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Political Participation Boot Camp Helps Students Navigate Political Engagement

On April 2, Duke students gathered in Room 04 of the Sanford Building to be part of a “Political Participation Boot Camp.”  Conceived and organized by Duke junior and Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (POLIS) intern Tierney Pretzer, the boot camp was designed to help students navigate some of the intricacies of political engagement.  This “how to” seminar focused on three aspects of participation:

  1. Communicating Your Message, let by Keith Lawrence, executive director of Duke’s Office of News and Communications
  2. Contacting Your Elected Officials, led by Chloe Rockow, Duke ’13 and former press secretary for U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH)
  3. Protest and Direct Action, led by Casey Stanton, Duke Divinity ’16 and former community organizer

Kicking off the event, Keith highlighted various ways to make one’s voice heard, whether through publicizing one’s own work, responding to others’ work, offering media tips and quotes, or writing op-eds and other published commentary.

Sharing a powerful personal story is one very effective method not only for being heard, but also remembered.  He recounted how a graduate student was kicked out of a campaign rally in Fayetteville last year for holding up a protest sign.  This student shared his story on Campaign Stop, Duke’s 2016 election forum.  Among roughly 1,000 pieces of content posted on that site, his write-up became the most read item.

Keith also laid out interview strategies, presenting a three-point plan that included answering the questions “Who are you talking to?” and “What do they know / want / find interesting?”, as well as calling Duke’s Office of News and Communications for advice.  Things to avoid?  Long-winded, complex answers; lecturing on the history of one’s field, going “off the record,” and demanding to see the reporter’s article before it runs (polite requests for interviewee-centric parts are acceptable).

Next, Chloe Rockow walked through the ins and outs of how congressional offices operate, from legislating to constituent services to cultivating positive press.  She offered various ways constituents can communicate with their representatives or the offices of those representatives, including phone calls, letters, e-mails, and social media.  However, these four methods are generally addressed by congressional offices’ junior-level staff members and interns.  When they say “I’ll pass on your concerns to Senator Smith,” that doesn’t mean she or he will pass anything along.

But members who are most interested in constituent concerns tend to foster office cultures where every member of the staff shares those principles, which impacts how the member and staff draft legislation, engage with constituents, and so on.  Learning how your representatives operate can help one determine how best to convey one’s message.

Chloe advised that form e-mails—while easy to fill out and submit—are usually ignored.  To be heard through the written word, one’s message should be personal, brief, and conveyed as a call to action.  “The best letter I ever received,” she said, “was one sentence long: ‘Don’t vote for this bill.’”

In the end, face-to-face communications are the most effective ways to engage with one’s elected officials.  Town hall events often include constituent questions, not all of which are scripted / pre-planned.  And staff meetings are useful tools, especially when meeting with a staffer who manages the issue you care most about.  The key is to be brief, clear, passionate, and equipped with statistics on how the issue impacts the representative’s district or state.

Finally, Casey Stanton offered perspectives on effective protest and direct action.  “The history of American protest is the history of America,” she said, and then invited students to share the many ways Americans have challenged the status quo to make our nation greater.

The First Amendment, she said, gives “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  She then asked what people thought of when they hear the word “protest” and probed the audience on their experiences protesting.

But her talk wasn’t merely about protesting, which is one of many strategies contained within “nonviolent direct action.”  Some people choose to join in collective action, transitioning from apathy or complaining to some degree of engagement.  It arises when people realize they have something at stake, and also have a voice to express their views.  “All action is in the reaction,” she said.

Direct action comes in many forms, including protest marches, boycotts, strikes, human blockades, picket lines, sit-ins, public meetings, and civil disobedience.  Casey recounted how the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina Capitol was a reaction to civil disobedience—by people who committed themselves to direct action.

Casey shared that in this field, “there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies—only permanent interests.”  Those engaged in this arena must learn how to work with anyone who shares their commitment, even if they’ve been on opposite sides of previous endeavors.

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