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The shy person's guide to lobbying - yes, it's that time again

I wrote this as legislative chair for our state's school iibrary organization (then MEMO, now ITEM) about 10 years ago. Feel free to adapt to your own  organization if you'd like. Getting meaningful political change has become both more difficult and more important over the past 10 years. Good luck to all who care about kids and libraries.

Please suggest changes/additions.

The Shy Person’s Guide to Lobbying
Doug Johnson, MEMO Legislative Chair, 2007

How can you tell a Minnesota extrovert? He looks at your shoes when he talks to you.

If you believe the stereotypes, MEMO (Minnesota Educational Media Organization) members are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to legislative lobbying. Both as Minnesotans and as librarians we have a reputation for shyness, modesty, and introversion. Despite our brilliant intellects, charming personalities, high moral standards, and devastating good looks, we far too seldom participate in the legislative process.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to influence legislators is through active lobbying. Lobbying is communicating with legislators and the executive branch to encourage them to take action on specific legislation or regulations. Each and every MEMO member should be actively advocating for the bills that will benefit those people who use their libraries and technology resources. Even those of us who are shy.

Here is a short primer on how even Shrinking Violets and Vincents can gain the confidence needed to be effective lobbyists:

1.    Recognize that lobbying is your job and find opportunities to speak to your legislators face-to-face. 
Obtaining funding and directing policy by being an active part of the legislative process is an important professional duty. No MEMO member should simply assume that MEMO “leaders” or our hired lobbyist can effectively be his/her voice to our legislators. This is work is too important to be left to other people. I mean this. 

MEMO and MLA (Minnesota Library Association) annually host Library Legislative Day. This event is held at the Capitol in St. Paul and has proven to be an expedient means of speaking to many legislators in a short time frame. Check the MLA and MEMO websites for registration information. Being surrounded by other MEMO and MLA members is, well, comforting. 

For those working stiffs who find it difficult to get a day off and travel to St. Paul, watch for regional legislative events. Our state multitype library organizations often host these get togethers. Be there, be counted, be heard.

2.    Learn something about the legislative process – or at least who your representatives are.
There is a genuine wealth of information at <>. At this site, you can find out who your House member and Senator are and their contact information – phone, e-mail, and mailing address. You can also track the status of bills that are important to MEMO members on this site.

Truth be told, most of us are mystified by the legislative process, even after being politically engaged for many years. A very good overview of our state legislature and how laws become enacted can be found at <> OK, so it written for kids, but at least I can understand it!  And if you have a question, please let a member of the MEMO legislative committee know it.

3.    Understand the MLA/MEMO platform and know the talking points. 
Each year MEMO and MLA join write a joint legislative platform that includes planks of interest to all types of libraries.  The document itself is usually only a page or two long.

The second set of documents that are important to read are the “talking points” that go with each platform plank. These short statements give reasons for and research behind the issues addressed by each plank.

Both documents can be found on the MLA Legislative page here: Check these regularly for updates.

Having a basic understanding of the platform and the reasons behind the planks in it is vital for effective lobbying efforts. While you do not need to be an expert, you do need to be familiar with the issues. If a legislator or staffer asks a question that you can’t answer, it’s just fine to say, “I don’t know that, but I will find out and get back to you.”

4.    Be effective when visiting with your legislator.
One guide suggests that when talking to legislators to remember the ABC’s - Accuracy, Brevity, and Courtesy. Stick to the platform. Be clear about what you want the legislator to do. (Vote for HF 101, for example.) Always frame the request by demonstrating the benefit to those you serve, not the benefit to you. Listen as well as talk. Answer questions. Leave copies of the platform with your legislator. Oh, work with the legislators who represent your district.

5.    Be a rational, pleasant human being.
If you are a school library media specialist or technology person, I can simply say, “Be yourself.” But just in case you are new to Minnesota or the profession, here are a few do’s and don’ts… Thank your legislator for past support when possible. Avoid party politics. As the Humane Society reminds us, “Animals have friends on both sides of the aisle.” Do tell personal anecdotes related to the issue for which you are lobbying. Don’t threaten retaliation, especially in the voting booth. It’s fine to disagree – but don’t be disagreeable. Make your case firmly.

Send a thank you after you visit. Your mom would be proud,

6.    Write, call, and e-mail – effectively.
Face to face conversations with your legislators are excellent ways to put your message across, but writing, calling and e-mailing on specific bills are also important. Here are a few “rules” for such correspondence:

  • Be clear about what you want, listing the bill, and the action you want your legislator to take.
  • Tell a story or give an example to make the issue relevant to your legislator and to his own part of the state.
  •  Ask for a direct response with his or her position on the issue or bill.

