Every year during the last week of February, hundreds of museum staff, volunteers, and supporters from across the US gather in Washington, DC and meet with legislators and their staff for Museums Advocacy Day. This event is organized by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), and for the last four years, CWAM has had at least two members attend to talk to legislators representing both Colorado and Wyoming.
The ultimate goal of Museums Advocacy Day is to have conversations about the importance of museums and cultural organizations in our communities. Advocates also ask for legislators’ support for the Office of Museum Services (OMS) at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which need to have funding renewed every year, and other pertinent issues to museums and cultural organizations. Museum advocates (who are also usually constituents representing their own districts or states) are well suited to speak to legislators, because legislators want to know what is going on in their areas and how it impacts their constituents.
What is it like to participate in Museums Advocacy Day?
Museums Advocacy Day is a two-day event at the end of February. Anyone interested in participating has to register, the deadline for which is usually around the end of January. You can indicate your advocacy level (beginner, intermediate, advanced), and you can also specify what area(s) you want to represent: your home district, your work district, your whole state, and/or another state. About a week before the event, AAM provides digital copies of the year’s Advocate Handbook, which includes: summaries of the most pertinent issues for museums that year, congressional office contact info and voting records of legislators in regards to museum-specific issues, a map of Capitol Hill, and general facts about museums and the impacts on their communities. They also send individual agendas for everyone detailing when and where the office visits will be, and with whom they will be meeting. The night before the event officially begins, there are meetups and opportunities for networking.
The first full day is “advocacy bootcamp,” where speakers who specialize in advocacy and politics teach everyone how to communicate effectively with legislators and staff, with emphasis on the importance of how to “make the ask.” There are also additional speakers who delve into more detail about the topics in the Advocate Handbook, as well as analyses of the current state of Capitol Hill. At lunchtime, everyone breaks to go eat at tables with other advocates from their state, and it is a good time to get to know colleagues. At the end of the day, there is more time to get together with the state delegation to go over the plan for the office visits, and also practice talking points. AAM provides sample scripts, and it is always encouraged to personalize them to talk about your museum or organization, issues that directly affect the community, and topics that specific Congresspeople are interested in.
The second day is office visits. Members of the House and Senate are divided across five different buildings on Capitol Hill; while underground tunnels connect some of them, access may vary, and sometimes you get to go topside and walk at the street level. It’s a great opportunity for exercise and to view historic buildings, but it’s definitely advised to wear comfortable shoes! The visits themselves can be a little nerve-racking at first, but after the first couple of meetings, everyone eases into a sort of “talking routine”: everyone exchanges business cards (which are very important to obtain from staffers so that you can follow up later), advocates present folders of information provided by AAM, and if there are multiple people in the delegation, everyone goes through the talking points chosen for that meeting. It’s most likely that advocates will talk to a staffer, and they will be engaged in the conversation and take notes to pass on to their bosses. At the end of the day, there is a Congressional Reception with food and beverages, which staffers and Congresspeople are also invited to attend. During the Reception, AAM also takes time to honor a legislator that has worked to benefit the museum community.
After Museums Advocacy Day, the “advocacy” isn’t over yet; indeed, the post-visit follow-up can be more important than the visit itself. Legislators and their staff see many visitors and advocates for all sorts of causes in a given week, and it is important to touch base again to remind them of the visit. Additionally, because Museums Advocacy Day is largely about renewing funding for the OMS or reauthorizing IMLS, a big “ask” is for legislators to indicate their support for these offices. Shortly after Museums Advocacy Day, specific Congresspeople in the House of Representatives and the Senate will initiate the circulation of “dear colleague” letters, and part of the follow-up is to ask them to sign these letters. Staffers also will sometimes have asked questions that you didn’t know the answer to—and it’s ok to not have all the answers—so it’s important to make a note of it, do research after the visit, and follow-up as soon as possible.
Advocate from work or home!
Museums Advocacy Day is a very rewarding experience, but you don’t have to go to DC to be an advocate. Indeed, advocating from work or home has never been easier! AAM has a number of resources on their website dedicated to general advocacy skills, topics specifics to museums advocacy, and how to invite local, state, and federal Congresspeople to visit your museum.
While having in-person visits is the most effective form of advocacy communication, phone calls are a close second, as well as emails directed to specific staffers. Social media is also starting to make bigger waves with Congresspeople, particularly when you @ them and post positive comments about your interactions with them or their staff, but having direct contact with a person is always best. Phone calls are not only efficient, they also only take a couple of minutes! Staffers are putting issues from callers into a tally, so calls don’t need to be argumentative or persuasive. Just choose 1-2 subjects, and have a short script or bullet points to help keep you focused and calm. Here is what a sample call can sound like:
“Hello, my name is ___, and I am a constituent in [city, state, zip code]. I am calling today to ask that Senator/Congressperson support… [OR] I would like to voice my concern about…”
When you are finishing up the call—or any interaction with legislators or staff—be sure to thank them!
by Stefani S. Pendergast