Get excited! NASPA’s National Student Affairs Day of Action (NSADA) is less than a week away. Last week’s post, “Tools for #SAadvocates to Participate in the July 17th National Student Affairs Day of Action,” detailed three primary tools #SAadvocates can use to participate in our representative democracy this coming Tuesday: background briefs, position statements, and sample letters. Sample letters provide suggested language, talking points, and instructions that can be easily tailored to the specific issues an individual or institution wants to address. You might be wondering however, why send a letter, when a text or email is so much easier? Today’s post considers the value of letter writing campaigns and provides guidance in using this tool effectively in elevating the voice of student affairs professionals during the NSADA.
During NASPA’s Annual Conference in March, the Hill Days and National Student Affairs Day of Action Planning Committee released the resource “Guidelines for Legislative Letter Writing Campaigns” The packet outlined reasons for choosing a letter writing campaign over other advocacy measures, as well as general guidelines, and a sample letter for state-level “bathroom bill” legislation. Let’s revisit some examples and guidance explored in this packet below:
The letter writing packet describes how sources generally differ on the most effective form of communication in reaching out to elected officials. In one example, Emily Ellsworth, former Congressional staffer from Utah, released a series of tweets that went viral in late November 2016, on how to effectively engage with lawmakers. She stated that while emails and social media shares were popular, they were largely ineffective. Instead, she suggested that letter writing to local or district offices is more effective than national-based letter writing and that calling into a legislative office was the best method of all.
Sample letters are available on the NSADA resources page, and can be found under the four issue area bullets at the top of the page. And while the letters can easily be restructured along with talking points from NASPA’s position statements (similarly located) to create call-in scripts for those interested in organizing phone banking spaces as well, NASPA encourages a mixed methods approach in participating on July 17. Multiple avenues of engagement from phone banking and letter writing, to other forms of engagement, help circumvent a scenario in which due to unforeseen circumstances, the power of any one approach might be reduced.
To exemplify this scenario, the letter writing packet points to a March 2017 New Yorker article, “What Calling Congress Achieves.” In the article, Kathryn Schulz illustrates the throngs of calls made to DC offices of federal elected officials following President Trump’s inauguration. Schulz describes how the large volume of calls typically leads only to filled voicemail inboxes and automated email messages redirecting senders to “contact the recipient directly.” In this case, senders had to raise awareness through all means of communication possible, from fax to postal mail to sending a text, attending a meeting or event, and marching in the streets.
Further, while we know less about direct outcomes resulting from social media engagement, the ubiquity of movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter point to effectiveness in building collective awareness. These campaigns, along with direct advocacy efforts demonstrated through college and university-based rallies that led to the preservation of the graduate tuition waiver in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill in the final weeks of 2017, are prime examples of the reach of these types of efforts.
That said, the NSADA planning team encourages the sharing of NASPA’s position statements in conjunction with the sample letter templates for use in engagement across whichever methods of advocacy work best for you.
Please use the guidelines provided in the letter writing packet, and reiterated below, as a refresher in maximizing the effectiveness of your use of the sample letter templates on the resources page. You can use the recommendations below to organize a letter writing campaign of your own or to write the most effective letter possible on behalf of yourself, your students, or your institution.
On that note, and, as mentioned in the blogpost last week, we understand that student affairs professionals are sometimes hesitant to engage in active advocacy because of uncertainty about where their roles as campus employees end and their rights as private individuals begins. While we cannot offer legal advice or guidance, there are many ways for student affairs professionals to engage politically, both as institutional employees and as private individuals. If you are looking for more foundational materials or guidance on balancing your personal and professional roles as an advocate, please check out our Policy Basics (I, II, III) and Engage! (I, II, III) series.
Timing is key. Letter writing campaigns are most successful when the recipient has a solid window of opportunity within the legislative process to consider and apply the written suggestions. If a letter writing campaign addresses more topical or general suggestions without advocating around a specific policy or piece of legislation, it is best to schedule it while the issue is alive and relevant. This is often done by scheduling the letters around a related event or holiday.
Collective participation raises awareness. Letter writing campaigns are most effective when they are coordinated around a common date in which letters are written together—in this case as a part of the National Student Affairs Day of Action on July 17. This can be done either using a provided template or simple, concise instructions for participants to put together a set of letters consistent to the topic with an added personal touch. Holding a letter writing event on campus is a great way to make sure letters are sent collectively. Personal letters usually warrant a less standardized response, while prepared letters increase the breadth and ease of access. The NASPA sample letter templates offer a combination of both, by providing a solid template with instructions on how to leverage personal storytelling to uplift the voice of the individual.
Less is more, and specifics are best. A one-page limit on a letter to an elected official might seem short, especially for crucial issues such as sexual violence and free speech, which deeply affect the campus community. However, a legislator with hundreds of letters to sift through is looking for themes of impact that make a case for the value of a specific vote, regulation, or action. In addition, referencing specific legislation of concern, in as much detail as possible, such as using TX HB 50 instead of referencing a Texas “Bathroom Bill,” offers a more reliable, quick reference point.
Respect your legislator, but remain firm. Letter writing often occurs when constituents are passionate about a particular policy, practice, or regulation. Passion can lead to powerful letters, however an insistent or accusatory tone is not an effective way to address elected officials. Student affairs professionals should operate under a personal and institutional value system of diversity and inclusion while maintaining a respectful demeanor in engaging with legislative representatives.
Always include your personal address and ask for a response. Elected officials represent constituents in a particular geographic area. Including your address allows for quick and easy identification as a constituent of the person you are writing and allows the recipient to respond to you personally. An important part of letter writing is to write in a way that will invoke an individual response, rather than an automated response. One way to do this is ask directly how an elected official intends to vote or for information about the actions they plan to take regarding a particular issue or problem.
The resources provided for NSADA are free and specifically tailored for student affairs professionals. We encourage you to share your activity among #SAadvocates, friends, and colleagues alike and reach out to the Policy and Advocacy Team with any questions or concerns you may have!
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