From The Coalition Column of the May 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Advocacy Begins at Home

Lee White, May 2012

Author's Note: This essay has been adapted from an article that I and Heather Huyck contributed to the Society of American Archivist's anthology, Many Happy Returns: Advocacy and the Development of Archives. That coauthored article was based on the original work Heather Huyck did for her own book, Historians on the Hill. I would like to thank Heather Huyck, and the Society of American Archivists (for granting the permission to use excerpts from Many Happy Returns in this column).

On March 19 and 20, 2012, the National Humanities Alliance held its annual Humanities Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill. The National Coalition for History is a cosponsor of Humanities Advocacy Day.

Humanities advocates visited 121 House and Senate offices representing 32 states. Grassroots advocates distributed issue briefs and discussed humanities projects in their states and districts. Constituents asked members of Congress to provide no less than $154.3 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Other funding issues included the National Historical Publications & Records Commission, HEA-Title VI/Fulbright Hays International Education Programs, Jacob K. Javits Fellowship Program (also Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need), Institute of Museum & Library Services, Library of Congress, and the Minerva Research Initiative.

Since its establishment 13 years ago, Humanities Advocacy Day has proven to be an effective lobbying tool. However, very few historians are able to take the time, and spend the money, to travel to Washington to make their case. The reality is you do not need to walk the halls of Capitol Hill to be an effective advocate for issues affecting the historical community. All members of Congress have state and district offices, and arranging a meeting with them is often a very effective alternative. In fact, members of Congress are far more accessible at home than when they are in Washington.

To one congressperson and two U.S. senators you are their constituent—they expect and welcome your participation. Constituents provide them with key links to the world outside the Beltway, and can often serve as an early warning system for issues to come to the attention of Congress. It strengthens your case if you can make it clear to your member or a staff person how your issue will affect the folks back home. The late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill has been famously quoted as saying, "all politics is local."1

From the perspective of a politician you are not only a constituent, but a voter and a potential supporter as well. When your members of Congress come home to their state or district they spend a great deal of their time reaching out to voters through town hall meetings, campaign events or meeting with individuals and groups to discuss their positions on issues. You should take full advantage of these opportunities to advocate for history.

Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, most historians have traditionally been reluctant to engage in activist politics. For many the very word "lobbying" too often is seen as pejorative. Although you might feel some initial reticence in delving into the mysterious world of lobbying, your involvement is needed now more than ever.

In a time of soaring deficits, the administration and Congress are constantly looking for programs to eliminate or scale back. Historical and archival programs at the federal level must compete with thousands of other worthwhile programs for funding. Funding for the National Archives, Teaching American History grants and Title VI/Fulbright-Hays programs at the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Park Service and other federal agencies do not have broad constituencies supporting them.

The amount of money the historical and archival communities spend on advocacy is miniscule compared to similar-sized constituencies. That's why the National Coalition for History's impact must be enhanced by the active engagement of the various constituencies it represents.

To be an effective advocate for the profession you need to know what to say and when to say it. Coverage of the kinds of issues that affect historians by the main-stream media is almost non-existent. However, the internet offers a plethora of opportunities to stay current on issues affecting the archival community. Subscribe to the National Coalition for History's newsletter and History News Network. In addition the American Historical Association's website and Facebook page, provide current information on lobbying efforts that are being led by the History Coalition, and its constituent organizations and allies.

Establishing relationships on Capitol Hill is really no different than in any other facet of your life. Influence with people is based on having relationships with them. Just as you engage in networking in your professional life, you should consider establishing personal relationships with your own representative and senators and their staffs. Think of this advocacy as just another form of networking.
Issues are constantly changing on Capitol Hill and more often than not time is of the essence when alerts go out from AHA and the History Coalition for historians to call their members of Congress. Phone calls can give the member at least some sense of how his or her constituents feel on an issue, so they are worth the effort. On historical issues it is likely that the member's office may not receive many, or any, calls so your influence will be magnified.

The offices of all members of Congress are accessible through the U.S. Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121. Simply ask the receptionist for the person who handles the issue you care about. If she or he is not available, ask for the appropriate e-mail address or that of the member's office.

If you do not already have a relationship with a staff person who handles the issue you are interested in, you will almost always end up in their voice mail. Make your phone message succinct, stating your name, phone number, city of residence, and any relevant professional or employment information. Then state your position on your specific issue. Do not leave long rambling voice messages.

If you do get through to a staff person, follow this simple rule—the fewer words the better. State your most important point first and present your subsequent key points clearly. Use plain English and don't use arcane academic or technical terms that you think will add to your credibility. If numbers are relevant to your case use them, but do so sparingly. Politicians and their staffs understand sound bites; so don't be afraid to use them. You might also find it useful to consult the common sense checklist in the sidebar when you engage in advocacy on behalf of historical issues. Keep it handy!

An Advocacy Checklist

  1. Make the effort to stay informed on historical and archival issues at the federal level. Subscribe to the National Coalition for History's newsletter or get involved in advocacy through AHA.
  2. When you call or visit an office, it is unlikely you will get an opportunity to talk with the member of Congress. Staff people are your most likely contact and one of them will inevitably be the person you will be working with on your issue. Do not act disappointed if you only talk with the staff. Staffers are generally extensions of their bosses.
  3. Be prepared before you meet, call, or write. Develop your key points. Explain them clearly and succinctly. You want the support of these elected officials and their staff so frame your issues in ways they will understand, but without condescension. Don't be too technical. Staff members are often generalists, not specialists. You want to communicate, not impress.
  4. If you are talking to a staff person on the phone, don't take up too much time. Their time—like yours—is also extremely limited. Do your best to make sure that you're talking with the person who handles the issue. Briefly explain your interest and don't expect more than a few minutes. Let the staff people ask the questions.
  5. Don't try to relate everything you know. Tell them what they need to know and what needs to be done. Be aware that the staffer (or more likely their boss) may disagree with you especially on issues involving federal spending. Understand, and accept the fact, that issues are often not decided purely on the merits, but by political considerations that you may not be aware of.
  6. Never threaten to not support the member in the future if they vote counter to your position. Don't be discourteous, abusive, or stridently partisan.
  7. You'll make a better case if you are as objective as possible. If there is opposition to your particular position, know it, acknowledge it, and address it.
  8. Surprisingly, advocates sometimes demand "all or nothing." That approach is unrealistic. Congressional action is based on compromise and trying to find the middle ground. Don't be surprised or disappointed if you do not get all you asked for or want—it seldom works that way.
  9. Don't assume all members of one party are alike, or that all members' offices or committees and subcommittees operate the same way. Be aware that the House and Senate vary greatly in their rules, degree of partisanship and approaches to legislation.
  10. Be sure to get the correct name and e-mail address of the person you spoke with. As noted earlier, talking to someone over the phone is preferable, but e-mail is usually quicker and more easily gets through to the staff person.
  11. Always remember that you are not just representing yourself, but the historical profession as well.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycoalition.org.

Note

1. Tip O'Neill with Gary Hymel, All Politics is Local and Other Rules of the Game (Times Books, New York, 1994).