Posted on behalf of Eva Lipiec, a 2016 Knauss Fellow who served her legislative fellowship in the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources, Democratic Staff.
Every day, we are bombarded by stories of partisanship and gridlock in Congress, between branches, and increasingly between our very own neighbors. To break through these barriers, especially after our most recent election, it is important to become more involved in the issues we hold dear and understand how the decisions of our elected officials impact those issues.
Personally, as a scientist and voter, it can get depressing – how are we ever going to deal with global problems like climate change and the resulting regional hostility around the world if our elected officials can’t even talk about it in a constructive way?
During my time as a John A. Knauss Sea Grant Fellow on “the Hill”, I’ve had the opportunity to inform Members of Congress on topics impacting our oceans, wildlife, and open spaces (see more about my work here). I’ve also gotten a peek into how change really happens in our nation. My host office has been a wonderful place to spend a year as a fly on the wall; these musings are purely my own and do not reflect the views of my host office. Below I share a few insights I’ve gathered from my year as a Fellow:
- Elected officials are human – No matter what side of the aisle, each person elected to office is a human, warts and all. They may be very well versed in specific topics and have values of their own – but it’s your job to inform them of topics and values that are important to YOU.
- Local elections really matter! – From the hallowed halls of the Capitol to meetings in local community centers, the people that end up as your officials (whether you voted or not) are your voice! If you want to guarantee they hear you and represent you, you have to vote!
- Your job is not done once you vote – When we elect an official, they are assuming the role of our voice and are paid by our tax dollars. If something is happening, or not, the best way to voice your support or discontent is to contact them. Every office tracks its constituents in a physical database – and these concerns are depended upon to make real changes. Think your community needs something? Tell your representative, and then tell your friends to do the same. Think you senator should support an initiative? They want to hear from you! Every day, congressional staff meets with groups from all over their district, state, and the nation. These groups represent some, but not all, of your views. Call or email – if the official wants to keep representing you, you will get a response!
- Have a topic that’s really important to you? – Local businesses? Community poverty? Elementary schools nearby? International conflicts? There are groups most likely in motion already thinking of those issues, so get involved with them! They will be your best source for information and can help lead the charge to inform and push our representatives in the right direction.
Oftentimes it’s easy to dismiss the discussions, or lack thereof, in the Capitol and our capitals. However, our democracy only works when each and every person utilizes their rights and holds their officials accountable. In the craziness of our lives, democracy can be as easy as picking up the phone.