Red and purple tulips lined the walkways. Teenagers ran across the lawn and climbed the trees along the perimeter of the grounds. A crisp blue sky stood out from behind the cast-iron dome that stands tall over the Washington DC skyline. Nervous but ready, she sat with the U.S. Capitol behind her practicing what she would say.
Millions of tourists – visit the Capitol each year – exploring the visitors center or organizing tours through their Congressman’s office. What most travelers do not realize is that an even more memorable experience awaits passionate voices within the offices of the Congressional and Senate buildings.
We were there – not for a tour or a visit to the visitors center. We were there- one mom and her tween….or really, one tween and her mom – for a one of a kind “Washington DC” experience. To meet with a member of our Senator’s staff to share why we hoped he would continue to support funding for global immunization programs in developing countries. And by “we”…I really mean, my daughter.
Some call this advocacy or lobbying – the notion of trying to influence public policy decisions…but the truth is that you do not need experience or the backing of a major organization to be care about social, political and global issues. On that day in the Russell Senate office building, a nine-year old girl shared not just why she cared about kids around the globe, but why our Senator should care… in her own language and with her own voice.
Yes, I was incredibly proud – as a mom and as an advocate to see my daughter lead her own meeting with a Senate staffer. But the true meaning happened when we were leaving – with the Capitol dome to our backs – when my daughter thanked me organizing the meeting and believing in her voice.
While my daughter shared her perspective about a major initiative that can save the lives of children against preventable diseases…the issues almost don’t even matter. The experience of meeting with a member of Congress lies in feeling like we are a part of the process…that our voices have impact. Sure – the U.S. Capitol will always be a major Washington DC tourist attraction – and for many, a simple visit is enough. But what if instead of just snapping a few pictures or taking a tour, families gave children the opportunity to become Capitol Hill insiders….to use their voice…to share what matters to them. Think of how many young voices we could empower if every family that visits the U.S. Capitol scheduled a meeting with a member of Congressional staff….talk about fostering future leaders.
Logistics of planning a meeting with your member of Congress on Capitol Hill
1. The first step is to think about the issues. What do you (or your children) care about? Do you have opinions and what can be done to fight poverty, to improve education, to help children around the world? Why?
2. Make contact. Find your Senator or Representative. Don’t worry about political affiliations left or right. Call or email the staff (well in advance of your visit) to schedule a meeting. Follow up if you don’t hear back right away. Meetings will probably be with a member of the staff (who then will relay everything) and may be short. (One tip: Plan the meeting around a morning or afternoon so that you have time for a visit to the visitors center and maybe even a tour of the House or Senate chambers.)
3. What will you say? When children or adolescents take the lead on a meeting, it is a good idea to write things down – maybe as a letter that they can read. A letter can open the discussion. We are big fans of practicing through role play, especially if it a child’s first time.
4. Enjoy the experience. Remember that the words almost don’t matter. Our Senators and Representatives want to know what matters to their constituents…and the heartfelt words of children are more powerful than any elegant speech given by an experienced advocate. Have children sign in the visitors log. Take pictures.
5. Follow up with a thank-you note. It sounds obvious, but thanking the staffer that you met not only is polite – but it helps develop a relationship and line of communication.
Some will say that they don’t have time during a busy Washington DC itinerary with kids to schedule a meeting with a member of Congress. Some will say that they are not sure what to talk about. Some will wonder if one voice can really matter. I would say that instead of overthinking it, just do it. You won’t regret it – I promise. Plus? Your children may thank you for empowering them to use their voice during a visit to the Capitol.