Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Six degrees of legislation

On Monday, for the first time, I became a lobbyist. I went to Sacramento with CHIRLA and talked with legislators and their aides about budget and legislative issues that have (or could have) a tremendous impact on immigrants in California. You know what I realized over the course of losing my lobby cherry? Well, I'll tell you.

1. The state capital has an ongoing battle with Paris, France to be the city with the most trees.

2. The state capitol has a fancy diorama for every county in California.

3. Carl's Jr. has three vegetarian items on their menu: fries, onion rings, and fried zucchini. There are three salads on the menu--none is vegetarian.

4. I can still speak a little Spanish if I have to. I tried speaking Spanish for the first time in almost 10 years, and it worked! I also, by the end of the trip, could understand it a hell of a lot better than I could at the beginning. Language education as young as possible, people!

5. Lobbying is easy. Like really easy. It was like having a conversation with someone who's being paid to listen to you talk, except not in a therapisty way because you don't have to share uncomfortably personal details. How effective it is, well that's another question. I rode many elevators with professional lobbyists from Fox, Comcast, Cablevision, etc. They clearly were highly paid (more so than the legislators' aides, I'd imagine) and spent all day every day schmoozing. We were there for about four hours, volunteering.

6. I have a theory about government. I call it "six degrees of legislation" because legislation almost rhymes with Kevin Bacon, but it's really about government in general. It works like this: think of a bill/law, a budget item, a politician, or a program run by the government of the place where you live. I will choose, by way of example, AB 2010, a bill in the California Assembly that would allow the state's Department of Housing and Community Development to consider children's school terms as a factor in determining how long migrant farm worker housing will remain open each year. In six steps or fewer, I can connect that bill to a specific impact on my own life. In this case, I know as a teacher that students who have to change schools in accordance with the growing season instead of the school schedule will learn less and will have few to no social connections in their new schools, which they often enter with very little time left in the school year. Students who don't learn don't test well, in addition to the primary detriment which is NOT LEARNING. Students who don't test well don't get into UCLA, where I teach. Migrant farm workers are overwhelmingly poor people of color; fewer children of migrant farm workers means (slightly) whiter, richer classes for me to teach.

This is one example. It seems to have very little to do with me, since I'm not a migrant farm worker or the child of one, and since I don't even teach children, for the most part. But it hits me, in only four steps. I guarantee you that this will be true for me for every California law, in addition to every West Hollywood law, LA county law, and federal law. And it's true for you, too, no matter where you live. This realization shook me. I consider myself political; I know that what happens in politics, however slimy and despicable, has an impact on people. I didn't know, though, that everything that happens in politics has an impact on everyone.

Give it a try. Pick a law that has no direct impact on you or your family. Pick a politician from another part of your state. Six degrees, or your money back.

So what do we do with this knowledge? We can't all be lobbyists, right? Actually, we can all be lobbyists in our spare time. Call a legislator. Visit her office. Send him an honest-to-goodness physical letter, handwritten if possible. Tell the staffers how their bosses' positions have a real, tangible impact on your life. Make the job actually about people, not about abstract ideas, numbers, spin, and steaming piles of bullshit. It helps. It's needed. The tall men in fancy suits will keep riding the Capitol elevators to explain why the cable companies deserve assistance; the least we can do is try to counterbalance with a little reality.

Oh, and also a big white truck driver came up to me in Carl's Jr. and instead of trying to intimidate me because of my pink platform flip-flops and dangly earring, which was what I expected, he tried to intimidate me because of my pro-immigrant T-shirt. This was the same day that a Latino legislator assumed, from my looks, that I was from Mexico City. Context is amazing...


Leila said...

too bad he didn't try to intimidate you by being twice your size. it's what i woulda done ;)

thanks for the 6 degrees. i'm going to try it. maybe bring it to my students too.

Adam G said...

She's not kidding, she's twice our size, man.