Working with Local, State, and Federal Officials

Elected and appointed officials can boost a movement by translating grassroots momentum into law. However, accessing and working with these leaders can be tricky. We’ve compiled some tips based on our own experiences to help you partner with elected and appointed officials to create awareness and to pass policies that benefit survivors.

Developing Your Goal

Before you approach a lawmaker or an agency, you should determine what you want to achieve from your campaign. Here are some examples of potential goals:

  • Require schools in your area/state to adopt affirmative consent policies; sample contact: state legislator or city council member)
  • Improve the performance of your local Department of Education Office for Civil Rights office (the office that enforces Title IX): sample contact: staff persons in the local office, or in the OCR national office
  • Require schools to adopt accurate and scientific climate surveys; sample contact: state legislator or city council member
  • Defend against state legislative attempts to criminalize responses to sexual assault; sample contact: state legislator
  • Require school officials to undergo training to provide culturally competent services to survivors; sample contact: state legislator, city council member, agency that enforces education standards (a version of culturally competent services may be an existing mandate you can alter)

Don’t be afraid to be ambitious but also make sure that the officials you approach have the power to do what you are asking them to do — or can be allies in approaching other influencers. For example, if you lobby an agency that does not have oversight over schools, they may be limited in what they can do to help you. In addition, sometimes statutes limit the ability of agencies and/or elected officials to control the actions of schools — for example, Title IX applies only to schools receiving federal funds.

A helpful guide to developing goals is the SMART framework, which calls for goals to be: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable.

Finding Allies

Once you’ve decided your goal, you may need allies to help you carry out your plans. They can increase capacity to achieve your goal, and experienced allies can provide insights into strategies and tactics, as well as communicate institutional memory/knowledge. In addition, many large organizations have money they can spend on a campaign.

Before deciding to bring in other groups, it’s often helpful to re-evaluate your goals and strategies to see what is flexible and what is not. When you bring in other groups, you will likely have to make some compromises; know what is and isn’t negotiable before looking to work with others.

This is especially important when working with large organizations. These groups usually work across a number of issues (e.g., a feminist advocacy organization may be working on violence issues and paid sick days). This means that a large organization may be more conservative in its demands and tactics because it needs legislators to take action on a variety of fronts.

It’s also important to note that large organizations (and even some small non-profits) secure their funding from foundations and wealthy donors, which tend to want the group to be highly visible in the effort. Typically, this is fine, but sometimes it can mean a co-optation of survivor organizing to put the large group publicly out in front on the issue. It can also mean that the funder’s priorities take precedent over other concerns. When the government and/or large foundations fund organizations, they may limit lobbying activities or other advocacy actions as a condition of the organization receiving funding. To read more on this, check out this article, which centers on excerpts from the work of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.

When looking for organizations to partner with, start with other survivor groups, direct service providers, and the larger, policy-oriented feminist law organizations. Direct service providers are likely more familiar with what is happening on the ground but they may have fewer resources to provide since they are often understaffed and underfunded. Still, they may have strong relationships with local legislators and could be extremely helpful in a local or state-level campaign. In contrast, state domestic and sexual violence coalitions may have more resources for lobbying officials but they may have less knowledge of the specifics of each campus or community. National feminist organizations tend to focus on Congress and national issues but they sometimes can boost state campaigns by elevating them through the media and by creating or circulating petitions for allies to sign.

When working with “experienced” allies, always remember that, while their expertise and advice can be helpful, it doesn’t trump your lived experience — and important source of expertise in your own right — as a survivor and student organizer. Good allies will ensure that survivors are at the core of anti-violence efforts and that survivors’ input is respected and centered. Bad “allies,” in contrast, use survivor experiences and stories as window-dressing for their own policy priorities, without listening to survivor perspectives on policy changes.

Identifying Potential Government Partners

Even once you’ve determined your objective, navigating and power mapping the bureaucracy can be difficult. Generally, if you’re seeking a change in implementation or enforcement of a law, it may be best to start with appointed officials (i.e. municipal/city agency officials and staff). If you want a revision of the law itself or if an agency is dragging its feet, you may want to speak to a lawmaker.

In terms of determining the “level” of the campaign (e.g., local vs. state vs. federal): if you are looking to change local laws or raise awareness around a local event, speaking to elected or appointed officials in your area (i.e. city councilmembers, village trustees, school board members) is likely your best bet. In some cases, it’s actually the most effective process since local officials tend to be easier to access and schools are accountable to them in addition to being accountable to state and federal officials. If your goal is to change patterns at multiple schools, you may need to work with state and/or federal lawmakers depending on whether the institutions are located across state lines or not.

Once you’ve identified the level (local/state/federal) of your campaign and the type of influencer you need to speak to (appointed vs. lawmaker), you need to identify the potential influencer partner. For elected officials, you should likely start by examining their policy portfolio, which usually vary by committee (lawmaking bodies are usually split into committees to conduct government business). As such, it is usually best to work with an elected official who has a seat on the relevant committee (for campus gender-based violence, this is usually the committee that handles education issues), or better yet, is the chair of said committee. This increases the likelihood that the issue will be taken more seriously and that lawmakers will eventually vote on the issue.

