More than 75 people packed a room at the Towson Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library on Oct. 17 to learn how to turn their activism into an effective political tool.
Organized by the Baltimore Jewish Council, Jews United for Justice and Catholic Charities of Maryland, the Advocacy 101 event served as a sort-of political engagement training course on local lawmaking. Speakers informed the crowd about existing organizations they can support and get involved with and what it takes to become an effective advocate.
With the spirit of political activism in the air, Jews United for Justice Baltimore Chapter director Molly Amster opened the session by asking participants what, if anything, prevents them from advocating. A show of hands indicated that a majority had a fear that they did not know enough information about an issue.
“This is, I think, the No. 1 thing that has come up that prevents people from taking action since I have started doing the exercise,” Amster told the audience.
In her experience, Amster said, legislators will often try and hold a perceived lack of knowledge on issues against advocates. But even if people do not feel like they know the nuts and bolts of an issue they support, Amster said, they should not let that deter them from speaking up. Legislators and lobbyists, she asserted, are the ones who have to figure out how to make legislation work, not advocates.
“You don’t have to be an expert,” Amster said. “What you have to be is an expert in your beliefs and what you care about.”
The focus then shifted to the best approaches for contacting legislators. Regan Vaughan, director of advocacy for Catholic Charities of Maryland, said lawmakers will generally take a second look at a bill if they hear from 10 of their constituents.
That statement was followed up with a call to action for concerned constituents to contact their representatives because, as Vaughan put it, legislators “are always worried about re-election. They want to hear what you think about an issue.”
“This year, it’s amplified more than anything. So many [legislators] have primary challenges, are running for offices they have never held,” Vaughan said in reference to the 2018 election cycle. “The entire [2018 Maryland General Assembly session] is going to be about the election, whether [legislators] say that or not.”
Activist Cheryl Gottlieb of Towson encouraged activists of all political affiliations to email legislators, not just call — and certainly not just take to social media. An email from a constituent can hold more significance than a phone call, Gottlieb said, and is much more effective than a Facebook post or a tweet.
“The thing with emails that I learned recently is that if [legislators] respond with a certain position, then you have that from them personally in writing,” Gottlieb said. “So if they deviate from that, you have that in writing to use against them.”
Claire Landers, a member of JUFJ, implored the audience to be prepared when meeting with elected officials.
She shared a personal anecdote about a meeting she and a group of activists had with an elected official that she felt could have been more constructive. The group did not decide who would open the meeting, who would present their argument and who would ask the elected official for support of the bill, resulting in confusion.
“We didn’t get an affirmative answer,” Landers said. “It was a good relation meeting, but it wasn’t as productive as it could have been.”
Other members of the audience agreed that fostering strong community ties on hot-button issues can go a long way toward creating positive outcomes.
Linda Hurwitz, chair of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said building confidence with people who are passionate about the same issues is important.
“When I have the opportunity to speak personally about people I’ve known and to share personal stories, I do,” Hurwitz said. “I know I might not have anything directly to do with whether a bill passes or not, but I feel like I do.”
While political training sessions are useful, those who participate have to take what they learn and apply it to their own lives, Baltimore Jewish Council director of government relations Sarah Mersky said.
“Passion is important,” Mersky said. “Adding your personal touch and sharing something that has personally affected you is very important. I think that’s really a key to being a successful advocate.”