Editor’s note: Anthony Bencivengo is a senior at Nathan Hale High School. For his Senior Project, he is working with Solid Ground and the Statewide Poverty Action Network to engage his peers in the state political process. Here, Anthony reports on lobbying in Olympia with other youth on Martin Luther King, Jr. Lobby Day.
January 20, 2014 –
The inside of the People’s House of the Washington State Capitol wasn’t quite as majestic as its facade. The corridors of the John L. O’Brien Building, where state Representatives have their offices, were hot, crowded with people, and had the slowest elevators ever. But as my group squeezed its way through, I was so excited that I hardly noticed.
This was a day I’d been looking forward to for awhile. As part of my Senior Project, I organized a group of my fellow Nathan Hale High School students to join Statewide Poverty Action Network’s annual MLK Day legislative lobbying session. We, along with over 100 other volunteers, split into groups by legislative district and spread out to meet personally with our state legislators.
The issues we raised ranged widely, from the unfairness of large Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) to preserving welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). And the people in our groups ranged widely, too. Experienced legislative advocates (who seemed to know everyone in Olympia) helped the rest of us navigate the process. People with mental illnesses told horror stories about the drastically underfunded state agencies they turned to for help. Homeless single mothers shared their equally bad experiences with the unresponsive state welfare system. And high school students like us spoke up, too.
We learned a lot from the people in our groups, particularly those with personal experiences of homelessness.
“I sort of had this image in my head of what homeless people were like,” admits Naomi Price-Lazarus. That image was changed by the actual homeless people she met. “Their strength was really surprising,” she recalls. “They keep pushing and trying to overcome all the obstacles they’re facing, and even when they keep failing, they don’t give up.”
“This was definitely an eye-opener for me,” adds Francis Britschgi. “Before, poverty was just kind of something that happened, and it was too bad. But the stories I heard today were almost tear-moving.”
The legislators we talked to seemed to be affected in the same way. “They seemed genuinely interested,” observes Robert Mercer. “The one I talked to was really supportive and enthusiastic,” agrees Naomi. They were already well-informed about many of the issues, shared most of our concerns, and pledged to work to fix the problems we had mentioned.
This experience really humanized our state legislators for us. Upon seeing a teddy bear on the desk of a state Representative, Jasmine Shirey exclaimed, “They’re like people!”
“They were really easy to talk to,” adds Naomi. “It wasn’t super formal or anything.”
It turns out our legislators have their quirks, too (who knew Gerry Pollet had a Lord of the Rings Pez collection?). Francis saw a sign on one Representative’s door that said, ‘Tax the rich or kill the poor.’ “I was surprised,” he says. “It seemed kind of inflammatory.” But it was also a sign that these legislators chose to enter politics not for money or power but because, like us, they are passionate about economic justice. And with our state facing problems that will take a lot of passion and hard work to solve, that was encouraging.
We left Olympia feeling hopeful. Our state legislature, which had felt very remote only the day before, now seemed much more accessible. “I feel like I could go into their office if I needed to,” Robert says. “Or call or email them,” adds Francis. “It feels much more open.”
With this sense that our legislators are listening comes a renewed determination to send them a message. “All these legislators were so great and make such a good impression,” reflects Francis. “But our state’s still [in trouble]. So what’s up?”
What’s up is the difficulty of getting meaningful reform passed in a legislature where infighting and special-interest influence encourage inaction. That’s why we have to sustain the pressure on Olympia that we began to create today. This event was not a panacea. It was only the beginning of a long fight for change. But now, we feel much more empowered to make a difference in this fight.
“It’s really easy to get involved in politics,” replies Naomi when asked what she takes away from the event. “It was a really great experience,” concludes Francis. “Would recommend. 10 out of 10.”
Editor’s note: Read Anthony’s earlier post on recruiting teens to come lobby, Teens going to Olympia to change the conversation, Anthony Bencivengo, 1/20/14.