Archive for July, 2012

How Progressives Can (and Must) Lobby for Social Change

July 28, 2012

My article in today’s LA Progressive:

Abbe Land, West Hollywood Mayor Pro Tem, doesn’t want activists to think of “lobbying” as a dirty word. “In the purest form, it’s about educating and helping elected officials understand the issue,” she told more than 100 community members attending the July 25th workshop, “Your Voice: Learning to Lobby for Social Change,” organized by the Advocacy Committee of the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. “Paid lobbyists can keep knocking on your door till you let them in, keep telling you their side, their side, their side–till it’s possible forget about the other side.” Progressive organizations lobby, too, “to move our agenda forward,” she said in her keynote address, but don’t have the resources to keep up that kind of constant pressure without the help of the individual activist. The role of citizen lobbyist is crucial.

Abbe Land

In the breakout sessions that followed, community members got tips about individual activism while much of the discussion focused on the role of organized nonprofits as well as informal ad hoc advocacy groups.

(While 501(c)(3) nonprofits can lose their tax-exempt status if lobbying takes more than 5% of their time and resources, they are not banned entirely from approaching officials on behalf of specific legislation. Good information on how to navigate rules and restrictions and maximize lobbying to the full extent of the law is available at the website of the organization Alliance for Justice.)

Legislate? Or Educate?

There’s no limit on 501(c)(3) organizations (or anyone else) when it comes to campaigns to educate officials about issues.

Emily Austin, who facilitated the workshop on “Policy Process 101: Transforming Ideas into Policy,” explained that education must sometimes precede any attempt to make policy given the many obstacles to getting a bill into law. Even if you can get legislation introduced, it’s likely to die in committee unless the ground has been fully prepared.
To illustrate how this might work in real life, Austin shared her experience addressing teen dating violence in her role as Director of Policy & Evaluation for Peace Over Violence, a nonprofit dedicated to intervention and prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault. Through its work with survivors, POV was aware that many teens were victimized but when staff went to the broader community, they found parents insisting their kids didn’t even date so couldn’t possibly be affected. POV collected statistics and reports to show the prevalence of the violence and began to collect powerful personal stories as well.

“Think about who your allies might be,” she said. “Unlikely allies, too.” Progressives sometimes overlook the support a cause might get from groups–in this case, law enforcement and prosecutors–that aren’t always in agreement with our values.

Emily Austin

You also need to identify the opposition and what their arguments might be. An Orange County politician, for example, was opposed to any discussion of dating violence because dating implied sexual activity. In today’s economy, you can expect arguments about funding, so think about possible resources and be ready to make the argument–with specific figures–that spending money now will prevent higher costs later.

Determine your venue, Austin said. Do you think the issue is best addressed on a federal, state, local, or organizational level? Once you know your venue, find a champion there. Whether a bill needs to be shepherded into law or a regulation or policy needs to change in a bureaucracy, someone has to work toward this goal with almost single-minded focus and push hard for it in a knowledgeable and articulate way.

POV connected early on with Steve Zimmer, a Los Angeles teacher and counselor for 17 years, who knew firsthand that students were suffering abuse. When he was later elected to the school board, he became an ideal champion–committed, able to speak at a press conference in an entirely credible way. He didn’t need to have talking point provided to him and was able to answer any questions with ease. (As Abbe Land pointed out, a paid lobbyist has to be prepared because they get fired if they don’t know the issue very well. We have to be sure we are every bit as knowledgeable when we speak to people in power.) In October 2011, Zimmer got the school board to pass a unanimous resolution in favor of a prevention program for the city’s public schools. Though no funds have been identified yet to implement such a program or the curriculum prepared by POV, the problem–after years of educating the community–is at last officially recognized. As Austin said, “It’s on the map.” Even this limited progress to the goal took years while POV did the research, developed and nurtured relationships, and prepared the ground with public awareness.

