Earlier this year, I published, How Systems Change Happens. While I still consider that important advice for conducting effective systems change advocacy, earlier this week, I realized that I left out one critical element which is especially important to systems change advocates working on a tight budget: The Personal Touch.
One should never underestimate the importance of connecting with legislators or other important decision makers on a personal level. Although they may hold lofty offices, they are still human beings with thoughts and feelings just like all of us. Moreover, just like everyone else, they are more likely to respond favorably to people with whom they have a positive personal connection.
Earlier this week, in four different ways, I experienced how my personal connections with members of Congress, helped improve my advocacy for Middle East peace on behalf of J Street.
- During my meeting with Cong. Mark Pocan, I was able to open up the meeting with friendly references to the fact that our dogs do not get along and we kidded each other about whether one of our dogs belonged to the other party. While this may seem trivial, these are the types of connections that helped me convince him over 12 years ago when he was a member of the Wisconsin Assembly to be the first and only sponsor of our bill to eliminate the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on school children. His brave act led to the bill’s passage 12 years later as I previously described in my post on: Wisconsin’s New Law on the use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children.
- Next, I met with Cong. Gwen Moore, whom I have known since early in my career when I was engaged in advocacy on behalf of the elderly and she was in the Wisconsin legislature. Our personal connection became quite clear when rather than the standard handshake, she gave me a big hug when she greeted me. Not only is she a strong J Street supporter, but she agreed to work with me on creating dialogue between J Street and black pastors in Milwaukee.
- J Street next scheduled a meeting for me with Cong. William Lacy Clay. In this case, since he is from St. Louis, I reached out to my in-laws from St. Louis to see if they knew anything about him that would provide me with that critical personal touch in our meeting. As fate would have it, my father-in-law e-mailed me right before the meeting to inform me that he used to rent his vacation house to Cong. Clay’s family. During introductions, I brought that up, which brought out a big smile from Cong. Clay and eased us into a very successful meeting.
- Finally, I met with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, whom I have known since she was in law school and applied for a job where I then worked at the Center for Public Representation. We didn’t hire her because we rightly knew that she was destined for a career in politics, but I wisely maintained a personal connection with her during her years in the Wisconsin Assembly, followed by her years in the US House of Representatives. With pleasure, I received my second Congressional hug of the day from Sen. Baldwin, and I was able to thank her for signing an important letter to President Obama, encouraged by J Street and signed by 27 Senators calling for a “Sustained, US Diplomatic Initiative” for Two-State Solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Personal connections with key decision makers must be earned, but the work is worthwhile as those connections make a difference, especially for non-profits going up against well financed opponents when trying to engage in systems change.