The Power of Every Day Folks
I was lucky to be a part of Speak Up for Kids Day on March 18, where about 180 child advocates from all over Colorado spent the day at the State Capitol to engage with our legislators on child health and other early childhood issues. The event was hosted by Children’s Hospital Colorado, Clayton Early Learning and the Colorado Children’s Campaign. If you’ve never been to the State Capitol during a legislative session, it’s worth going out of your way to experience democracy in action.
In a nutshell, here’s how Speak Up for Kids worked: After welcoming messages from Representative Rhonda Fields of Denver (D) and Senator Owen Hill of Colorado Springs (R), and an overview of current legislation affecting children and families presented by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, each of us was grouped into our home legislative districts and assigned an experienced advocacy coach. Our coaches walked us through a bit of background on our representatives and a review of our main talking points, facilitated some role-playing practice, and gave us an idea of what to expect when we hit the lobby.
I’ll admit it. I had never visited the state capitol before Speak Up for Kids Day. Just being inside the grand architecture of this national historic landmark was breathtaking on its own merit. Upon entering the building I was a wide-eyed young student all over again, swept into a fast-paced, highly-energized current of people, voices, and movement. Busy legislators accompanied by assistants hastened swiftly from one appointment to the next, stopping briefly to talk with constituents as time allowed. Lobbyists stood in, you guessed it, the lobby, shifting from foot to foot, ready to spring into action when their targeted legislators exited the floor. Average citizens like me, either solo or in groups, made their way to the galleries up above the senate and house floors to observe proceedings in between appointment times.
Some of the bills we heard were seemingly minor, for example, a law that would make temporary license plates more visible in rear car windows. Others appeared more substantial, such as a law that would necessitate travelling nurses practicing in the State of Colorado to meet the same requirements for employment as licensed nurses already residing in Colorado. While it’s the more high profile or controversial bills that tend to make the news, these are the day-to-day decisions being made by our local lawmakers that affect our lives.
I was struck by the simplicity of how our democracy can (and does) work at the ground level. Never having been close to the process other than at my local ballot box each election cycle, I had forgotten some of the basics from 9th grade civics class. One was that the general public has free access, anytime, to sit and hear floor proceedings. I also discovered how easy it is to show up and testify at committee hearings. This can be powerful. For example, one of my colleagues saw that a committee hearing was taking place on House Bill 1164, which would give breast-feeding mothers the ability to postpone jury duty for up to two years. She took the opportunity to testify on the spot, as a breast-feeding mom representing herself and countless other Colorado moms, as to how this bill would be beneficial. Her personal input added true depth to the expert testimony already being presented. The bill passed directly out of committee!
Though my district legislators were unable to meet with me personally, I heard success stories throughout the day of connections made between other participants and their local representatives and how much they appreciated learning about their knowledge and perspectives on the issues at hand. The thought of approaching a Senator or Representative can seem intimidating for some, but it is helpful to remember that our elected officials are just regular, every day folks like you and me, and they want to hear about what is going on in our communities so they can make informed decisions.
Earlier in the day, Senator Owen Hill had said, “Relationships are still the fundamental ways to communicate and advocate for our children,” noting that he receives hundreds of calls, emails and text messages daily but that it is the in-person connections he makes with constituents that are meaningful and stand out the most.
Representative Rhonda Fields encouraged advocates to stay engaged in local and state policy making throughout the year: “You can’t be on the sidelines,” she said.
My big takeaway for the day? In a participatory democracy, we as individuals are only as far removed from the process as we allow ourselves to be. As constituents, speaking directly with our elected officials is where the rubber meets the road, and it is how change happens.
Here are some links to find out more about how you can participate in local policy making:
Are you registered to vote? Go to the Colorado Secretary of State website: http://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/vote/VoterHome.html
Find your legislator. Simply type in your address and learn who your elected officials are: http://openstates.org/find_your_legislator/
Find out what’s in session right now, get contact information and general legislative information at the Colorado General Assembly website: http://www.leg.state.co.us/clics/cslFrontPages.nsf/HomeSplash?OpenForm
Visit Colorado Children’s Campaign’s “Take Action” page, where you can get up to speed on current legislation and sign up for newsletters and Action Alerts: http://www.coloradokids.org/action/
Get involved! Your legislators are waiting to hear from you.