July 8, 2011
>When Advocating for Safe Schools on Capitol Hill, You Are More Than a ‘Lobbyist’
By Public Policy intern Noel Gordon
A lot of people like to throw around the term ‘lobbyist,’ especially when talking about how ‘special interests’ have taken over Washington D.C. But if my experiences in the nation’s capitol have taught me anything this summer, it’s that you have to find things out for yourself.
Last week I had the opportunity to lobby three Members of Congress on an issue I care deeply about: school bullying. As a public policy intern with GLSEN, I’ve learned quite a bit about the negative impacts of school bullying. The victim of racial slurs and anti-LGBT harassment myself, I feel particularly drawn to the type of advocacy GLSEN does on a regular and consistent basis. So imagine my surprise when my supervisor, Shawn, asked if I wanted to set up a few Hill visits and help him lobby on behalf of the Safe Schools Improvement Act.
The Safe Schools Improvement Act is one of GLSEN’s top legislative priorities; it is a bipartisan piece of legislation that would require school and local districts receiving federal funds to adopt strong anti-bullying polices, paying particular attention to disproportionately affected youth. Even though I had never really done anything like it before, I eagerly set up meetings with education staffers in the offices of Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chris Coons (D-DE), Jim Webb (D-VA) and Herb Kohl (D-WI). With emails sent out and leave-behinds made, the only thing left for me to do was to simply wait for the big day.
But as I suited up early Tuesday morning, only one thing was on my mind: just how lucky I was to have such a tremendous opportunity. One of my friends brought this point to bear when she posted a comment on my Facebook, “You are literally living my dreams right now.” And I as walked through the halls of the Dirksen Senate office building, I couldn’t help walking with just a little more pep in my step.
The meetings themselves were not what I expected. They were formal yet accessible; structured yet heartfelt. And as I listened to some of our partner organizations explain why the Safe Schools Improvement Act was important to their respective constituencies, I slowly began to realize that we were not ‘lobbyists’ in the hell-bent-on-corrupting-Washington sense. In my eyes, we were nothing more than group of people from all different races, religions and sexual orientations, brought together by a common cause. And even as I began to tell my own story, I didn’t feel like some ‘Washington Insider’ trying to ‘rig the system.’ I felt like an advocate, giving voice to the countless LGBT students across America whose voices often go unheard in the political arena.
When asked for her thoughts, the representative from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism put it this way: “Each of us, created in God’s image, has a unique talent, with which we can contribute to the high moral purpose of tikkun olam, the repair of our world. Excluding anyone from our community lessens our chance of achieving this goal. Safety to learn and grow is the most fundamental of human rights, and must be protected.”
My Hill experience surely won’t be the final word on whether lobbyists play a helpful role in our political system, nor should it be in my opinion. But I think it does give rise to the fact that for all the talk of corporate greed in our government, there are those of us who genuinely want nothing more than to bring about positive change in our communities.
Naïve? Perhaps. Determined? You better believe it.
Noel Gordon is a rising third-year student at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor majoring in Political Science and double-minoring in Moral & Political Philosophy as well as LGBTQ & Sexuality Studies. He is primarily interested in criminal justice reform, particularly as it affects the gay and transgender community.