you helps inform them about the issues their constituents are passionate about, and therefore helps them do their job better. Even if you can’t vote, or didn’t vote for the legislator currently in office, you are still a constituent, and therefore your opinion matters to the legislator’s office. It’s OK to feel nervous, but it is vital to remember that you have a voice, and are empowered to speak to the legislator or the staffer. But, because they are listening, you also have the responsibility to present your issue clearly. If you’re passionate and informed about your issue, you will make a good impression. So do your research ahead of time, and go into your meeting prepared. You are responsible for how your meeting plays out.
  3. They want to hear your story.
    Whether you’re meeting with a legislator or their staffer, they will want to know a little bit about your background and why you’re passionate about early education. I always started by sharing a personal connection. I took a Spanish course at my high school, where part of the course was that once a week, we would go down to the local elementary school and teach Spanish to third-graders.

    When I was on Capitol Hill, I talked about how rewarding the experience of teaching students was. One week, when I showed up to the Spanish class without the partner who taught the class with me, the class asked me if we could make get well soon cards for her, instead of doing the lesson we planned. Of course, I agreed with the class, and taught them how to write the cards in Spanish.

    On that day, I realized how much the students loved learning Spanish, and having us come in every week to teach. During my meetings, I would share that story, and then say that third grade was relatively early to start learning a second language, and that at their age, they absorbed the new information quickly. Then I would go on to say, “imagine if we could bring education to all kids starting even earlier, before the age of five, when their brains are developing at the fastest rates of their lives. Giving them that head start would have a huge impact on how they learn and grow for the rest of their lives.” Sharing your story can be incredibly powerful, because it illustrates why you care, and therefore, why they should care, too.

  4. How to make an “ask.” You’re in the meeting to advocate for a cause important to you, such as a comprehensive early education program in the United States, and you want your legislator to take part in an effort to further that cause. In order to help him or her do so, you should come into the meeting with an “ask” prepared, such as a bill that you would like your legislator to vote for or co-sponsor. Your ask is the most important part of the meeting, because it gives your legislator a specific way to support your cause, if they’re willing to do so. For this reason, it is important to make the ask clearly and concisely. Come into the meeting with an information sheet or packet that provides background and details about your ask, and leave it with the person with whom you meet before you leave.
  5. It’s all right to say, “I don’t know.”
    The person with whom you are meeting will have questions about the issue and about your ask. Do your research ahead of time on the issue, and on your ask, so that you can present your issue accurately and eloquently. However, if you’re asked a question of which you aren’t sure of the answer, it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” It’s definitely better than accidentally providing misinformation. In addition, it gives you a chance to follow up with the legislator. Admit that you don’t know, but ask for the contact information of the person with whom you are meeting, and tell them that you will do some research and follow up with them as soon as you can. This will show your genuine investment in the issue, and allow you to continue the conversation after your meeting, which can make a much larger impact than a single conversation.

In the meetings I attended, I realized that the goal wasn’t to be able to answer every possible question about early education, but rather to show that I, a constituent, care deeply about early education. Each meeting became progressively easier, as my conversations became more natural and I became more confident in my ability to convey my investment in early education.

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Ethan Thayumanavan is a high school student and advocate for early education in Deerfield, Massachusetts. He has been working with Save the Children Action Network since April 2015, when he attended Save the Children’s Advocacy Summit in Washington D.C. In addition to advocating for early education at home, Ethan volunteers during his summers at a school in Sivasailam, Tamil Nadu, India, where he teaches math and English to students with auditory impairments. Volunteering at this school, and seeing the stark contrast between its learning environment and his own experience at school, motivates him to be an advocate for early education.