The Beginner Advocate’s Toolkit

On Thursday, April 29, 2021 Connecticut Food System Alliance (CFSA) hosted a Legislative Lab to discuss food and farm bills in the Connecticut Legislature, learn from state advocates, and inform one another about actions they can take to advocate for change. Panelists Bryan Hurlburt, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture; Joey Listro, Executive Director of New Britain ROOTS; and Cindy Dubuque-Gallo, PhD student at University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work, shared their individual and unique perspectives and experiences in legislative advocacy and provided helpful tips that citizen advocates can use when advocating at the Capitol.

An Overview of Connecticut’s Legislature

Advocacy 101

Advocacy is an umbrella term for activities intended to influence policymakers. Advocacy can take many forms: writing letters and calling legislators, testifying at public hearings, participating in public demonstrations, and educating the public, to name a few. These activities are a set of strategies for achieving goals or solving a problem. Advocacy and direct action, like providing funds, food, or services directly to communities, can often be combined to enact change.

Lobbying is any attempt to influence specific legislation. It’s not a bad word, though its connotation and historic association with corruption often overshadow any positive change that can come out of it. Anyone can lobby, including nonprofits, by testifying on a bill, contacting a legislator, and encouraging constituents to take a certain position on a bill. Lobbying is a prominent component of any legislative session. In the words of Cindy Dubuque-Gallo, who is also a former lobbyist registered with the Office of State Ethics, “All lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying.”

Panelists at the Legislative Lab offered insight into ways they have personally advocated. Here are the tips for you to advocate more effectively:

Build Relationships with Legislators

Everyone in Connecticut has two legislators in the General Assembly: a state senator and a state representative. According to Commissioner Hurlburt, “it’s not a heavy lift to know who they are, and it’s not a heavy lift for them to know who you are.” Hundreds of issues make it to the legislature each year. Legislators cannot be the expert on every issue, so they need you! Expressing your interest and knowledge will help them refer to you as their issue expert. Contact information for legislators is available on the General Assembly website. Find your legislators here.

It’s also beneficial to develop relationships with legislators on committees of interest as well. In Dubuque-Gallo’s experience as a lobbyist, she has used her connections in the legislature to ask representatives to champion or co-sponsor important legislation. Find a list of committees and members here.

Know How the Legislative Process Works

It’s important to know the intricacies of the issue for which you are advocating, but it is also important to understand how to achieve that goal through legislation. For example, in order for WIC and FMNP coupons to cover the cost of chicken eggs at farmers’ markets, the drafted legislation proposes to change the definition of “fresh produce” to include fresh eggs. While this change does not mean that chicken eggs now count as a vegetable on your dinner plate, it does mean that WIC and FMNP voucher holders can use their funds to purchase fresh eggs in addition to fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets. In this example, proposing to change a definition achieves a specific goal.

Amendments are a key tool for making a change to a bill that has passed through committee. For example, Dubuque-Gallo sought an amendment to legislation about school meal debt that would allow for the meal debt data to be provided to the school homelessness services liaison as a tool for identifying families at risk of homelessness In this example, the amendment acts as a means to add language that was not originally in the bill but would be valuable to understanding a potential indicator related to school meal debt.

Prepare Your Public Testimony

You have 3 minutes to get your points across. Here’s what you can do to maximize your time in front of the committee hosting the public hearing:

  • Write your testimony down. Make sure you get your key points across in the limited time.
  • Read your testimony out loud prior to your time slot.
  • Understand your legislation and anything that could be related. The committee members can ask you anything!
  • If you have a relationship with a legislator on the committee, try to arrange to have them ask you questions (send them questions). There is no limit to the time spent answering questions.
  • Remember, you will submit your testimony to the committee which will go on public record. So, if you can’t read everything in the 3 minutes, be sure to cover your most important points. 

Working together with a group or organization can help you develop a solid public testimony.

Use a Blend of Stories and Data

Anyone can advocate. You do not need an advanced degree or to be in an agency position to feel passionate about a certain piece of legislation. Dubuque-Gallo recommends using a blend of stories and data in order to craft convincing and persuasive testimony. While data is important, anecdotal evidence may help appeal to legislators on a deeper, more meaningful level. It may also help make your testimony, letter, or email stand out. According to Commissioner Hurlburt, writing something original will be more effective than submitting a form letter, and will help legislators better understand why this bill or change is important to you. It’s still ok to send form letters – but if you can edit them to add your personal voice, they will have a greater impact.

Work with A Group

Connecticut is full of nonprofit, grassroots, and community organizations that advocate for change at the state and local levels. These groups often have networks or sub-groups (coalitions) that focus on specific issues and legislation in order to organize efforts and better enact change. For example, CT Farm to School Collaborative, the organization that sponsored the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant program in HB 6618, organizes members into action teams that can focus on specific goals. Joey Listro, also a team leader for the Resources and Funding action team, worked within his action team to set an agenda, survey the collaborative, fine-tune goals for the action team, and develop an official policy platform. Agenda setting with advocacy groups and action teams happens months before the legislative session begins, so it’s important to get involved early.

Check out CT Farm to School Collaborative’s Bill Journey

Write to Your Local Newspaper

Advocacy can take place outside of the legislature, too. Writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper can help educate people in your area about an issue that you find important. It can also help gather support for different issues and start conversations about legislation that has not yet been drafted. Check out the op-ed that Joey Listro wrote about the CT Grown for CT Kids Program.

Here are some daily newspapers in Connecticut that accept and print letters to the editor:

Help CFSA build an accountability network! Send an email to communications@ctfoodsystemalliance.com to be paired with a buddy who can check on your advocacy work.

An “accountability buddy” would be someone else in the Connecticut Food System Alliance who can check in with you to confirm you’ve both contacted your legislators, or provide feedback on letters or public testimony.

Cindy Dubuque-Gallo contributed to and edited this blog post. To learn more about her work, visit https://ssw.uconn.edu/person/cindy-dubuque-gallo-lmsw-mat/

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