Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Right now, a lot of us are learning about racial injustice in a way we never have before. We are seeing images, hearing stories, and watching movements unfold with world-changing results. White Americans, especially, are being challenged to open our eyes and ears to a reality we have been able to ignore for centuries.
Many of us are asking one powerful, often overwhelming question: What can I do?
Now I'm going to ask another question: Are you willing to send a freaking letter? I mean, is that too much to ask?
The letter-writing campaign is an oft-underestimated way to barge right into the offices of elected officials and say, "Hey, asshole, are you listening?" As privileged constituents, our voices can become powerful very quickly, which means we can take the words and needs of the people who are often ignored and make them really loud. Imagine the gale force of an impassioned Karen complaint, multiplied by hundreds, by thousands. What mortal could possibly stand against such unrestrained power?
I'm writing with humor, but I couldn't be more serious. To make things easy, I'm here to throw some resources right into your civically-responsible lap. If you're already quite familiar with the concept of advocacy letters and their influence, you can skip to the end of this post to find letter templates and tips.
Even if you're an advocacy virgin who's never even managed to cast a vote, fear not. I'd say I'm not judging you, but I kind of am...just a little. Really, who cares? You can fill in blanks and put a basic sentence together, right? Read on to find out the ins, outs, and in-betweens of kicking your rep's a** and making a difference with just one email. Even the civic-lite beginner can handle it, I promise.
Step 1: Get the Info.
All right, so my s**t talking worked and you're tentatively committed to sending an advocacy letter to your reps. Step one is to get yourself a list of the representatives and council members in your community. Who's your state senator? Your governor? Your chief of police? You can pretty much use the same letter for any elected official, as long as you switch out the relevant details.
Start as local as possible. This may sound counter-intuitive, as you probably don't expect these small-fry reps to make much of a splash in the racial justice pool. That's what the system wants you to think. As I touched on in my first post in this series, Rewriting the Script, local legislative bodies are a) actually pretty influential when it comes to your day-to-day life and b) really easily overwhelmed by constituent demands. Ask me how I know this. Go ahead, do it.
Well, I worked for a representative! And guess how many people worked in their campaign office? A whopping two of us. And I was an unpaid intern. Sure, they've got more staff in their actual legislative offices, but at the end of the day most local reps don't have the resources to hire tons of people to run things. Even in the Senate, the maximum number of paid staffers a representative can have is 18 full-time and four part-time employees. The turnover rate is high, guys...46%. A lot of these people are underpaid and overworked. Not all of them are able to handle things like constituent correspondence, so the pool of people dealing with our very loud, very persistent efforts is even smaller.
So imagine the situation in a much smaller, far less funded local office. To top it all off, most small-scale reps aren't used to hearing directly from constituents very often, if at all. What does that mean? Well, a moderately sized flood of letters and demands from us average joes and run-of-the-mill suzies (yes, I made that up) can feel absolutely biblical to a tiny, mostly-volunteer office staff. Just call me Noah.
And I have GREAT NEWS! The list of YOUR very own reps at every level of government has already been compiled! Many times. Seriously, you can literally type your address into a resource like this and have your list ready in all of five seconds. Look, lazybones, I'll give you even more options, just to prove a point. Like this one, or this one, or this one....
Step 2: Pick Your Issues.
There's no limit to the number of letters you can send out, or the number of specific laws, bills, codes, and bureaucratic BS you can comment on in said letters. The possibility for aggressive and persistently irritating civic action in this arena is truly endless. Summon that inner Karen and use the passion and determination she'd have if her decades-old coupons couldn't get her a 90% discount on a gluten-free, taste-free, soy-kombucha-recycled-cardboard bread loaf at Whole Foods. Oh, yeah, that's the kind of overpowering energy we're bringing in here, folks.
There's plenty of fuel for your righteous passion. Right now, there are hundreds and thousands of initiatives aiming to pass legislature that will address issues like Broken Windows Policing, Cash Bail policies, and ending corporate-incentivized Mass Incarceration. The offshoots of these broader missions in local legislatures are numerous - community change initiatives are not only effective, but when backed up by codes and local laws they can be a much faster and more immediately apparent way to fight racial injustice in a variety of ways.
When choosing issues to cite directly in your letter, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Luckily there are already countless awareness campaigns out there to help you narrow down your focus. Trust me, if my ADHD-fueled nightmare of a brain can pick three bills to reference, so can yours. You can also take a more generalized approach by simply urging a commitment to "current laws and initiatives" aimed at ending qualified immunity for police in your state, stopping systemic discrimination in the county's school system, etc. The key is not to say something TOO general, because that isn't going to have nearly as much of an impact. Your reps already know that people want racial justice. Duh. They can easily pay lip service to that - what you want is actual accountability, and that means targeting areas where direct action can take place, well, directly.
