I have been in Washington for the last six weeks doing a program called Machon Kaplan through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. It was through this program that I got my internship at Interfaith Alliance. At Interfaith Alliance I have learned so much, from the broad lessons of how coalitions and advocacy works to specific lessons about issues like DOMA and religious hiring discrimination. Yesterday, I spent the morning lobbying on behalf of one of the specific issues I learned about, anti-bullying. I went to the hill to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA). In just a sentence, the SSIA is a bill that would require school districts to create and inform people about anti-bullying policies which would specifically protect students from bullying based on their real or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or religion. The bill has bipartisan support and currently has 95 cosponsors in the House and 30 in the Senate (One more in the House added today!).
My meetings with staff members in my Senators’ offices were great conversations. However, both senators already support and cosponsor the bill so, while it is important to thank members of congress for and remind them about legislation they already support, I would not say there was as much of an “ask” to these meetings. I did express my hope that they would reach out to their colleagues, particularly on the other side of the aisle, and ask about the future process of the getting bill passed, but the whole meeting (while important) was somewhat preaching to the choir.
The more complex meeting was with a staffer in my Representative’s office, a conservative Republican, so not typically who I think of as the target audience for this type of legislation. My expectation was that I’d give my pitch, ask if the congressman would consider cosponsoring the legislation, and then be politely told it was not going to happen. Reality was much more encouraging and reminded me that I should not make partisan assumptions. The meeting was very pleasant and I was told that the Congressman (of course) cares about making a safe environment for kids at school, an environment where they are able to learn without feeling threatened. The staff member I met with had not discussed SSIA with the Congressman and, while he predicted some concern over the idea of federally mandating how states and school districts do education policy, he said he will be sure to bring it up and get back to me with the results of the discussion. Further he promised to seek out the offices of some of the Republicans who have signed onto the bill when I suggested that they probably had similar concerns. I left with the sense that my voice will be heard by my member of Congress, a great feeling indeed.
Realistically, I think the chances of my Representative supporting SSIA are probably slim. However, six weeks in D.C. had definitely turned me fairly cynical and jaded and these qualities were somewhat washed away by actually visiting my congressional representatives’ offices and meeting the real people who will discuss the issues with the legislators. Maybe I’m a sucker for feeling this way, but today’s lobby visit gave me the feeling that an important issue (like stopping bullying) and a good bill (like SSIA) can really make inroads if people chose to pick up the phone, send an email, or schlep to their members of congress’ offices and lobby for what they believe in. I encourage everyone to use the Interfaith Alliance action alert system to reach out to your members of Congress and make your voice heard on SSIA today. It is a vital bill in trying to stop the epidemic of bullying in our schools.
You Can hear Rev. Gaddy discuss bullying and examples of faith and government intersecting on this episode of State of Belief.