The Missouri legislative session 2003 has not been pretty. With majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans moved forward with bills to trash regulatory agencies, abolish abortion rights, destroy county-based local control and reverse the public's decision to ban concealed weapons. A few of these initiatives have been presented as cost-cutters, economic development, or pro-family but most of us citizen watchdogs see these as pro-industry. And since campaign funding comes from the industry, we're not surprised.
But we keep on showing up, and that makes all the difference.
Our Democratic governor, who has made his share of mistakes, has been whacked with federal budget cuts (who hasn't?). With the veto pen as the only tool in his tool box he seems to be developing a backbone. He's even suggested that citizens be able to vote on whether to tax themselves more. An interesting idea that may lead to citizen input on other budget decisions. Let's see ... more money for education? Or more money to lock up first-time drug offenders? Let me think ...
Still, as the Missouri legislative session ended, two messages were left on my answering machine. One was from a legislator thanking me for my group's input on some agricultural issues, telling me the concerns of my group had been answered, asking if there was more she could do.
The other was from a legislator thanking me for my group's input on some environmental issues, telling me she had worked hard to meet the concerns, saying she looked forward to hearing more of our point of view.
I hadn't voted for either of these legislators, one from each side of the aisle, but I had met with them and left them information. In the battle that has seen more and more power concentrated in the hands of lobbyists, politicians responding to citizen concerns is a good thing.
I immediately called a half dozen friends and played my answering machine for them. With each call, I could hear whoops and giggles as they listened. We don't expect this kind of help from the feds but, on the state level, we can stop the losses and even move the agenda forward.
What had we done? Attended lobby days, sent faxes, distributed flyers, wrote letters, sent e-mail, called on the phone, signed petitions, asked for meetings -- all the stuff citizens are supposed to do. We didn't sit at the coffee shop and complain. Instead, we networked, fought back.
I wrote thank-you notes to both of the legislators and invited them to visit our neighborhood and see the effects of the policies of the past. The giant hog factory across the road has stolen the market and put families out of business. The vacant houses, abandoned by families that decided to move some place where they could breathe clean air are excellent sites for start-up meth labs.
The first challenge for all of us is to understand the issues we care about. That doesn't mean we need answers for every question, but we need to understand our problem well enough to put it into words. Make a list of the government policies that affect your family. Look for connections. Narrow the list to three things you want to change.
Try your ideas out on friends after church, in club meetings, at parties. Say, "you know what bothers me?" and then tell them. Listen to what they say. As Bill Christison told me, we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we talk.
Another friend ends every conversation with "It's an outrage!" or, alternatively, "Is there no justice?" As angry as those words sound, he's caving in. End your conversations with, "There must be something we can do."
When you've talked enough about your issue, you'll have some ideas about how it affects others and what some of the solutions are. Maybe you'll even have a core group. Maybe someone has told you of other people with similar ideas. Find them. Join an organization and ask them to keep you updated on policy issues. Take a group to your state capitol and talk to the representatives.
Everyone loves to connect with other people who share the same passion. In fact, for many of us, these passions give our lives meaning. More, even, than the new Matrix sequel. We begin to share information, learn what other individuals and communities have done, we make plans, we make connections. We find out who the leaders are, who the poets are, who can speak, who can write, who can sing, who can play the drums.
Don't think that we can't work with legislators on both sides of the aisle. Not on every issue, but we can pick our battles carefully, join organizations that move the agenda, celebrate our victories and analyze our losses.
And never never give up.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.