For now, the organization continues to educate peer leaders who can talk to other teens. And while you’re figuring out how to influence others, Austin said, look at your own organization. Is it living up to its stated goals? For example, when people think of teen dating violence, the common assumption is this refers to girls who are victims of boys. Austin said POV looked to be sure its own board and policies were friendly to LGBT teens and youth who were questioning their sexuality and/or gender.

Whatever your cause, remember you need to raise community awareness and support before trying to promote a bill. Sometimes, Austin warned, the community may get passionately behind a cause after a particularly terrible event. These laws sometimes go through quickly–too quickly. “Legislation created after one specific set of facts–such as laws that tend to be named after a survivor or victim” are often poorly drafted “without thinking of unintended consequences.” Think through any proposed bills or recommendations with care.

Everyone Has a Role

Serena Josel, Director of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, spoke on “Mobilizing Your Base: Grassroots and Grasstops Lobbying.”

Serena Josel

For legislative advocacy, she said, you need three ongoing components that work together: a policy analysis team to study a bill and consider what real-life impact it would have; a media team to communicate these impacts to the public; a lobbying team of paid lobbyists if possible, plus the grassroots and the grasstops, the latter being members or allies of your group who are prominent in the community or have special relationships or access to decision makers because they are big donors or as colleagues or former staffers or through, for example, family, friendship, business.

“Last spring when Congress tried to defund Planned Parenthood,” she said, “what did we do?” First, the policy team warned the organization to take the threat seriously. Though the same amendment had been offered in Congress every year for six years, it never before had a chance of passing. This time, the policy team put out the alert that “it had legs.” The media team got to work with radio and television interviews and social media to make the buzz louder and get people engaged.

As for the grassroots lobbyists, how much could they accomplish here in LA where Planned Parenthood enjoys strong longterm support from our elected representatives? First, whatever your cause, if you’ve got a compelling personal story, an official who’s already on your side can use it in working to convince others. Then, Los Angeles grassroots activists turned to technology. They phoned sympathetic voters in targeted states, told them what was happening in DC and said “Your senator will be one of the deciding votes. Will you let me patch you into their office right now?” In this way, people power in Los Angeles generated calls to senators all around the country. “We won on the federal level,” Josel said, though Planned Parenthood is still under attack in eight states.

Grassroots volunteers have also fanned out with cell phones on college campuses and at farmers markets, talking to people and inviting supporters to make calls on-the-spot to elected officials.

As for the grasstops, Josel passed around copies of a sample chart set up to list all the decision makers relevant to an issue. After you poll the organization’s board and active members, you fill in the blanks on the chart: who has a personal connection to each decision maker; who is a professional contact; who knows someone who is an indirect contact and in those cases, fill in that person’s name and the nature of the relationship. You can then identify who is best suited to make the approach.

Don’t ask your grasstops to call everyone they know, Josel advised. Choose targets with care. Track what happens. Some grasstops turn out to be have more clout than they expected; some less.
Before any contact is made, the grasstops spokeperson should be carefully prepared. Their relationship means they are likely to have a real back-and-forth conversation with the decision maker so they’ll need to know their stuff. The organization can follow up later with additional information if needed and, of course, with thank you notes.

Decision makers who support you need to be thanked whenever they do the right thing with their vote, Josel said. Just because a person’s belief system matches up with yours, doesn’t mean they’ll always want to go out on a limb for you, especially in an election year. Let them know that constituents have their back by sending a note or a even a photo of a large group of people holding up a big thank you sign.

Keep your grassroots people engaged with updates and reports of progress.

Tips for Individuals

Citizen lobbying is most effective when the decision maker can see you face-to-face (in their district or Capitol office or at a town hall meeting) or at least hear your voice on the phone. Meeting with an official’s staff members is just as valuable.

Personal letters get more attention than petitions or mass emails. Snail mail shows a higher level of commitment than email. But keep in mind: Physical letters sent to local district offices will rarely be subject to delay but in DC, mail goes through security screening and can take several weeks to reach the recipient. For an urgent matter or when a vote is imminent, phone calls and personally composed emails are necessary.

