This article was originally posted by RESULTS on June 23, 2015. Re-posted with permission.
>>Authored by Susan Fleurant, 2015 RESULTS U.S. Poverty Campaigns Intern
I arrived in Washington, D.C. this summer for an internship at RESULTS with only the certainty of ceaseless heat and humidity and not fully knowing what else to expect. Then on June 9, I went to Capitol Hill and lobbied for the first time with Bread for the World, an anti-hunger organization. Lobbying is a word that carries with it a heavily negative connotation, a word that evokes images of wealthy businessmen persuading legislators one way or another. As a student pursuing a career in policy, I always said that I would never be a lobbyist, because I subscribed to this professional and negative definition of the word. While much of politics in the United States these days does involve the interests of wealthy corporations and professional lobbyists, the reality is that we can all be lobbyists.
It is easy to forget that Congress works for us, the voters. Our votes put people into office, and our votes can remove people from office. Yes, that oversimplifies the process, and while I acknowledge the role of campaign finance and special interests in both the campaign and legislative processes, citizens are not doing enough to change what has become the not-so-pleasant status quo of American politics. The truth is, the United States has abysmal voter turnout, yet a high percentage of the population complains about those in office and policy decisions that are made.
So what are we doing about it? Complaining to our neighbors and coworkers about the state of the nation will not move us in a new direction. We need to channel our concerns and our visions for the future of the country into positive civic engagement. We need to teach our children the importance of voting and the significance of civic engagement in maintaining a healthy democracy. As citizens of a representative democracy we have the opportunity to speak with our representatives whether through writing a letter, making a phone call, or scheduling an in-person meeting, and we must exercise these rights. Too few people take advantage of these opportunities, leaving lobbying to the groups that give the act its negative connotation. This lack of engagement is likely the result of a cynical view towards American politics in general paired with a lack of knowledge about the avenues available for engagement and correspondence. This is where educators and parents play a key role in providing the information from a young age about the variety of ways to engage in our democracy in order to demystify the process.
As I sat in a senator’s office on Capitol Hill speaking with a legislative advisor about why child nutrition programs are important, providing factual evidence paralleled with a personal story, I realized that I was a lobbyist, and it was perhaps one of the most democratic acts in which I could take part. I felt both empowered and perturbed. Empowered because I realized that I could lobby and make my voice heard on Capitol Hill, and perturbed because I did not understand why it took me this long to realize that. I feel lucky to have had this opportunity now before I carried on with a skewed idea of lobbying.
I think that government is too often presented as a separate entity to which average citizens do not have access, and this sentiment undermines democracy by leaving people uneducated about their ability to participate in the political system. Voting is often the extent of political participation for many people, and others do not even make it that far. It is time for us to reexamine our democracy and encourage active engagement through a variety of means. Lobbying is not just wealthy corporations and special interest groups; lobbying is citizens writing letters, making phone calls, and stopping by for visits. Get out there and lobby, trust me, it is empowering. You can make a difference. Share your concerns, describe your visions for the future, tell your personal stories, and make your voice heard. In the end, we are all lobbyists.