Behind the Scenes in a Congressional Office | SPARK Episode 3

Senators, Representatives, the Chief of Staff,
the legislative director. It can seem intimidating to reach out to people with such official
titles. But really, they’re just people! And it’s their job to listen to what you,
as their constituent, has to say. So this week we visited Senator Jack Reed of Rhode
Island at his office in Washington D.C. to get a peek at what congressional offices are
really like on the inside. But first – here’re some tips on visiting
an elected official: After identifying which official you want
to speak to, you can schedule a meeting by going to their website. If they don’t have
a scheduling form, there should be an email or phone number you can contact to schedule
a visit, in which case you’ll also need to be prepared to send a request letter. This
is something where you let them know who all will be visiting, what issues you want to
discuss, and give them your contact information. If you haven’t heard from the scheduler
after a week, don’t hesitate to follow up. Remember that the legislator’s schedule
may not match up with yours. It isn’t unusual to get a meeting with staffers instead. For
a full explanation of different types of meetings and ways to set them up, check out the resource
document in the description box below. Now once you’ve got the visit scheduled,
you just need to prepare. Make notes of what you want to discuss, make sure your group
is all on the same page logistically, and plan what to wear. It’s best to wear business
attire to a meeting at a Congressional office. If you’re going as a group, you can coordinate
t-shirts with your campaign message – so long as it’s not inflammatory. You want to keep
the meeting positive. But otherwise, it’s best to keep it professional. Things like
a nice shirt and slacks, a skirt or a dress, or even a suit. So let’s class this up a
little before we head out. Thanks. — Hello! — Hi! I’m here to see, uh, Senator Reed. — Okay great and can I just tell him who’s
here? — Yeah, uh, Jack Bird. — Jack Bird. And who’s the group that you’re
with? –I’m with the American Library Association
and the Harry Potter alliance. –Okay great. I’ll let them know that you’re
here. If you wanna take a seat, you’re more than welcome to. –Thank you very much. –Of course. –Thank you for joining us, Senator Reed.
And, how long have you been in office? –I was elected to the House of Representatives
in 1990 and the Senate in 1996. — And what made you want to become a senator? –Uh, well I had been involved in public service
since I started at West Point at 17. I was in the army for twelve years. I think it’s
an important, very important, role, very satisfying and, uhm, I think it’s something we can make
a contribution. –So, on that note, uhm, why do you think
it’s important for people to, if there’s important issues that they care about, to get in contact
with your office? — Well, we depend upon people to contact
our office. Actually, y’know, knowledgeable citizens — and we’re lucky in Rhode Island
it’s a small state and we have a lot of personal contact — but knowledgeable citizens can
really empower their legislators with ideas, experiences, inspiration, encouragement. All
those things are very important. And I think that’s one of the advantages we have as a
nation. We’ve had a lot of people who are thoughtful and will come forward and will
give good advice. Y’know, complaints, and that’s part of the process too, but a lot
of it is just very sound advice based on practical thoughts, how we can make things better for
everyone. — Oh, that’s great. What – what form of contact
do you think has the most impact? If someone’s emailing or writing a letter or phone calls… — Well, today emailing is very very efficient.
The letters, we respond to all of our letters. We try our hardest to do so. And personal
contact. Y’know, you’d be surprised if stop a congressman or senator in the grocery market
and said that y’know I like libraries a lot. How do you feel about it? They remember that.
They really do. — Mhmm. And what sort of impact does that
have on your decisions? — Well, it- it basically – we get a reaction
from the people wondering what issues are important to the people I represent. That’s
a critical way we prioritize a lot of our efforts. Y’know, there are national issues
and local issues, they merge, but it’s important to gauge what is really preoccupying the attention
of a lot of Rhode Island citizens. — And so you spoke a little bit about how
you’ve been involved in public service, it’s something that you’ve been very passionate
about uhm for most of your life, can you speak a little generally why you think it’s important
for young people especially to get involved with advocacy or public service? — Well, again, I think there’s a perspective
that young people have shaped by their experiences, which are different than my experiences. They
grew up in an age of electronic communication and social media. Y’know, this is a dynamic
and changing world. And their perspectives are sometimes much more on point, frankly,
than some of the recollections I have of what it’s like to be twenty and twenty-five to
thirty. So that’s important too. I think also it’s — it’s a, a generational responsibility.
