How to Advocate for What You Want
By laura finch
January 11, 2012
“For such a time as this.”
It’s a popular phrase among Christians working on Capitol Hill—which are surprisingly easy to find.Bible studies abound for both staffers and members of Congress. Christian celebrities, authors, artists and movie directors are constantly escorted around town as the main attraction for special briefings. Family values groups meet every day of the week, combing through legislation and regulations for ways elected officials can make their mark on public discourse.
Since you’re reading this website, you’re probably especially interested in standing up for social justice issues before U.S. leaders. Let me say first of all, as someone working for one of those leaders, you must continue taking a stand. It’s absolutely true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Keep bringing up the poor both in your workplace and with your elected officials. Do everything you can to keep from burning out, because yours is a flame that America cannot afford to lose.
And if you’ve already started to dabble in advocacy on any scale, big or small, you’ve realized that there is no shortage of opportunities for “speaking out,” for “championing an issue,” or for “giving a voice to the voiceless.” But is shouting from the rooftops always the best idea for your cause in the long term?
Getting your point across in the long run often requires shutting up in the short run. As my favorite college professor put it, “You're going to have to earn the right to be heard.” That's a tough pill to swallow for Generation Y and the Millennials, who seem to have an insatiable need to impress others—especially their superiors.
You'll find that Washington doesn’t run on power or money. It runs on trust.
Here's one example. I used to think that policy staff sit around writing bills and getting into the nitty-gritty. Imagine my surprise, then, to find that policy staff who work for members of Congress (MOCs) are actually paid to filter. They filter through hundreds, and probably thousands, of ideas in a week. Politely taking input from in-office visitors and from constituent mail comprises the majority of their day. They evaluate initiatives from other members, talk to organizations about what those stakeholders would like to see accomplished, and must then decide on a few specific projects to pitch to the boss. In many ways, they are the eyes and ears of the MOC—but if the MOC doesn't trust them or doubts their motives, it's all over.
On the flip side, when you insist on pushing through an initiative before the timing is right, you risk complete irrelevance for your message. Then you lose, and the people you’re trying to defend lose too.
Here are some lessons I've learned the hard way for earning the right to be trusted and, therefore, heard, in a political workplace:
- Ask for advice from superiors, when you need it.
- Use your 20s to listen. Not everything has to relate back to you and your experiences.
- Don't forward that email with the juicy piece of information about a coworker. Just don't. You can keep a secret, and if you can’t, you don’t belong in the business. (Remember what Washington runs on?)
- Finish what is asked of you before starting new (or, let’s be honest, unnecessary) projects.
These aren’t new concepts, but they are rare qualities, and will earn you respect in a political setting—and probably in any other office in the world, too.
The key is remembering to first be faithful with the little things. Take Calvin Coolidge’s words to heart: “No man ever listened himself out of a job.” Do what’s asked of you, keep that email to yourself and stop procrastinating on the things you don’t want to do. You will be given much.
Laura just finished her first year on Capitol Hill as a scheduler and policy aide, after spending four years in state government. She and her husband are from Wheaton, IL.