Personal letters are better than form letters or petitions. Use your official letterhead. Letters are usually more effective than e-mails. (I've heard this is not longer true.) Calls on an issue can be helpful since legislators sometime simply count the number of calls pro and con on certain matters. Watch your e-mail for requests for calls for action from MEMO and MLA. Then do it!

7.    Work on developing a relationship with your representatives.
The people I know who have the most success in influencing legislators are ones who have a long-standing relationships. Few things are achieved in a single legislative session. Cultivate a friendly, trust-worthy reputation that will serve you and your patrons well into the future. Become your representative’s reliable source of information on school library and technology issues.

So, eat your Powdermilk Biscuits, ketchup, rhubarb pie, or whatever it takes, but overcome your reticence and make your voice heard. 

For more detailed information:
•     Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest <WWW.CLPI.ORG>
•    Minnesota Library Association Legislative Committee Page <


When problems are a blessing

Last Wednesday the district leadership team met to discuss the findings of a leadership style survey we all took. I added the results of this HUMANeX analysis to my pile of similar activities - StrengthFinder (1 and 2), Myers-Briggs, etc. While I find such tools interesting, I am not sure exactly if they have had a lot of impact on my "leadership style." Leadership, like happiness, is not something about which I spend a great deal of time contemplating.

What the session did make reflect upon problems and one's perception of them.  My second highest ranked "talent" was as problem-solver. While I certainly have times that I wish problems came less often and easier to solve, having a job that is basically solving  people's problems (which have become one's own problems) makes for interesting work.

I learned the hard way just how important it is to have a job with challenges. After two overly-challenging years as a high school English teacher fresh out of college in a poor rural district in Iowa, teaching 6 classes, having 5 preps, and sponsoring class plays, speech contest, the yearbook, and the school newspaper plus working at a gas station on the weekends to pay the bills, I swore I wanted a job that required no thinking whatsoever.

And I got my wish. To support myself and my family while I attended graduate school, I got a job in "central sterilizing" at the University of Iowa Hospital. 3-11 shift.

Although central sterilizing sounds like a rather unpleasant activity involving the removal of body parts, what the department actually did was clean and prepare surgical equipment and supplies. Steel instruments needed to be washed and disinfected through a trip through an autoclave. Three-gown-packs of surgical gowns, drapes, towels, and bowls were endlessly prepared. This was my usual job - to stand at a table, laying down a large cloth into which I would place gowns, towels, and bowls in a specific layout, fold it, tape it, date it, and place it on a cart that would later be pushed into a giant autoclave. Every evening, five evenings a week, 8 hours an evening.

After two weeks I was going crazy with boredom. But I stuck out the job for the 15 months it took to get my masters degree. When I returned to the classroom, it was with a fresh appreciation for problems - and having a job that required solving them.

Jonathan Kozel advises picking battles that are big enough to matter, but small enough to win. This can be applied to problems as well. We need to learn to ignore those problems that are too big to solve within one's own sphere of influence, but not to dwell on the unimportant. There is a problem-solving sweet spot, akin to Csikszentmihalyi's flow experience depending on the task at hand falling between boring and frustrating.

So the challenge then I have as a leader is to help my staff find that problem-solving sweet spot, identify the battles that are big enough to matter but small enough to win, and perhaps most importantly, see problems as a blessing, not a curse.


Can a computer teach kindness?

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You've got to be carefully taught!

                           South Pacific - Rogers and Hammerstein

Values are learned. But despite the muscial observation above, can they be taught? Especially by a computer program.

So I found this article interesting: 10 Best Apps to Promote Kindess in the Classroom (GettingSmart, Dec 30, 2016. Mainly aimed at younger students using simulations, these apps are a radical departure from most activities I have experienced in computer play - how many points can one rack up by killing monsters, pigs, zombies, etc.. At least one "kindness" app, does retain the spirt of competition:

3. The Great Kindness Challenge: School Edition
Ages 4-18

The School Edition of this app is perfect for the classroom. The “acts of kindness,” such as “Smile at 25 people” or “Pick up 10 pieces of trash,” are appropriate for students of all ages and teach them simple but important acts of kindness they can do every single day. Set a goal with your classroom, and the countdown timer will remind everyone how long they have to reach their goal along with the number of acts of kindness left to complete.

Good to see there is nothing that can not be done for extrinsic reward and the satisfaction of wiping up the floor with the competition. Sigh.

Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of kindess. In a 2005 column, A Secret Weapon - Nicess*, I suggested it "has a bigger impact on our effectiveness and job tenure than any technical or professional skill we might hone." and added "...  behaving well is learned, not genetic. And I continually look for those who can teach me the skills that make me a person with whom others like to work."

I don't suppose there is much harm in having a child play with an app that is supposed to teach a deep, very human affective behavior like kindness.

But I sure as hell wouldn't depend on it. One adult demonstration of a positive interaction with another individual will "teach" more that all the apps the iPad can hold.

* Niceness is Minnesotan for kindness.