Use personal language, Josel said, not political jargon or bumper sticker language, e.g., talk about pregnancy and families, not the opposing camps of pro-choice and pro-life.

On-line petitions may have some effect if the numbers are huge and come from appropriate zip codes.

Think about visual impact. If you’re part of a pre-printed postcard campaign, save the cards and deliver them all at once. A thousand cards dumped in a legislator’s office can’t be ignored. The same number trickling in over the course of a year or two can be overlooked.

If your letter to the editor is published, send copies to relevant decision makers, or, a participant suggested, bcc (send blind copies) to the people you want to influence. That way, they’ll know your opinion and that you cared enough to write even if the letter isn’t published.

Facebook and Twitter campaigns tend to work best with corporations concerned about their image and their brand and are less effective when targeting elected officials. It’s worth tweeting a representative who’s known to use Twitter a lot. If you catch him or her during a particularly boring committee meeting, you may have the chance for an extended exchange.

A Last Word

Matt Leighty, who has worked as a lobbyist and teaches a graduate-level course on “Lobbying and Policy Change” at Pepperdine University offered a workshop on “The Art of Persuasion: Winning Them Over,” focused on preparing and delivering oral arguments. As participants could only attend two of the three breakout sessions, I missed his presentation. Which leads to my own tip to fellow activists: Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do everything.

But here’s something you can do. The meeting ended with:

Action Alerts

Contact Congress to support:

1. The reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) as approved by the Senate (S. 1925) rather than the House version (H.R. 4970) which was designed to undermine or deny protection to immigrant women (including mail-order brides), Native women, students on college campuses, and LGBTQ victims.

2. The Fair Minimum Wage Act which would raise the minimum wage in three gradual steps from $7.25 to $9.80/hour by 2014. Get your representative on board as a co-sponsor.

If you need help finding your members of Congress and their contact info, call the Capitol switchboard at (202)224-3121 or go online: and

For California actions, contact your state senator to support these Assembly bills being considered by the Senate:

1. AB 2348 which would allow RNs to dispense birth control to women who have no risk factors. Today thousands of women who want contraception are turned away at health centers as there aren’t enough doctors to see them. (If you make this call, please let Planned Parenthood know how it went by emailing

2. AB 593 and AB 1593 which would aid incarcerated battered women who were unable to present a domestic violence defense at the time of a petition for habeas corpus and would give them a chance to present this evidence effectively during the parole process.

To find a California state senator:

Karen Connelly and The Lizard Cage

July 21, 2012

Why hadn’t I known about Karen Connelly and her novel before? With my involvement in the anti-torture movement and with exiles and refugees, how on earth did I miss such a powerful novel about a political prisoner in Burma? I only learned about it after Connelly chose a story of mine for Magnolia: A Journal of Women’s Socially Engaged Literature. I figured then I should find out about her.

The Lizard Cage stunned me: its language, its knowledge and depth of understanding. It’s the sort of book that always makes me wonder how a mere human being could have written it. I immediately ordered a copy for Duc Ta. This is what we’ve talked about in the past: how to survive in prison, not just physically, but psychologically and spiritually. He–the essence of him–survives as Connelly’s protagonist Teza does: through meditation and Buddhist practice, his commitment to feeling compassion and forgiveness for those who put him where he is and who commit brutality around him, his attempts to find meaning in his life by bringing whatever help he can to others.

Duc, facing a life sentence, has spent only one year in solitary in a California prison. Connelly’s protagonist, Teza, faces twenty years in solitary confinement. During that one year, Duc was forbidden to have books, magazines, newspapers. He could receive letters and the wonderful Leslie Neale photocopied whole novels a few double-sided pages at a time, and mailed an installment every day. He says that’s what kept him sane (along with origami paper she sent. Believe me, he made a lot of cranes.) In Connelly’s novel, Teza’s situation is more extreme in every way. Possession of pen or paper is a crime. He treasures and reads scraps of newsprint he finds inside cheroot filters.

