If Not YOU, Then WHO?
When one of my dear mentors asked me to participate in my first Arts Advocacy Day, I demurred, saying that I wasn’t anybody special. I wasn’t an Executive Director! I didn’t work for a Local Arts Agency! I wasn’t an expert on Congressional Law! But my mentor looked me straight in the eye and said, “If not YOU, then WHO?”
That hit home. It made me realize that I was EXACTLY who our political leaders needed to hear from. Once I made that realization, advocacy became less terrifying. It became empowering. But I was still unsure just what to DO as an advocate, so those aforementioned mentors helped prep me with the basics:
- Always make an appointment.
- Don’t be disappointed if you only speak to a Congressperson’s Staff. If you can get through to them, those folks can be your most valuable ally.
- Give them facts, but also give them a narrative. Be human, and appeal to their personal connection to the arts. Being able to draw cross-sector connections is also hugely important to getting their attention.
- Always send a thank you note.
- “Stay the course. Stay informed. Stay level-headed.”
These are excellent and solid fundamentals, but over the years I have made my own list of tips that build off of them. These are the unique strategies I make sure to share with new advocates who ask me for advice.
- Start a binder, in which you save any articles, statistics, or journals you come across that you can use to make your case. A colleague started one, and wrote to me about it: “After our day in Nashville, I took your advice and made a binder for [my company] on Arts Advocacy for my reference as well as for anyone else in the organization who wanted to look.”
- Be strategic and know your audience. Do research on your representatives. Get to know who they are and what causes are important to them. Look deeper than just their political platform. For example, I discovered that my Senator, Lamar Alexander, was married to a former member of the Board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, so when I wrote my #SAVEtheNEA letter, I also was able to speak to my concern for the future of the NEH and CPB by referencing that fact. When my colleague was prepping for our Advocacy Day, she was able to tweak her “script” for the reps she was scheduled to meet. “Since several of them worked in education or crime, I was able to mention how our programs related to those issues,” she said.
- Diversity is a strength. Obviously, diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation is absolutely essential in our advocacy team, but diverse backgrounds, careers, political leanings, and arts disciplines also provide new perspectives to add to our armory.
- Have a talisman. Hillary Clinton had her pantsuit. Donald Trump had his red hat. Politicians of all kinds have the ubiquitous flag pin. I have red lipstick. It is my armor and my ritual. When I need to feel strong, empowered—when I need to “suit up”—I reach for that magic golden bullet tube. Lipstick might not work for you, but find something that helps you stand a little taller, boosts your confidence, and makes you rock your Captain America/Wonder Woman strut. A special pair of shoes, a leather padfolio, or even your favorite pen will give you the boost you need when/if you feel a little overwhelmed by the fast pace of a legislative building. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. It just has to be special to YOU.
- Get some nice stationery. I have zero proof that this works, but I have a theory that my legislators will be more likely to open a thank you card (and follow-up advocacy pitch) from me if it’s written on really nice stationery. My hypothesis is based on the assumption that politicians are always looking for donations to their campaigns, and nice stationery might signify to them a potential contribution. Again, I have no proof of this, so it may fall more under the “talisman” idea, but it makes me feel more confident than my usual stash of Dollar Store cards, so I go with it.
- Give back. A couple of years ago, I decided that, if I was going to go ask someone for money to support the arts, I should also be willing to give. The first year I went to Nashville, I stopped at my local coffee shop and noticed a gentleman, who was obviously down on his luck, sitting by the door, trying to stay out of the rain. So, I bought him breakfast. I’ve kept that tradition going at my local java shop, buying a cup of coffee or breakfast on reserve for someone in need down the line. It’s a small thing, but it starts my day off on the right foot, and helps remind me to always advocate with a spirit of generosity.
So that’s it—those are my tips and strategies for a successful and empowering arts advocacy experience. I’d love to hear about your traditions, tips, and strategies in the comments!
And no, I don’t get any kickback from the sales of that red lipstick.