You’ve gotta step up. You can’t assume that They’ll take care of it. That’s again the
value of this country where citizens have great rights, but they also have important
responsibilities. One is to get engaged, be active locally, and then the old axiom “all
politics is local” is true. So if you’re involved in your local library board. If you’re involved
in local school committee issues, the education policy, activists at school libraries, that
is hugely important. You don’t just have to be talking about an issue before congress. — What is sort of a typical day like? — Uhm, I think there is no typical day [laughter].
I think every day it varies depending on what the Senate is undertaking on the senate floor,
what the Senator’s committee assignments, what they’re doing in committee, what hearings
might be, what legislation they might be considering, what meetings the Senator might be having
with constituents, which every day changes. –So when people are wanting to contact the
office about an issue they care about, when they call the number, who answers the phone
in the office? — So if they call Washington, Dylan, who
you met out front, will answer the phone or Rosemary, who works with Dylan. People also
call our offices in Rhode Island and so we have an office in Providence and an office
in Cranston and so people can call those offices as well. And we — y’know we are very collaborative
so we share the information. So it doesn’t matter what office a constituent calls, we’ll
make sure that, uhm, that they issue is y’know recorded and noted and that the Senator’s
informed. –Yeah, what’s sort of the process like, if
someone calls? Like, what happens? What should they have prepared? –Sure. Well I think they should have prepared
something that they’re wanting — the point that they’re wanting to get across. Uhm because
their voice matters so much. To the extent that they just want to share an opinion, they
can leave that message with our front office person who’s going to answer the phone. If
they have a particular policy issue or question, they might ask the to speak with the person
who handles that particular policy area so that way they can provide that more additional
detailed information. Uhm, the senator’s staff, all of us, are wanting to hear from constituents
and wanting to understand their point of view, their advocacy, their reasons for calling
are very vital. Their voices matter. Change in Washington takes a while, but if you are
persistent, get your friends to call, your family to call, spread out the network of
people who are interested in an issue area and make that voice multiply. –As sort of a final thought, do you each
have maybe a piece of advice for constituents who want to get their voice heard. –I would – I would just say, uhm, that in
my experience working on Capitol Hill, uhm, members really respond to young people who
take the time to uhm get informed about an issue and come and advocate on behalf of an
issue or just tell the members what’s going on and what’s important to them and what their
hopes are for the future because uhm members are elected to make a future for their constituents
and so when young people come and uh visit with their members it – that’s a really powerful
connection. — It’s energizing to have the next generation
express themselves, engage in the process, and make their voices heard about the issues
that are of concern to them, that are very important for us to consider here in Washington
as we move legislation. –Well, thank you so much for talking with
us today and thank you for letting us invade your office and see what it’s like. When you finish an in-person meeting, it’s
good to leave them something to remember you by. Leave behinds are documents that outline
your issue for your representative, and should be clear and to the point. When you’re putting
one together, think about what information will likely be helpful to remind the staffers
about what you discussed. Include background information about the issue, relevant talking
points, statistics or infographs, and your contact information. This is an easy way to
provide a busy Congressional office with a reference on the issues you talked to them
about. Plus, they’ll know who to follow up with if they have questions later. We put
an example document in the description box if you want more ideas. For this week’s challenge – visit a local
or state government building. Most of them offer tours so plan a visit and take away
some of the mystery away so it’s less intimidating when you want to go back and advocate for
an issue. Next time, we’ll go over some ways you can
reach out to representatives even if you can’t make it to an in person meeting. So until
then, thanks for watching and good luck.