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Connecting with your members of Congress

Guest post by: Eileen M. Palmer, NJLA Public Policy Committee Chairs (July 2016-June 2017)

We’ve all heard it before but it is nonetheless true: effective advocacy is about building relationships. Building strong relationships is more than the occasional call to an elected official’s office requesting support for a bill or funding. Learning who your officials are and understanding their interests and concerns is at the heart of building that relationship and should be ongoing.

Members of the NJ delegation at National Library Legislative Day 2017 with Congressman Leonard Lance (NJ-7).
Members of the NJ delegation at National Library Legislative Day 2017 with Congressman Leonard Lance (NJ-7).

The New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) has worked to develop strong relationships with our congressional delegation through training for advocates provided by our Public Policy Committee, during our annual NJ Library Advocacy Week and at ALA’s National Library Legislative Day. And over the last several months we’ve seen the benefits of relationship building in our work supporting the ALA Washington Office’s advocacy efforts for federal funding.

As 2017 began we learned that the House Committee on Appropriations would be chaired by a representative from New Jersey. Rodney Frelinghuysen represents the 11th district, one rich with libraries and passionate library advocates, from library staff to trustees to mayors. When ALA reached out to us we were ready, willing and able to get to work taking our message to Rep. Frelinghuysen and his staff. Our NJLA Public Policy Committee was the key link in communications between ALA, NJLA and selected advocates from the 11th district. By working together, we were able to develop and execute a plan that has been successful on several fronts. Our plan included:

  • Repeatedly requesting a meeting with the congressman. Though we were unsuccessful in securing a face to face meeting, these communications were critical opportunities to convey our messages on both library funding and access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, an issue also included in the appropriations legislation.
  • Making sure all local advocates in the 11th district knew our issues and the need to make their own contacts with Rep. Frelinghuysen’s local office. Parsippany Library Director Jayne Beline has had a longstanding relationship with the Congressman and his office, which was invaluable in communicating our message when he was in her library. Building relationships also includes making sure your local congressional office knows if your library has a meeting room they can use for events!
  • Working with local stakeholders – trustees, local officials and even patrons – to convey our message about how federal library funding impacts local library patrons. This message is so much more powerful when delivered locally with local examples.

ALA chapters play an indispensable role in ALA’s advocacy efforts. Coordinating our chapter efforts with the ALA Washington Office has amplified our message and assured each member of our NJ congressional delegation knows, not just how much money we are requesting but, even more importantly, how those funds impact their constituents.

At this point in the legislative process we have reached a significant milestone. The House Committee on Appropriations has passed a bill that holds IMLS, LSTA and IAL funding at current levels and includes a provision to make CRS reports available to all. But we are not close to being done. To move forward, we must work with the Senate to support similar funding as their process begins in earnest this fall. I encourage all chapters to take an active role in working with ALA on these issues. Here are some specific ways to do that:

  • Get friends from inside and outside the library world to sign up for alerts and to act. The ALA Action Center or your local Chapter Action Center makes this very easy.
  • Offer your library for a town hall, tour, summer reading or other program visit by members and/or their staff.
  • Write a brief, personal letter-to-the-editor about the issues we care about. ALA has resources to help you.
  • Ask to meet with your representative and senator (or their staff) over the summer. Don’t be discouraged if you are turned down. Use the opportunity to convey your concern about library funding. Also, ask to be included on the invitation list for any telephone town halls.

Each of these activities can help to build the lasting relationships we need to effectively tell our story to every member of Congress. We’ve seen a very positive impact in New Jersey, not only with the optimistic budget outlook, but also in the further development of our relationship with our legislators and their staff. The benefits of advocacy are well worth the effort of all of us.

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Eileen Palmer

Eileen Palmer is the NJLA Public Policy Committee Chair and a member of the Committee on Legislation.

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