A Trip to Olympia, or How I Became a Lobbyist

21 February 2008

On February 11th, 2008, over 1000 people from over 70 countries, all of whom now live in the state of Washington, visited Olympia (our state capitol) for the second annual Refugee and Immigrant Legislative Day. I decided to take a day off work and attend. Here are some observations from the day:

  • The schedule for the day: a bus trip to Olympia, a rally, some time to visit legislators, and a bus trip back.
  • The legislative agenda for the trip: improve programs that help immigrants become citizens, housing assistance, English as a Second Language classes with child care and transportation included, and better programs for immigrant children in the public schools.
  • The parts of this legislative agenda that I feel strongest about are the educational components. For instance, in my volunteer work (teaching English to adults, interpreting between Spanish-speaking immigrants and social service agencies, and helping out with various school and after-school programs for children), I have met many adults who have difficulties attending ESL classes, due to scheduling, transportation, and child care issues. Yet learning the language is a key determinant of well-being among adult immigrants, so I feel it is important to improve access to ESL classes for immigrants. The issue of education for their children is also crucial, and our schools are generally failing to educate children who arrive as English-language learners -- the schools do not currently have the resources to overcome the barriers that these children face (lack of grade-level educational background prior to arrival, reading/speaking English at far below grade level, difficulties for teachers in communicating with parents, and less parental academic support because the parents also may lack English skills and/or educational background).
  • At the rally, there were many inspirational words, mostly about how much immigrants matter to our state. One speaker, an immigrant from Korea who is now a state representative in the legislature, addressed the crowd and said, "Some day, maybe one of your children might become the President of the United States" (this made me think of Barack Obama, who is the son of an immigrant). Another speaker used the analogy of our country being a "tapestry" of people -- each person a single thread, easily broken, different colors and sizes; together a strong and beautiful fabric.
  • After the rally, we were encouraged to visit our state representatives. I went to see Maralyn Chase, one of my two representatives in the state House, and had a long conversation with her about the issues. She seemed very receptive, and very interested in my experiences and observations, as well as the legislative agenda papers I gave her. I felt like that conversation made the trip worthwhile.
  • Sometime during my conversation with Representative Chase, I said that I wasn't sure how things really got done in the legislature, and she said "This is how things get done" (referring to our conversation). I realized at that moment that I was lobbying my representative: trying to convince her to support a certain legislative agenda. So I am now a lobbyist!
  • When our bus returned to the Literacy Source (the agency where I have been teaching ESL), the program coordinator congratulated me on moving from just being a volunteer service provider to being an activist, which has fewer negative connotations than the word lobbyist... but I still say that I am a lobbyist.
  • Although the trip was short (we left after the morning rush hour, and returned before the evening rush hour, so there wasn't a lot of time actually spent in Olympia), I thought it was very worthwhile. I hope that most of the people who went had the opportunity to talk, one-on-one or in small groups, with their elected representatives -- although the rally was good for inspiration, I don't think it was likely to accomplish much, on its own. In my opinion, the lobbying time was the most worthwhile part of the trip.
  • I heard recently on the news that our governor had signed a new bill establishing a state-wide panel to study the situation of immigrants, in regards to what services they have and what services they need. This seems like a good idea. It apparently came about through lobbying by the organizers of the trip I participated in, probably partly as a result of last year's lobbying efforts, but it was a nice coincidence coming so soon after this year's trip.
  • Maybe next year, rather than spending all that time on the bus, and standing in the rain at a rally, we could all visit our representatives during the part of the year when the legislature is not in session. The representatives would have more time (for instance, my state senator was not available the day we were there, and the two state house members were pretty busy with meetings), and we wouldn't have to spend time driving to Olympia, because the legislators would be at their offices in our districts (no more than a few miles from home). Though probably, without the buses and the rally, not too many of us would actually make the effort to do it (for instance, I have rarely even written or called my representatives before now).... So, the Olympia trip was probably the right way to do this, after all.