What is it Like to Lobby Your Elected Officials? Reflections from Ohio Secular Summit 2.0

Buxi and HeidiWith temperatures below 0 degrees causing local schools and some universities to cancel classes, a group of nontheists from around the state gathered at the Ohio Statehouse for the Ohio Secular Summit on January 28, 2014. It was the second annual event of its kind in Ohio, once again organized by Center for Inquiry - Northeast Ohio. The number of participants doubled to about 20 compared to last year, and nearly half of those who attended were members or friends of HCCO.

The morning started with several speakers who covered topics including political trends of interest to secular voters, recent legislation affecting reproductive rights and separation of church and state in Ohio, a story about a local community that successfully reversed an extreme ideological turn within their school board, and tips for lobbying our elected officials. After lunch, participants went to meet with their respective state senators and representatives to introduce ourselves as secular voters and to share our concerns about legislation currently under consideration at the General Assembly.

So what does it feel like to sit down with your legislator or a member of their staff? What is it like to talk to them about what we value as secular voters? Here are reflections from some of the participants:

It was a little nerve-wracking thinking about marching up to your (most likely conservative, white, cisgender, Christian, male) senator or representative and saying, "Hey, I'm a secular constituent and I wanted to express what I do and don't like about these bills." Yikes!

Luckily for all involved, I found it to be a relatively painless and downright empowering experience. Our politicians work for us, and we have every right to communicate our displeasure with their actions, as well as to reinforce the things they're doing that we approve of. Most often I found that congress people aren't even aware that they have secular constituents, let alone the nuances of their concerns. Simply by showing up and making our voices heard, we had a positive impact on the way that secular citizens are viewed and increased awareness of our priorities and values. If you're on the fence about Secular Summit 3.0, give it a try! You'll be surprised what you gain from the experience.

- Heidi

Secular Summit was an empowering experience. The speaker lineup really made it feel like everyone's attendance was meaningful - the presentations reinforced that change starts with a group of like-minded people, organizing and broadcasting their message.

Meeting with my elected officials was so refreshing! When I entered my state representative's office, I asked if I should get a coaster to put my water on the desk before taking a seat. He said, "It doesn't matter. At the end of the day, it's your desk." Right from the outset, I felt like he understood that his office works for me, not a personal god.

- Buxi

Noah, Doris, and Doug

This experience was a first for me. I can't say I was nervous or reluctant as I had no expectations other than getting my foot in the door and breaking the ice. Being in a super-conservative red district meant aiming for small victories, that of which is acknowledging the non-theists of their districts and the positive influence we showcase. After I handed the secular folder containing contact information of who we are & our concerns, I felt reassured when the aide acknowledged that people can be good without god, making eye-contact and nodding in agreement as I made that comment. We shall see if the small things like that make a difference as I intend to follow up in the coming weeks.

I look forward to more events in the future with those that represent us. I also encourage anyone who may have reservations to at least give it one shot. This way, even if it doesn't live up to what you may have hoped, you will know what to expect going forward and plan accordingly. This was too important of an opportunity for me to turn down and I hope to further improve my contributions if it's 'This One Thing I Do',.. in spirit of Susan B. Anthony & Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

- Noah

The Secular Summit was a worthwhile experience. Starting out with presentations about different bills currently up for consideration and learning about the lobbying process flowed smoothly into appointments with our legislators. Secular Summit organizers scheduled my meetings for me, which helped to streamline the process. I met with my legislators (one representative and a senator's aide) along with several others, and we expressed our concerns with specific bills. It was a quick and easy process. My representative asked questions about Center for Inquiry and was quite personable. Follow up was also super simple, as we had folders with brief summaries of several bills. I will definitely do it again!

- Rita Messer

I went with four other people (who were also in HCCO) to meet with the staff of Senator Jim Hughes (R-16). Each of us were able to make our points. The staff person noted everything we said and accepted the folder of information we brought for the Senator. Later I went alone to meet with an aide to Representative Cheryl Grossman (R-23). I didn't think I did as well as I did in the Hughes meeting but I did make all my points and left a folder with her office.

I've always wanted to participate in a lobby day. In person visits with our elected officials or their staffs is a great way to let them know we exist and what our views are. Our representatives act based on the information they receive and if we seculars don't give them our information then how can we complain if they don't support our views? Sometimes we need to get out of our parent's basement.

- Doug Berger

After lunch and after a speaker who had talked with us about "how to lobby," a small group of us met with a member of my state senator's support staff [who had very cordially taken notes during our meeting]; an even smaller number of us met, an hour or so later, with my state representative herself.

Ohio Representative Stephanie Kunze is a Republican who represents portions of Upper Arlington and Hilliard. I described to Stephanie having attended an "advocacy event" for people with developmental disabilities in the Statehouse Atrium sometime during 2013 and told her that I had been greatly disappointed by Ohio Governor John Kasich's speech during that event because his speech had been "just a bunch of God language." I pointed out to Stephanie that, among those who indeed do "believe" in "God," different people define the word "God" differently; I stated very clearly to Stephanie that it is not the state's business to be using "God language" -- and, in particular, it is not the State's business to appear to be claiming to know which definition of "God" should be "definitive" for all.

- Bob Roehm

This report was compiled by Agnes