Call-Your-Legislator Day Tool Kit
One of the most powerful things we as citizens can do for public education is to pick up the phone and call our legislators (and then encourage our friends to do the same). In many states, the education budget and much of education policy, is set at the state level, which means it’s imperative that we engage with our state legislators. For those of us organizing grassroots public education advocates, that also means we have to help our volunteer parents, students, teachers, and concerned community members understand who is making critical decisions, what key legislation is pending that will affect our schools, and how we as individuals can influence the political process.
Many folks have never called their legislators before, or perhaps don’t know who they are. Others worry about what they should say or wonder if it’s really worth taking the time. Here is a toolkit compiled by Yinzercation, the grassroots movement for public education in Southwest Pennsylvania, to organize your own Call-Your-Legislator Day and then get people motivated and ready to make those calls. This toolkit is designed to help you coordinate a state-level action, but you could easily adapt the ideas here to a call-in day aimed at local or federal legislators.
This toolkit contains the following sections, with many links to other websites, blog pieces, documents, graphics, and even a video:
- Why a Call-Your-Legislator Day?
- Getting Started
- Making it Fun
- The Mechanics
- Don’t Forget
Why a Call-Your-Legislator Day?
From a community organizing perspective, we’ve found there are many benefits to getting people to make these calls: the process itself helps inform our networks about important issues, and getting someone to make a call allows them to feel like they are a part of our grassroots movement and can be the first step towards engaging them even more deeply in public education activism. We’ve learned that it only takes a few phone calls – just 8 to 10 – in a single day to really trigger a legislator’s attention to an issue.
Setting the date.
In Pennsylvania, Education Voters PA establishes several “Call-In” days each year, often during the spring budget negotiation season when legislators need to hear from their constituents, and coordinated with the legislative calendar. If you know a big vote will be coming up on an issue, that could be a good time to schedule your call-in date. Remember to also check for conflicts with religious holidays, the school calendar, and other significant local events (here in Pittsburgh, that would be the Steeler’s home game schedule). A weekday is best, as you want people to be able to reach their legislators’ offices when they are open.
Statewide or local?
Though you could certainly organize an effective local Call-Your-Legislator Day, there are benefits to having a statewide organization that can set the date and call for action. By coordinating this statewide, we get many legislators paying attention at once. We’ve also found that it is very inspiring to people participating in statewide actions such as this, since they feel their efforts are having a large multiplier effect.
Making it Fun
You want people to participate, so make it fun! Here are several ideas that activists in our area have tried with great success:
Parents at a number of Pittsburgh-area elementary schools have organized “sidewalk parties.” We station ourselves around a school at drop-off and pick-up time armed with contact information, scripts, and our own well-charged mobile phones. After doing this several times, we’ve learned that some schools have more of a drop-off culture and others a pick-up time culture – so consider what time of day you might meet the most parents, grandparents, and guardians willing to stop and talk for a moment. Sometimes we have set up a table with snacks (like a giant bowl of clementines) to keep the kids occupied while grownups make their calls. Kids are also great sign-makers, and having lots of hand-made signs provides a terrific backdrop for photographs.
- A sidewalk party blueprint assembled by one group of Pittsburgh parents, complete with a to-do list.
Phone Call Coffee & Pie
One parent held a coffee to entice her friends to participate in the call-in day. She invited her friends and told them to bring their mobile phones and place their requests for their favorite pie. Then she made several different kinds. She even provided paper, envelopes and stamps for those who wanted to write to their legislators as well.
Student Lounge Calls
Students at area high schools asked for permission to use their mobile phones during the school day and then designated an area – such as a student lounge – for making their calls. Students liked being able to use their phones for the cause during school time, and also became ambassadors for the grassroots movement among their peers.
One of our partners, OnePittsburgh (a coalition of labor, faith, and community organizations), owns several large “phone booths” which can be hauled around town and used for events like sidewalk call-in days. These props make it fun and attract lots of attention, while encouraging people to make their calls.
Put out the word in social media: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and school websites. Send flyers home in student backpack mail, if the schools permit it. Write an article for the school newsletter. Send an email invitation to school list-servs, or simply to your own networks and ask people to share. On the day of the event, we have found it helpful to use social media and our group-lists to email updates as individuals make their calls and report back: this creates interest as well as social pressure for everyone else to actually make their own calls.
With each call-in day we have written an FAQ, tailored to the specific issue(s) of the month. We have also found it helpful to explain to folks that they can call more than once during the year (it’s not like voting!) and that even legislators friendly to public education need to hear from their supporters. Here are some sample FAQs that you can use to tailor questions and answers for your own call-in day:
- “Why You Should Call Your Legislator Today and Other FAQs” (March 2012)
- “Dial That Phone” (April 2013)
It’s helpful for people to have a few talking points about the issue(s). Specific examples are especially engaging. For instance, if you will be having people call their legislators about state budget cuts, provide a list of programs, class, and staff positions that have been lost at your school as a result. You might also suggest one or two actions that you want people to urge legislators to take.
- Sample handout for day of event (Pittsburgh Colfax, May 2012)
- Sample handout for day of event (Pittsburgh Colfax, April 2013)
Find your legislator
Many people do not know who their legislators are: a big part of our grassroots movement is actually educating folks on the legislative process. If you are putting together a school-based flyer, try to include contact information for all the relevant legislators (this could be a long list if your school encompasses a broad geographic area). Include both their local and state capitol offices, if necessary (we’ve found that it is fine to have people call either one). See if your state has a site for looking up legislative districts such as this one, and then include it in all your communications:
Scripts and Pointers
- Education Voter’s “How to Call Your Legislator”
- “Call the Governor Today,” incorporating Ed Voter’s script (January 2012)
Invite the media
If you are doing anything “public” for your call-in-day, such as sidewalk parties, be sure to invite the media! This is a great way to amplify the message. The media is always looking for stories about parent and community engagement with controversial school issues (budget cuts, school closure, charter expansion, etc). Consider what your event will “look” like on camera – be sure to hang banners and posters (handmade by kids is always great). Think about using props such as the phone booths to enhance the visual appeal. Call and tweet to remind your media contacts that an event is happening. We have learned that a single television camera will make an event fun for kids, and parents therefore more likely to stay for a while to make their phone calls.
- Sample media advisory for a call-in day event
Assign someone to take photos and short videos. Every grassroots action has a much longer shelf life if you document it and can keep circulating the news. Write a blog post, get it on a Facebook page, and keep people talking about the event.
- Sample video: Yinzer Nation Calling
Make sure you take time to de-brief with other organizers and consider what you will do differently next time. If you are working with a statewide group, they might wish to organize a formal debriefing form, to help track the number of calls that were made and issues that people encounter.
- Education Voters’ sample call de-brief form
Did you see something here that worked for your group? We have shared this toolkit in the hopes that you will use our ideas, modify them to fit your needs, and then add your own. Attribution is a professional courtesy and a way to spread the work of our grassroots movement – please cite Yinzercation and/or Education Voters PA when using our materials. And then share your own ideas – we look forward to learning from you!