Step 3: Make it Personal.
One of the most common mistakes people make when instigating or joining a letter-writing campaign is that they use the same template over and over again. The exact same template. Now, is that better than not sending something in at all, or sending in something so poorly written it's thrown into a spam folder? Absolutely. If the only effort you can honestly make is to click an auto-send button after filling in some blanks, you're still playing a part in demanding change.
That being said (somewhat snarkily, though not judge-ily), it's generally a better policy to make each of the letters you send in unique. YOU DO NOT NEED TO REWRITE THE WHOLE THING. Not only would that be a waste of time, but you're totally not going to do it! No one can sustain that much creativity for long. No, my tentatively determined friend, all you need to do is switch out a few details here and there. There's nothing wrong with using a template provided for you via social media or elsewhere: in fact, I strongly encourage it! Let the professional writers and organizational leads handle that part of the process. You just need to throw in a dash of your own self here and there so the letters aren't all carbon-copies.
For example: take a template - such as the ones I will provide links to at the end of this piece - and just switch up the language in two or three places whenever you send the letters out. You can also download several template options, perhaps one for each level of government you plan to target, and switch them up fairly often. Keep those underpaid (or unpaid) staffers on their toes. Get in those representatives' heads. Ominously chant from outside their windows, tormenting them for the sins of the past.
Just kidding. That's level two advocacy, and I know you're not ready for that yet. Basically, don't be, well, basic. Take five minutes of your precious, Very Important time to make your letter more effective by changing up the narrative in LITERALLY JUST THREE OR FOUR PLACES. Adding a personal anecdote or story gives you bonus I-Got-Off-My-A** points. Like, at least ten of them. A personal touch can take an advocacy letter from one small drop in the ocean to one moderate splash that hits your rep directly in the forehead. "Oh crap," they say to themselves, "people actually care enough about this to make five minutes of effort? That's like, five hours in 2020 Time."
If enough of those vaguely personal letters arrive in their inbox, the words "re-election" and "bids for higher office" start to circle around their heads like hungry, civically active vultures.
Step 4: Set a Functional Goal.
Ah, the symphony of white guilt. Sounds like small bursts of righteous anger and confused wailing, followed by...silence.
Here's a picture I want to fill your head with for a moment. Suzie starts to hear a lot of statistics, stories, and facts about the struggles of black and other minority people all around her. There's a movement! People are out in the streets protesting! Everyone must do their part! Oh s**t, oh no, Suzie thinks, I need to do something! I need to help! I need to...uhhh...wait, where do I start? I need to...share this infographic on my instagram story??? Yeah, that felt good. And it does! It does feel good, Suzie, and it is important. Awareness is the foundation of change.
But a foundation won't keep you warm at night, nor will it deter the ravenous wolves who are salivating on the sidelines while saying "when this movement blows over..." To deter them, you're going to first need to chase them away with a large, spiky baseball bat (direct protests and physical action), then build up a sturdy house on that foundation we've made, one brick at a time (changing or implementing laws, funding the movement, keeping the momentum).
One of those bricks is, you guessed it, contacting representatives and demanding change! And yet...it all seems so overwhelming...I know that black people don't have the option to get overwhelmed, but this is all so new for me... Well, TOO BAD. You can have a pity party later. Party hats are cheap at Target. Right now, however, we are being asked to simply take one step. Lay one brick. And the best way to make sure you are a part of that is to be honest about feeling overwhelmed, and instead of channeling that feeling into a flurry of short-lived action, turn it into a real effort to make a difference.
The effort can start small, with goals like "I will send three letters to my county council this week," or "I will call four of my representatives about x issue." It can be "I will donate x amount every week to this cause" or "I will actively send resources for advocacy to my friends and family, and encourage them to take one step with me." The big picture is vital, but so are all of the pixels that make it into a visible image. I've fallen into the white-guilt information-overwhelm trap, and I'm still struggling with it daily - the important thing is that you are struggling. You're setting that specific goal. You're taking that one step. Forget about your past! What's that got to do with playing a part right now? Don't trick yourself into being a bystander, especially when you are a privileged person who has energy and resources to fuel sustainable change with.
In Conclusion...It All Starts Here and Now.
Whew, thanks for sticking with me. Now, I'm largely here to amplify the potential for change brought forth by my black fellow citizens and neighbors. With my educational and professional background in politics and political action, I find that most people just need someone to give them a starting point when it comes to inciting change. This is one of those starting points. We can all encourage one another and hold each other accountable as we take action to make change. (How many times can I use the word “change” in one paragraph? A lot).
Below I will provide some resources to help you write to your reps and craft an effective advocacy letter - you can write your own using the tips and info given, or simply use one of the templates to get started. In case you need one of those links to find your reps and their contact info again: here.
Now get out there, kids, and let's kick some a** for justice.