April 3, 2009
Written by Lisa Kivirist, owner of Inn Serendipity in Wisconsin and Food and Society Policy Fellow
As Congress heads into their annual spring break, hopefully most of our elected officials won’t be using the time to escape reality for some umbrella drinks on the beach. Many will use this time wisely to get back to their home states and reconnect with the pulse of their American constituents. Often called “Town Hall Meetings” or “Listening Sessions,” these open gatherings serve as a direct and tangible means for our representatives to quickly harvest a reality check of what’s important to their constituents.
I attended my first Listening Session last week when Senator Russ Feingold came to New Glarus, Wisconsin, a small town not far from my family farm. This was not my first Listening Session due to lack of opportunity: Senator Feingold leads as a model representative who holds over 1,100 such gatherings throughout Wisconsin since he started 16 years ago.
Perhaps a perk of these tumultuous times is I’m finally motivated to take my participative democracy up a notch. However you slice it, for the first time I attended, commented, connected, and left with a renewed sense of both energy and urgency that we all need to take a stronger participative role in voicing our opinions.
Consider attending a Listening Session in your area. Such meetings are often advertised in local papers and community calendars. Or call your representatives directly. Here are some tips harvested from my experience to make the most of your time:
1. Get there early
I arrived five minutes before the official 3:45 pm start time, only to find every seat taken and the Q&A session already underway. Impressive, especially as I always apparently wrongly judged my region as lacking in progressive activism.
While each Listening Session varies in format, Senator Feingold passed out sheets of paper where participants could write a question or comment. He then worked through as many as he could in the time allocated – another reason to get there early and submit your question or topic.
2. Be prepared
Think about what issue you want to comment on and do some research ahead of time. Feel free to bring some notes; lots of folks did. Do a practice run of what you want to communicate ahead of time. It quickly became clear that there were two types of folks commenting: those with a concrete issue and perspective (and, better yet, suggested solution) and those delivering a passionate but rambling rant. While I admired Senator Feingold’s sincere graciousness in taking it all in, if you’re going to make an effort to attend such a session, do some due diligence to bring something strategic, prepared and articulate to the table.
3. Get personal
Add in personal, concrete examples of how your issue affects you. Several local dairy farmers spoke passionately about issues that hit home such as farm subsidy caps, lack of land access and labor shortage issues. That’s the core purpose of a Listening Session: to connect issues on the Hill to our daily lives. Add numbers when you can to put things in context.
4. Be specific
Think about what outcome you want. Sometimes it makes sense to ask for an opinion (there were lots questions for Senator Feingold on his opinion on the economy, taxes, stimulus), asking for a specific resolution or next step puts the ball in your representative’s court to act. Likewise, be sure to thank your representative for any past actions he or she did that you support. A little public gratitude goes a long way.
The issue I brought to the session was a new program within the Farm Bill: the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP), an initiative designed to provide training and microloans to help jump-start new rural businesses. Great concept, especially in today’s economy. While funding is approved in the current FY 2009 budget, the Request for Proposals (RFP) have not been released by the USDA. Granted, RMAP is a new program requiring writing new funding guidelines, but we need to get those grant monies out and doing some good so we can prove the success and necessity of RMAP, enabling potentially increased funding in the FY 2010 budget.
Senator Feingold asked me, “What can I do to help?” “Tell the USDA to get the RFP out as soon as possible,” I answered, as both he and his staff took notes. Let’s see if planting some seeds for change in sleepy New Glarus, where cows outnumber people two to one, can reach Washington D.C.
A final confession: I admit I’m a spoiled cheesehead as Senator Feingold has set the gold standard for how constituent Listening Sessions should be run. He packed the New Glarus Town Hall not just because he has the Senator title attached to his name, but rather he’s earned the reputation of someone who truly does listen and, importantly, act. No one in Congress is required to hold such sessions. But wouldn’t it change our national dialogue if they did?
Categories: General Interest