Change Looks Impossible When You Start

Change looks impossible when you start, inevitable when you finish” – Bob Hunter

There seems to never a really be a great opportunity to take time out and visit legislators. It takes energy, a time commitment and it can sometimes seem futile and a bit overwhelming. But I have learned from the many American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and American Library Association (ALA) Washington Office folks that it is worth the effort – and the more of us that do it, the more effective we are. Legislators listen. But they’ll listen more to 500 of us than to one of us.

Somewhere, a while back I got riled up about the state of school librarians. Their disappearance from schools is more than troubling, it’s a downright disaster. So I joined my state school library association, listened to all the folks in leadership and began to learn about how to make change. It’s not fast, and it’s not easy…

Then I read this quote from Winona LaDuke:

Change will come. As always, it is just a matter of who determines what that change will look like”.

I then decided that it was time for me to help make change, and what it should look like. That meant that it was time to step up and actually leave my house and go talk to people. I’ve visited legislators during state Legi-days, but this time, it was important – because a visit this time is a chat about things that are happening now – and can truly make a difference. So three phone calls later, I had three appointments with my legislators.

At the time of my visit to Congressman Jared Huffman’s (D- CA) office in San Rafael Calif., there was no education business on the table, but armed with handouts, my chat with his fabulous aide Valerie turned into a discussion about the congressman’s views on education and other timely local topics. California schools are at the very bottom of the bottom in terms of school library service, and I thought it was important that he know this.

When he was my local State Assemblyman, I spoke with him personally about library issues, including at his fundraiser events, so it was helpful to be able to remind Valerie of his already stated commitment to quality education including school librarians. What worked really well, was that later, when the House version of the education bill came out and no word of librarians is contained in it at all, I emailed to Valerie who responded right away with a “I’ll research this.” She did and returned with a response that gave further information about what his feelings were about the bill. A brief back and forth of emails about the Senate version, and the House version ensued with a promise to keep me in mind when education issues come up.

Valerie Cartwright, field representative with author Connie Williams.

Valerie Cartwright, field representative with author Connie Williams.

A fun aside: a few days later, Valerie emailed me to tell me that she had chatted with the Washington education aide and that a former student of mine in Junior High – said hello! So connections are made in the darndest places!

Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office.

Senator Boxer’s local office is in Sacramento. I love Sacramento, but it is 1 and a half hours away from me so when I realized I had no access to a car on the day of my appointment (something I really should have thought through…) I ended up chatting with her Field Representative Brandon via email and phone. I sent him the handouts and then we set a time for a phone call.

He called at our appointed time with some insightful questions, and mentioned that Senator Boxer had her own concerns with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Senate version. She’s got a bill (the Afterschool for America’s Children Act) for after school programs on the floor right now and wants to see them merged.

I pointed out to him that most of those programs are held in libraries – both public and school – and that supporting school libraries is an important part of supporting those programs she holds near and dear. He agreed and said that he would mention that to the Senator and to the Senator’s Washington Education Aide. He was also going to set up an appointment for me to visit with the Washington Aide during my visit to D.C. in early August.

Katie Gross, Assistant field representative, with interns Mitra Yazdi and Krista Kracher.

Katie Gross, Assistant field representative, with interns Mitra Yazdi and Krista Kracher.

Last, but not least, a few days later, I took a drive into San Francisco for my visit with Assistant Field Representative Katie and her two interns in Senator Feinstein’s office. I’m always up for a nice visit to the city and this day was no exception. Twenty-four floors up with an amazing view, we discussed school libraries and college libraries.

Again, my handouts were the center of our discussion I used them as talking points – the AASL infographic is really a visual bulleted list of important factoids about school libraries, so using it helps move the discussion in a logical way and helps me to not forget important points.(Download the infographic. It is a bonus to be able to say that this infographic was designed by a student at my school!)

Senator Feinstein has a school named after her in the City and she spends time there reading with students in the library so she is aware of schools and libraries. It was important to remind her that when it comes time to vote, she really is voting for a strong school library for her school as well as in all other schools in America.

Here’s the Cliff Notes version of tips for a visit:

Call or email to make an appointment. Introduce yourself and tell what you want to talk about.

  1. Ask to talk to the person in charge of educational issues
  2. Bring a visual aid. The AASL infographic and quotes, a parent brochure, and a picture of kids in a library are all good things to start with. I also included a copy of the section of the of the ESEA bill (Subpart 2) that highlights librarians. I wanted to make sure they knew and understood which part I was asking them to keep their eye on.
  3. Plan on having a 15 minute meeting. It’s sort of 11 minutes longer than a typical “elevator speech” – and that’s if you’re going up 20 or so floors. When I sat down with Katie and the interns, I started in with: ‘I am going to give you my elevator speech – by the time we’re through, I would like you to know and understand which part of ESEA I want you to know about, why it’s important and why I think the Senator should endorse – publically and loudly – this section as it moves through the process.” Getting to the point right away is important – distill your “ask” to distinct points so that they know and understand exactly what you want.
  4. Dress for business. Yes, it’s only 15 minutes, but you can change in the car. Pull out the black pants, nice shoes, dressy shirt – guys wear a coat/tie – and walk in with the confidence of knowing you are supporting a worthy cause.
  5. Be interested in them. I discovered that one of the interns went to school in Berkeley, Calif., where I know the librarians. The other went where there were no librarians- we were able to use those two experiences as discussion starters.
  6. Whenever you can, remind them that the meeting is not about librarian jobs—it’s about what kids need in the 21st Century.

Days later: Katie from Senator Feinstein’s office called with an update and with a different set of concerns about the bill. I am grateful to have received this email update and have responded to it. It’s this connection that makes it work – and hopefully if others will do this, then the Legislative Aides will have hundreds of librarians on their email list to respond to – and then receive hundreds of responses….a sure-fire way to instigate change.

Connie Williams is a teacher-librarian and co-chairs the GODORT Gov Docs Kids Committee.

Jazzy Wright is the Press Officer of the American Library Association's Washington Office. Email her at jwright@alawash.org.

Posted in Advocacy Spotlight, Legislation, Library Advocacy, School Libraries Tagged with: ,
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