On Monday mornings, I enter the office of Senator Warren and punch in the security code, and the first thing on my to-do list is to check the messages from the weekend. In this day and age, it is rare that the voicemail-box will be anything less than completely full, and even though that means more work for me, I still take it as a heartening sign. Never in my life has my entire network become so organized and politically engaged, and I consider myself lucky to be at the forefront of the process.
My experience in a congressional office has been very valuable for me, and I want to take the opportunity now to turn this experience into a set of lessons that anyone calling a congressional office can apply to their own civic discourse. Just like brushing teeth, calling congress is a routine for many Americans, and in both cases, there are good and bad hygienic habits. Let’s talk about a few.
The most effective messages for your member of congress are short, concise, and contain the right information. Call your member of congress, tell them your name, your zip code, your phone number, and state your position on a particular issue in two sentences or less. That’s it. I know how paradoxical this sounds, but the best way to make your voice heard is to get away from the microphone as soon as possible. If you support public schools, tell your member of congress to do everything they can to support public schools, and leave it at that. Don’t talk at length about why they matter to you, or the opportunities they have presented your family. I’ll tell you why.
When I was in marching band, they used to tell us that power was in the numbers and that in a great band, no one person was more valuable or deserved more attention. The same is true when you are a part of a state or a commonwealth and want to make an impression on the leader of that state or commonwealth. For every minute that you are on the phone with a congressional staffer, you may be depriving another constituent of time that they can use to articulate their stances. If one constituent is on the phone for even ten minutes, it is very likely that at least one other constituent was given a busy signal during that time as a result. If you are supportive of public schools, you are likely one of thousands of souls in this commonwealth that shares this position, and the best
thing you can do is articulate your position and share the window to congress with your neighbors. Public discourse is a chorus, not a solo, and the larger the chorus, the more powerful the message.
Here’s a small note, but an important one. Many constituents want to volunteer or fundraise for their incumbent member of congress. I think that the upsurge in constituent activism is wonderful and I encourage it. However, due to congressional ethics standards, incumbent members of congress are forbidden from using their privileges of incumbency, like their congressional offices, to advance their campaigns. Every member of congress running for reelection has a campaign website, and you can identify it because it usually doesn’t end with “.gov”. If you are contacting a member of congress via a phone number or a mailing address that you obtained from a website that contains .gov in the url, it is unlikely that they can accept campaign contributions or volunteer requests through that channel. Look for their campaign websites in order to get involved. In March 2017, it is still early in the campaign cycle and some members of congress might not have a campaign website yet. Keep checking back, it will be there soon!
Finally, here’s an important question I know many have that maybe I can shed some light on. Many people call wondering how they can do more, or even how their efforts up to this point can be effective, if their member of congress already agrees with them on almost every issue. Members of congress are energized by their constituents, and even if you already have their vote, more calls will give you their voice. Some people may be tempted to call out of state representatives, but doing so is not a good idea. There are people who live in that state who share your views; make sure that they have the congressional audience that they deserve and avoid diluting their platform. Making palpable change across state lines is a lot harder than calling an out of state representative. Instead of calling out of state representatives, call out of state relatives. Policy discussions with relatives are hard conversations to have, but changing the minds of people you love is a more impactful way forward than changing the votes of people you don’t.
Today is my first day of classes for the spring semester at UMass Amherst, and I am up early, anxious and excited to get started. Massachusetts’ flagship public university is such a special place. Going to such a beautiful public school with a culture so enthusiastic about collective action brings me a lot of pride; we’re a bunch of scrappy kids with big dreams. Out here, there are a lot of kids who consider themselves radical revolutionaries and hallmarks of counterculture, but I think the most revolutionary phenomenon to come out of the public schools is an entire generation of folks like me, who now have a higher earnings potential than our parents ever did because we were offered a world-class education that we could afford, and we took the deal.
I did not always feel this way. Growing up, my intellectual heroes were the Kennedy brain trust. I saw myself at a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton with a White House policy job lined up right after I got my degree. In the spring of my senior year of high school, I started to realize that my bank account could only afford to send me right back into the public school system that I was about to graduate from. I wasn’t happy, but I begrudgingly took a page from my parents and scrabbled together a positive outlook. I began to look for new intellectual heroes and role models that came from backgrounds more like my own.
I found one pretty quickly. She grew up in a modest background and her college education was a great privilege, never a guarantee. She earned her bachelor’s degree and her juris doctor from public, state universities. She made a career out of tracing the economic plight of America’s middle class and ultimately became a renowned scholar in bankruptcy law. Before long, the Harvard-educated Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama were receiving policy advice from her, not the other way around. She won an upset political victory to become Massachusetts’ first female senator, and in her first term became one of the biggest names in Democratic politics. Tomorrow, I start working part-time in her office.
I counted myself a fluke when I first got the news. I thought I’d be a sore thumb among so many qualified people from elite backgrounds when I walked into her office for my orientation, but my first impression was wrong again. In her high-rise Boston office,
Senator Warren’s staff introduced themselves to the new intern class. I got so excited when almost half of them said they came from UMass Amherst. Not only did Senator Warren spend her career upholding public schools as an agent of opportunity and upward mobility, but she had clearly placed her faith in graduates of the system by asking them to work in her office. All of Senator Warren’s constituents know that she can talk the talk, but after one day in her office, I can tell you that she doesn’t just speak to the worth of public universities, she believes in them too.
The biggest surprise came half an hour later, when the Senator’s state director walked in. His name was Roger, and he had spent years working behind the scenes for some of the biggest names in public policy. He’d split pizza with Hillary Clinton and the conversations he’d recall between himself and John Kerry sounded a lot like how I talk to my roommates. Despite his impressive resume, he had a really positive and relaxed energy about him. This guy is in charge of Senator Warren’s official Massachusetts operation and administers constituent services to the entire commonwealth. He went around the room, asking each intern where they went to school. When he got to me, I told him I went to UMass Amherst.
Roger smiled real big and his fist went into the air. “Me too!”
The chance to intern for Senator Elizabeth Warren is the realization of a long personal journey for me. The media has always positioned her as “the woman who knew too much” about the consumer credit industry and a threat to its mission to increase its profit margins at the expense of America’s middle class. My fascination with this distinction led me to declare a triple major in finance, history, and economics. I devoured all of her memoirs and academic books. I applied twice to work for her, and had to borrow a car from a friend when I was granted an interview on my second attempt. When I finally got the call telling me that I got the internship, my face was fixed in a permanent grin. There is no better way to end my time at my amazing public university than interning with the woman whose life story made me appreciate how special public universities really were.