By Matt Steffen
Each year, my organization – the Illinois Environmental Council, or IEC – hosts Environmental Advocacy Day, and this year was no different.
On Thursday, April 26th, 2018, roughly 300 people gathered in Springfield, IL to meet with their state legislators regarding policies that would grow clean energy, counter rollbacks of environmental protections at the federal level, and preserve the integrity of the state’s Endangered Species Protection Board.
I’ve been at IEC for five advocacy days now, and the fact that anyone is willing to spend a vacation day walking around on brutally hard marble floors while engaging in tricky conversations continues to impress me. The fact that there are consistently 300 people willing to do so blows my mind.
Getting hundreds of people to turn out to an event during the work week in Chicago would be one thing, but doing so in Springfield makes it an achievement. The location demographics of those attending the event match the state’s pretty well, meaning that a majority of attendees wake around 4:30am to embark on a 3.5 or 4 hour bus or train trip to make it.
As someone whose job it is to make this trip, engage in the tough conversations, and endure the marble-floor-induced back pain, the answer to the question of “why do hundreds of people incur these and countless other inconveniences?” is a humbling one: they are engaging in the work of being good citizens.
DIY Advocacy Day
As hosts, IEC views it as our responsibility to make good use of these citizens’ time by guiding them through the state legislative process. Noting that legislatures vary from state to state, when looking to plan an advocacy day of your own, you’ll want to do the following:
1) Don’t go it alone. Before you start planning your own event, do some research to find if there are organizations that share your values and already host an event, and/or offer resources for lobbying your state legislature and try to partner with them. We suggest checking out if your state has an environmental council or is home to a state affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters.
2) Check the calendar. State legislatures are not always in session, and even when they are, their schedules can change quickly. For example, session for the Illinois General Assembly is technically supposed to go from January to May, Monday through Friday. In practice, however, this changes on the fly, and experience lobbyists know that the will almost never be in on a Monday or Friday (hence, our event on a Thursday). Clear as mud, right?
3) Be concise and make an ask. State legislators are almost always very busy when they’re in session – in Illinois, they are asked to consider upwards of 3,000 bills each year. At the Capitol, you may have limited time with your legislator, so be prepared to summarize your issue to 30 seconds and make a direct ask (ex. Will you co-sponsor HB123?). If you’d like a longer meeting with your legislator, schedule a meeting with them at their district office when the legislature is not in session.
IEC Advocacy Day in Review
So, after all the planning, recruiting, and sore knees and backs, do advocacy days actually produce results?
This year, attendees at IEC’s event opposed two bills, one of which would have required electricity ratepayers statewide to subsidize an unbuilt “clean coal” facility, and the other would have added two agriculture industry representatives to the Endangered Species Protection Board – a board required by existing statute to be composed of scientists. As our event was wrapping up, we received news that neither bill would be called for a vote, in large part due to the conversations our attendees had.
These were satisfying defeats of bad proposals, but one of the most heartening achievements of the day was passing the Illinois Baseline Protection Act in the Senate. This bill would prevent Illinois from weakening environmental standards below current federal standards, thereby ensuring that no matter how far the current administration regresses, our state will not follow them.
When most people think or talk about politics and policy, they focus on what’s happening at the federal level. However, in many cases, the laws, regulations, ordinances, and expenditures made by state and local governments make a larger impact on our daily lives. Fortunately, as advocacy day proves, we are able to directly influence the process at these levels.
Winning good, science-based policies in the states requires us to get involved and connect with our elected representatives; it takes people like you following the example of the 300 who showed up in Springfield. So, do the work of being a good citizen: show up, share your knowledge, and engage in state and local governance.
Matt Steffen is deputy director at the Illinois Environmental Council, where he has worked since May of 2014. Before IEC, Matt worked on a successful state house campaign after graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Madison with a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science and History. If you’re interested in learning more about IEC or getting involved, visit ilenviro.org, follow them on social media @ilenviro, or email them at email@example.com.