Connelly doesn’t spare the reader any of the brutality suffered by her characters and yet she’s written a book of grace and singular beauty.

Getting Past “Stuck on Stupid”

July 14, 2012

I’ve read two extraordinary books lately. The novel, A Naked Singularity by Sergio de la Pava, and Connie Rice’s activist memoir, Power Concedes Nothing: one woman’s quest for social justice in America, from the courtroom to the kill zones are complementary volumes in what they say and also in what they demonstrate.

Disclaimer: My admiration for Connie Rice knows no bounds. When I interviewed her in 2007 about the irrational persistence of racial ideology and her work reforming the LAPD and addressing gang violence, I wanted to share her unorthodox ideas but I also wanted to see her own distinctive words on the page. I’d heard her speak–her vivid and inimitable language, but it seemed as though editors got their hands on every print interview and homogenized her voice. I wanted her power and personality to come through. Naturally, some of it got edited out, but maybe I preserved at least a hint. When we met, Connie Rice was trying to write her own book and my fantasy was that she would ask me to help her. That remained a fantasy. Connie Rice can do anything and she didn’t need me! Though I have been very familiar with her work and her thought over the years, her book stunned me with so much more. And the website includes photographs and archives well worth visiting.

Here’s my interview, as published in The Sun 388_rice — just a taste then, that I hope will whet your appetite so you’ll please please get ahold of Power Concedes Nothing and read this dramatic and lively and thought provoking account of how we’re, in her phrase, “stuck on stupid,” what we refuse to look at as a society and how we are destroying our young. Because those children that so many of us like to believe are not our children, hey, yes they are.

(But talk about stupid: whatever happened to LAPD reform with the riot police rioting over people drawing on the sidewalk with chalk this week!?!?!?)

People who’ll read Connie Rice may be a different demographic from those who are interested in literary novels. Sergio de la Pava does for our criminal injustice system what Joseph Heller did in Catch-22 for (to?) our military. A Naked Singularity is also rich in philosophy and cosmology, but the author, a public defender in NYC, penetrates the courthouse insanity better than any nonfiction account I’ve seen. The novel is as dizzying as its cover.

Read both. Read either. Whichever book you choose, you’ll get an inside view of the irrationality of capital punishment and of how the poor are treated in court. With these two volumes speaking to different audiences, I hope lots of consciousness will be raised.

And what is it that both authors demonstrate?

Connie Rice, who inspires with her passion and commitment and intellectual brilliance, has put her quest for justice ahead of making money. I hope that choice itself inspires people to follow her example. Today, we live in a society that considers people losers or inadequate if they aren’t out there motivated by greed and busily acquiring. She is a beautiful example of rejecting those priorities. OK, she likes to buy shoes, but her life choices are dictated by her commitment to the so-called underclass, to seeking justice, not to seeking personal advantage.

And Sergio de la Pava? If he had written his novel in the Sixties, it would have been snatched up immediately by a major publishing house, been on the bestseller list, and probably received the Pulitzer Prize. In the degraded and disgraceful cultural climate of today, he had to self-publish. He believed in this massive and brilliant book and refused to be silenced. Eventually, University of Chicago Press learned about it and this year brought out a reprint, making A Naked Singularity finally widely available.

This note is written quickly and hardly does justice to the accomplishments of Connie Rice and Sergio de la Pava, but if this blog entry encourages anyone to read their books, my job is done.

I’ll be in the Museum of Dysfunction! (surprised?)

July 3, 2012

Just heard from Zachary Doss in Houston that my piece Future Forward has been selected for this year’s Museum of Dysfunction Showcase presented by Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company.
Really, how can I be anything other than thrilled to be an exhibit in such a museum! The show will run AUGUST 9-11 ONLY at Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios in Houston. How I would love to be planning a trip to Texas.


This, from Jim J. Tommaney’s review on August 10th and yes, I wish I’d been there.

In Future Forward