Tuesday, March 07, 2006

How to Be an American

My wife and I just recently got a taste of grass-roots politics. It was a new experience for us. For my wife, because she’s been pretty apolitical for as long as I’ve known her. For me, because I’ve never been that active on a state or local level. The experience taught me a lot. Let me tell you the story:

As many of you might know by reading my articles and blogs, we have a six-year-old son in a wheelchair with Cerebral Palsy. Throughout his (so far) short life, we’ve dealt with a lot of government and private programs to help provide all kinds of necessities for him. We’ve gotten wheelchairs, physical therapy and equipment, modifications to our house, all funded in whole or in part. For this, we thank you, the American taxpayer, because much of this would be completely out of our reach without it. His nighttime feeding formula, for example, costs $2000 a month. His powered wheelchair costs over $25,000.

This year, our state legislature began its two-month-long session, and as always approached the budget. The problem with setting out the state budget is that everyone wants to get a slice of the pie. And the problem with that is that, for the most part, the needs of all those that want the funding are valid. Schools, roads, business development initiatives, these things all enhance the state and are very important. Medical care money is also critical. And this term, there were lots of debates about how the state should spend its money.

Well, my wife is very active as a parent and family advocate for disabled children. She works for a state agency part-time, and is very active in helping Utah families, even in her downtime. When the budget proposals came out, she and many others had to become lobbyists. There was a particular program that they were lobbying for. It provides services to families of disabled children, and runs with a waiting list that’s currently 7-10 years long. The budget proposal that was before the house would have cut its funding even further, in a year that saw an overall budget surplus! “End The Wait” was the slogans from T-shirts and buttons as they shook legislator’s hands.

It was interesting to watch my non-political wife learn how to meet and influence the state legislators. She might not have had an interest before, but when needed services to her child were at stake, she became like the mama bear fighting for her cub. Meetings, subcommittee testimonies, emailing campaigns, many hours were spent rallying the disabled community around the capitol to help fund a critical program.

I participated, especially in the email campaign. At first, I didn’t even know who my representatives in the state legislature were, much less how to contact them, or where they stood on the issue. But I did a little research and joined in the fray. I learned some valuable things on the way. Let me share them with you:

1. Be a part of the process.

The first step is to realize that “Government by the people” means that we need to be aware and involved. Read the news. During your state legislative sessions, find out about the bills that are being considered. Many won’t impact your life. Many others will. Here’s another hint: It works on a federal level, too.

Choose issues that impact you and your business, and that get you passionate. Learn what the facts are, so you can discuss them intelligently.

2. Do Some Research.

Like I said, at the start of this, I didn’t even know who my representatives were, nor what districts I lived in. A quick trip to the Utah State website and I was able to find the map outlining the districts, and the names of the representatives, and their email addresses. A quick Googling would easily turn up any number of government watchdog sites that would report on how various state and federal legislators voted on certain issues. Find out who’s with you and who’s against you.

3. Contact Your Legislators

Sometimes it’s valuable to meet them face to face, sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes a simple email or letter can work wonders. If you do communicate in writing, make sure that your letter is concise, but thorough. Don’t just tell your legislator how you want him/her to vote, but also why. Tell your story. How will the bill in question impact your life? This will go much farther than quoting facts and figures.

At all times, however, it is vital to be polite and respectful. Channel your passion into effort, not into shouting or name-calling.

Finally, I learned that being American is all about being a part of democracy. You and your business are what make this great country strong. You want to be patriotic? Sure, fly the flag, but don’t stop there. Make a difference. One of the things I love most about my country is that you and I both have the right, and even the obligation, to make our voices heard. Even if our voices clash. If we’re peaceful in our disagreement, we can both have an impact on our government.

The impact we had? The final budget significantly increased the funding to the program for the disabled that we worked so hard to promote. God bless America!

No comments:

Post a Comment