When we started our zero waste journey about 3 years ago, I’m ashamed to say it, but neither Sadie or I could even tell you the names of our Tennessee state representatives/senators (Yusuf Hakeem / Todd Gardenhire, respectively) — so we certainly had never made a phone call, written an email, or met with any of them.
State politics felt distant, out of touch, unapproachable — so we didn’t engage, at all.
So much has changed!
Conservation Lobbying Day
Sadie and I spent the last 36 hours in Nashville meeting with state senators and representatives to discuss bills on the spring legislative calendar that touch on environmental issues, as part of a concentrated effort known as “Conservation Lobbying Day”. We joined with folks from all over the state from organizations such as Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light (TIPL), Tennessee Conservation Voters (TCV), and the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club.
We were super excited to come this year because of a bill that’s been introduced which, if enacted, would prohibit grocery stores and other retailers from providing free single-use plastic bags!
We “snuck” the Plastic Bag Monster through security, and it was a huge hit with legislators and staffers!
We are SO glad we went — we learned a TON, and we were inspired to share what we learned, to help you all get started in flexing your citizen muscles.
Tip #1: All the action happens in January – April
Before we talk about how to talk to your state legislators, there’s a few things you need to understand about the logistics of state government:
- State Senators / Representatives are only in Nashville for around 90 days of the year, starting mid-January and ending mid-April.
- This time in Nashville is called “General Assembly”, and it’s when committees meet and when bills get voted on — i.e. this is when everything happens!
- Legislators are only there Tuesday-Thursday, to give time for folks to drive in on Monday and drive home on Friday.
- The rest of the year, legislators are at home in their districts.
Two key things to take away from this information:
- To advocate for legislation, be prepared to make time in January – April to meet with / call your legislators!
- For 75% of the year, your legislators aren’t far away in Nashville, they’re at home, so you could very likely make an appointment to meet with them in person!
Tip #2: Get to know your legislator personally, and invest in building your relationship
Representatives are social people — that’s how (and why) they got elected. They enjoy forming close relationships with their constituents. A representative is most likely to take your request seriously if they know that:
- You care about them and know them personally — when talking with your representative, give them a chance to talk! Ask about what matters to them, e.g. what bills they are sponsoring that they’re excited about. Research them online to find people or organizations that you both know or are involved in, and build rapport by discussing your shared connections
- You are well-connected in their district — if your representative knows that you are influential within an important group in their district (even if it is small like a business, board, or church), they will consider your request to be representative of the opinions of multiple constituents, and give it more weight.
- You are well-informed and your opinions can be trusted — many representatives have a few key trusted individuals that they consult with on difficult issues to ensure that they are making a well-informed decision that won’t get them in trouble later on. How do you become such a trusted consultant?
- You have to know your stuff
- If you don’t know an answer — admit it! Say “I don’t know, I’ll have to get back to you”. Never pretend to know more than you do.
- You aren’t going away – as with any healthy relationship , you need to keep at it over the long haul.
Tip #3: All the action happens in committee
When a senator or representative introduces a bill, the first step is for it to be referred to a committee. Each committee has a chair and members. Even if the representative from your district isn’t on the committee for a bil you care about, you can still contact the committee members. If your bill doesn’t make it through committee, then your local representative will never have the chance to vote on it!
You can follow the progress of a bill from introduction to passage (or withdrawal/rejection) via the award-winning Tennessee General Assembly website. If you don’t know a bill’s number (e.g. SB2131 / HB2369), don’t worry, you can search for a keyword of the bill’s text. For instance, I’ve discovered some interesting bills I didn’t know, and found potential sponsors / allies for the plastic bag ban bill, by searching for “plastic”.
Once you know what (sub)committee your bill will be discussed in and when, contact the chair of that committee to let them know your stance on the bill, and tell them you will be watching the video stream and are excited to see how the conversation goes!
Tip #4: Keep your requests short and simple
When we spoke with our representatives and senators at Conservation Education Day, we met with each one for no more than 15 minutes — and we were asking for their votes on just three primary issues. Phone calls and emails need to be even shorter. Each meeting went roughly like this:
- 3 minutes: Connect with legislators on a personal level, build rapport
- 9 minutes: Spend three minutes talking about each of the three issues we care about.
- Present the issue: 2-3 key talking points at most.
- Respond to questions.
- Ask them for their vote.
- 3 minutes: Close by asking the representative about something they’re supporting that they care about, or by reminding them about an ongoing local issue that you’ve spoken to them about before. Thank them for their time.
Legislators are busy when they’re in session – and they have a lot of complex issues to consider. Whether you are calling or emailing, keep your requests very concise and to the point, helping them to understand why you (and other constituents you represent) care about the bill, but not overwhelming them with details.
Don’t go into long eloquent tirades about how protecting the environment is saving the future of our grandchildren, instead, give them 2-3 simple facts about the issue at hand. For example, we showed several representatives a picture of a plastic bag on our Instagram account that had photo-degraded into tiny particles and explained how plastic bags are adding to the microplastic problem in the Tennessee river. Think about something you didn’t know about the issue before–it is likely your representative doesn’t know this either. Humbly sharing a few sentences about what you have learned is a great way to go.
If they have specific questions about an issue (which is most likely to happen in an in-person meeting), you can (and should!) follow up later on with more information. But for an initial request, keep it simple!
Tip #5: Be persistent, and play the long game
At Conservation Education Day, we met with the woman who’s behind the Tennessee Bottle Deposit Bill. This bill has been introduced several times over the past few decades, and still hasn’t made much progress — but it’s coming up again in 2021. Proponents of the bill are convinced that this time they’ll have the support to get it passed, but the lesson I learned from talking with her was clear — if you really want something to happen, you need to be willing to stick with it for not just months, but years (and in the case of the Bottle Bill, even decades!).
Persistence is key.
Tip #6: Your voice counts
Legislators vote on a lot of different bills each session, on a very wide range of subjects. On many of these issues, legislators don’t hear anything from their constituents. Nada.
So when even a handful of different people call in about a particular issue, the legislator knows it is an important topic. One lobbyist we spoke with stated that just five or six well-reasoned phone calls can help a legislator decided whether public opinion is in favor of / against a particular issue. Of course there are certain bills on hot topics where they will hear many opinions, which is all the more reason to add your voice.
The takeaway: by yourself, you are much more powerful and influential in state politics than you think — but you’re incredibly powerful as part of a group. Don’t fight for an issue by yourself — join with other like-minded folks in local groups (like TIPL, TCV, or the Sierra Club!) to push for change together! Not only is it a lot more fun — it’s so much more effective.
Above all, I hope this post encourages you to get connected with your local representative and senator. Whether that’s through a phone call or an in-person meeting, remember, they’re social people, they want to get to know you! If you show them that you care about them, they’ll return the favor.