Four Lessons from a Day on Capitol Hill

Peter standingYesterday I spent a day on Capitol Hill, advocating for funding for the Peace Corps.   As I have mentioned a few times in this blog, I began my career in international development as a fairly green Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco in 1982.  I owe a lot of my motivation and groundedness to this experience.  It also gave me management skills, fluency in French and Arabic, a lifelong interest in education, and an intergenerational network of 200,000 other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers linked by a common experience. When the opportunity came to argue to maintain and even expand Peace Corps funding in the midst of general congressional budget cutting, I was more than willing.

Yesterday morning, after a breakfast briefing from the National Peace Corps Association, I set out with two other Californians.  During the day we visited the offices of four representatives and both of our senators.  Between these meetings, we handed out dozens of information packets on the Peace Corps, shaking so many hands in the process that it felt like I was the one running for office.  One of my fellow advocates wore a pedometer, which indicated that he had walked 7 miles by the end of the day.

Along the way, I picked up four useful lessons.  While my day focused on the Peace Corps, I think these four insights are generally relevant to the wider advocacy agenda of the Firelight Foundation – to convince other funders to channel more resources to the grassroots.

My first lesson is that advocacy, like charity, begins at home.  The best way to get on the radar screen of a congressperson or a staffer is to develop a relationship.  For those of us living far outside the Washington Beltway, this mostly means several visits a year to our congressperson’s district office.  Often, an organization like Firelight can help translate global issues into constituent opinions to elected representatives.  For Firelight this will be easy – it is located in a district represented by Rep. Sam Farr, who was himself a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia in the 1960s.  And I myself live in an adjoining district, represented by Rep. Anna Eshoo, whose son was a Volunteer in Nepal.

The second lesson is that it is useful to approach congresspeople in diverse delegations.   One congressional staffer indicated that while he would listen to what a “Peace Corps alumni group” had to say, he’d frankly pay more attention to a group representing job-creation in his district, a well-respected foundation or nonprofit, and someone just back from the field.

The third insight is to reach out to those you might hesitate the most to approach.  The current congress has strong tensions between economic stimulus and deficit reduction.  There is significant uncertainty about the current year budget, let alone next year’s.  The House freshman class in particular seems adamant about cost reductions.  But in fact, some of our best discussions were in the offices of new Republican members.  I met the staffer of a newly-elected Quico Canseco (Republican from San Antonio).  Rep. Canseco speaks four languages, studied law for a year in France, and has a very international outlook as his district shares a 750-mile long border with Mexico.  This staffer asked some of the best questions of the day about the Peace Corps, its goals, and accomplishments.  The next time I come back to the Hill, I will ask to see the offices most skeptical about my cause, and look for ways to inform and persuade.

The fourth lesson is drawn from social media: tweet live, and tweet memorably.  After each meeting, I sat down to tweet the main takeaway.  One of these tweets focused on the fact that fifty years of Peace Corps had cost less than five days of the current defense budget.  This tweet was picked up and passed along by many others during the succeeding hours, in a way that would have been impossible only five years ago.  Twitter and other social media tools add immensely to our ability to advocate effectively.   (You can follow me on Twitter at @peter_laugharn.)

I am still a novice at ‘working the Hill,’ and at times I find it as culturally challenging as figuring out Morocco thirty years ago.  But I am convinced of the importance of sharing what we know and value, with those who represent us and who make very important funding decisions.

I’d love to hear your reactions, advice, and experiences.