The Huffington Michael Markarian

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The Huffington Post – June 10, 2009

Michael Markarian
Posted: June 6, 2009 11:38 AM

Go Forth and Advocate: A Q&A with Stephanie Vance

Stephanie Vance, the AdVocacy Guru, used to work on Capitol Hill, but now she travels the country training advocates on how to participate in the legislative process and become effective citizen lobbyists.

She has published a new book, "Citizens in Action: A Guide to Lobbying and Influencing Government," and like her presentations and training events, it's informative, engaging, and even fun. She took a few minutes to chat with me recently about the book and her upcoming appearance at the Taking Action for Animals conference, and I wanted to share some of her thinking with blog readers.

Michael Markarian: How did you get your start in training advocates and interest groups?

Stephanie Vance:After I got my degree in political science and with my parents strongly suggesting I get a job, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I worked at a lobbying law firm, as a lobbyist for NPR, and as a legislative aide for three different members of Congress. Through those experiences, I came to realize that people really do not understand the amazing power they have to make a difference on policy issues they care about. I figured if I told them how to be more effective, they'd be happier with their government and the world would be a better place.

MM: How can the average citizen really influence government policymaking?

SV: Effective advocacy really boils down to four key steps: knowing what you want, knowing who you're talking to, knowing how to talk to them, and knowing how to follow up. In terms of knowing what you want, it's critical to ask for something specific as opposed to simply "educating" elected officials on an issue. They need to know how they can best help on animal welfare issues. Knowing about your audience means that (a) you should always communicate with someone relevant to you (i.e., your own elected official) and (b) you should know something about their own interests, policy interests, and background. On animal welfare issues, for example, it's good to know if they have a companion animal in their lives; it's also good to know what bills they've introduced, not just on animal issues, but across the spectrum. For the third point, knowing how to talk to them, the main point here is to tell a compelling and personal story. And finally, following up is what really separates the effective from the ineffective advocates. People who are "politely persistent" get a lot further than those who ask once and never ask again.

MM: Why do you think that, contrary to popular opinion, government isn't broken?

SV: Yeah, people often do a double-take at that assertion. In my opinion government is actually designed to be completely and totally inefficient. When the founding fathers got together and said "Hey, let's make a government," they wanted to make it very difficult to move legislation through the process. In fact, the lack of agreement and partisan bickering isn't evidence that government is broken–it's evidence that government is operating exactly as the founding fathers intended.

MM: What does "Citizens in Action" offer that wasn't covered in your previous books?

SV: It's a much more comprehensive look at the entire advocacy process. It offers insights into the three branches and three levels of government and really seeks to help people build a comprehensive advocacy effort. In addition, there's more information on e-advocacy, including using social networks and tools like e-mail to get your message across.

MM: You have always been a big hit at the Taking Action for Animals conference. What can people expect to hear from you if they attend this year?

SV: I am so honored and pleased to continue to be a part of this conference and will keep coming back in some capacity until people tell me not to! This year, there's a whole lot of new things to say about effective advocacy, especially in light of the changes in the Administration and Congress. And a "special guest" and I (that's you, Mike) will be offering up "The Worst Congressional Meeting in the World." Everyone will get at least a chuckle out of that, I promise–as well as some ideas for how to make their interactions with legislators even more effective. Oh, and we'll do some "Message Mad Libs." I can't say more–people will have to come and see it for themselves!

MM: Can you give us an example of a highly effective congressional meeting, in which an advocate or group benefited from your training tips?

SV: I'm always so pleased when someone comes up to me and says, "Hey, I tried what you said and it worked! My congressman actually listened to me." A perfect example of this was the League of American Bicyclists lobby day, where a group of biking enthusiasts were going in to see their member of Congress absolutely sure that he, as a conservative Republican, wouldn't support funding for bicycle safety. But they went in with a positive attitude and some personal stories about the impact of biking in the community. They were pleasantly surprised to learn the congressman was an avid bicyclist and would strongly support them.

MM: What was the worst congressional meeting you've ever witnessed?

SV: Well, we'll see a composite of all the worst at TAFA, but I'd have to say it was when someone walked in the office and was outraged they couldn't meet with the member himself–that instead they'd be meeting with "just staff." That "just staff" was me and I was the Chief of Staff at the time. He actually told me that this was a big waste of his time. And then, when I told him we had nowhere to sit in the office and would he mind standing in the hall, well, he lost it. He stormed out and we never saw him again. And he never got our support on his issues.

MM: What is the absolute worst thing to say in a congressional meeting?

SV: There are so many, but probably something like, "I know your boss takes money from the other side and will never listen to me on this issue, but I thought I'd just tell you what I think anyway, even though the congressman is a corrupt politician." Yes, people actually say those kinds of things.

MM: Do you have any specific guidance for animal advocates that sets their issues apart from other interest groups?

SV: Animal advocates have so many things going for them. They have great and compelling stories, terrific nonpartisan issues, and a strong constituency-based advocate network. The one main piece of advice I have is that advocates need to continue to build on the professionalism of the movement. As an animal advocate myself, I know that we're sometimes seen as a little "odd" (I'm odd, but for other reasons). The more we let people know that we're serious, we have strong arguments to make, and we know how to play the political game, the more successful we'll be. HSUS and HSLF have really taken the lead on that and I've noticed a big (and positive) difference.

MM: How is Ozzie?

SV: Thank you for asking! As adorable as ever. Although, I think he finished off another TV remote last week. But we love him more than television, so he can eat all the remotes he wants. We know they're not good for him, though, so we do our best to hide them–it's just that as an Australian cattle dog, he's smarter than my husband and I combined and we can't outwit him for long.

MM: How can people learn more and continue to sharpen their advocacy skills?

SV: Well, buy "Citizens in Action," of course :). But I also think that all the training HSUS and HSLF give advocates is fabulous, so people should take advantage of those opportunities. In addition to the free resources available through you all, there are free resources on my web site that I hope people will use. And the most important thing to remember is that as citizens we have an amazing power to make a difference. We just need to apply that power effectively and persistently: If we do, there are no limits to what we can achieve.
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