In terms of other factors, look up the biographies of potential agency or lawmaker partners. Have they said positive things about survivors? Have they taken actions in the past to support survivors like introducing helpful legislation? Make sure you’ve done your homework and research before trying to set up a meeting with them.

Getting Access

Once you’ve identified the person you want to work with, the first step is to set up a meeting with them or their staff. In most instances, you will be meeting with a staff person. This isn’t a bad thing: since agency officials and lawmakers are often very busy, the staff handle much of the policy on a day-to-day basis.

Many elected officials or agency officials have an assistant or scheduler. I suggest sending the meeting request to them as opposed to the official themselves — these requests have a much higher likelihood of receiving a response. If contact information is not available online, call the office and ask for the contact information of the staff person who handles these requests. In the case of more powerful legislative officials such as state senators and members of Congress, you should not ask to meet with the legislator. Instead you should ask for the contact information of the staffer who handles education policy. As a general rule, if you are unsure whom to ask for, ask to meet with the staff person for the initial few meetings.

For the initial meeting, I usually frame it as an introductory meeting to introduce the staff person or official to our group’s work. If you have a choice, try to have a meeting in person since it is easier to gauge a person’s response to your proposals in person.

The First Meeting

Since officials and their staff are busy, don’t plan for the meeting to last more than a half-hour unless the office has explicitly said that this will be the case. Usually meetings last around twenty minutes. In addition, people are often late so make sure to leave ample space between meetings in case the meeting runs over. In terms of preparation, if I have a concrete ask for an office, I typically will bring a brief summary memo of the proposal for the staffer to read and pass on to their boss if they see fit.

Agency and elected officials are very concerned about people who live inside their district or jurisdiction (i.e., their constituents). As such, it is very helpful to have students who are constituents join the meeting to increase the pressure on the official to be responsive to you.

In terms of content for the first few meetings, I have been successful when I try to strike a balance between galvanizing the agency (which creates changes through regulations and enforcement) or lawmaker (who creates change through passing laws, authorizing appropriations, and through oversight) and making your asks for them to act. Without a doubt, people are more inclined to act if they feel passionate about the issue. You can help fuel that passion by painting them a picture of what is going on. If you can give them specific instances involving constituents, even better. Let them know why the system has to change. Know, though, that if you identify as a survivor, you should never feel compelled to share your personal story if you don’t want to. Yes, personal anecdotes are powerful, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of your well-being.

Once you have set the stage for why the problem you identified is important, proceed to outlining the ask that you have for the person — e.g., “We would like for you/your boss to introduce legislation (or in the case of an agency, regulations) to fix the problem I have identified” or “We would like your feedback on our proposal.” Briefly introduce the idea and see if they have any questions. Ideally, if they understand the idea, they should have plenty of questions. If you don’t know the answer, it is always better to offer to follow up with the staff person in an email with the correct information as opposed to guessing and potentially providing incorrect information.

Toward the end of the meeting, identify opportunities for follow-up. Do you need to do more research for the staff person? Can they think of other offices that would also be interested in partnering? It’s good to have some follow-up so you can keep on their radar (and it provides a pretext for scheduling additional meetings if necessary).

After the meeting ends, make sure to thank the person for meeting with you and provide any agreed upon follow-up in a timely fashion (less than one week).

Re-Directing Legislators

Due to survivors’ savvy activism and the media’s increased coverage, politicians are increasingly growing in awareness that campus sexual assault is a major issue, and are feeling more motivated to take action. Unfortunately some politicians, well-intentioned perhaps, are introducing measures (e.g., requiring campuses to turn over reports to the police without survivors’ consent) that would actually hurt survivors.

Often it’s a lack of education that causes otherwise well-intentioned officials to push for detrimental policies. As such, in many cases informing the legislator and/or staff of the negative consequences of the proposed policy can be helpful. Collect and, with permission, share survivors’ stories that will help drive your point home. Appeal to the legislator’s broader politics: for example, conservatives tend to be tough on crime and liberals tend to want to protect civil rights — measures that support survivors can be framed to appeal to both. Granted, you won’t win every legislator using these tactics (especially those pursuing reform for the wrong reasons), but you will be able to convert some to your side.

If you are unable to sway a legislator who has introduced a bad policy, look at the hierarchy of power that you’ve previously mapped out. Since the policy will need to go through committee, reach out to other legislators on that committee to convince them that the policy is dangerous. They may be able to change the original legislator’s mind. If these efforts fail, discussing the pitfalls of the policy with the press, or launching a petition or letter-writing campaign, can also be smart, savvy ways to influence legislation.

Further Reading

National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV): Understanding the Legislative Process

Emergency Nurse Association (ENA): Understanding the Legislative Process in Detail

Questions? Feedback? Updates on your campaign? Let us know by emailing knowyourIX@gmail.com.

–Alyssa Peterson