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Before the Town Hall
1. Find the dates and locations of town hall meetings. The month of August is popular for town halls because members of Congress are usually home for what is known as “August recess.” But that is not the only time of year when your member will hold public town halls.
- Research when Congress is in session and working in Washington, DC versus when they are in recess. You can find the congressional Senate schedule at www.senate.gov/legislative/2017_schedule.htm and the House schedule at www.house.gov/legislative/.
- Sign up for email alerts or newsletters from your members of Congress.
- Call the local district office of your Representative or state offices of your Senators and ask about upcoming town hall meetings.
2. Find out the meeting format. If details about the format and agenda of the town hall meeting are not included in the announcement, visit the policymaker’s website or call the office to try to learn more. There may be a procedure in place to take questions in advance of the meeting, and you don’t want to miss your chance to ask a question.
3. Prepare your question in advance.
- Avoid yes or no questions. Instead base it on an action, such as asking how they will solve a specific problem.
Example Question: There are students on my campus who were brought to this country as children. There are millions of them across the United States who want nothing more than to get an education and contribute to our society, the only home they have ever known. What will you do to protect these children that pose no threat to our country, have come here at no fault of their own, and want a chance to give back?
- Do your research. Review the websites of your members of Congress and search news articles to learn the stances they are taking on issues important to you and how they have voted on recent legislation. Find materials designed for policymakers about the issues and legislation at www.nafsa.org/policy.
Example Question: I understand you voted against comprehensive immigration bills in the past, and I’m concerned about how this affects international students. In addition to the invaluable academic, culture, and security benefits, these students contribute $33 billion dollars and 400,000 jobs to the U.S. economy. But we are in a global competition for talent and because of our broken immigration system, we are at risk of losing all that they have to offer. What will you do to fix our broken immigration system?
- If you are asking about a specific bill, be prepared to explain it. Thousands of bills are introduced in each session of Congress, and members have not memorized all of them. Find materials designed for policymakers about the issues and legislation at www.nafsa.org/policy.
Example Question: Students graduating today need international education in order to compete and thrive in today’s global economy, but only 2% of students study abroad each year. I urge you to support the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which is a bipartisan bill that would exponentially increase study abroad rates. The bill would create a modest program of challenge grants to incentivize colleges and universities to make study abroad an integral part of higher education, and also increase the diversity of students and location of study abroad. Can I count on you to support this bill, and can you also explain how you will work to ensure that our students can thrive in today’s global economy?
- Bring numbers and stories to make your case. Members of Congress are more likely to prioritize an issue if they understand how constituents are being affected. Along with quantitative data (ex: www.nafsa.org/economicvalue), bring personal stories about how an issue is affecting you or someone you know.
Example Question: I advise international students on a daily basis. Two incredibly bright students from China just informed me that they were no longer going to attend our local college, and instead enroll in a Canadian university because of Canada’s friendlier immigration laws. What will do you in Congress to fix our immigration system and ensure that we don’t lose out on all the benefits international students have to offer?
During the Town Hall
1. Arrive early and double-check the meeting format. Once you arrive, check to see if there is an established procedure for asking a question or making a statement at the meeting. If there is no sign-in sheet, seek out a staff person and inquire as to the format and procedure, and be sure to comply with the rules so that you are able to ask your question.
2. Raise your hand immediately! Most members of Congress will take questions by calling on the audience. There will likely be many people with questions, and the more eager and willing you are to jump in, the more likely it is that you’ll get a chance to speak.
3. Be clear and concise. Make it as easy as possible for your member of Congress to understand exactly what your concerns are and what you expect of them.
4. Be polite. You’ll want to avoid language that will put your member of Congress on the defensive and result in a more guarded, non-committal response. Most people tend to be more amenable when approached with a respectful tone, and members of Congress are no different.
5. Remember it’s ok to say “I don’t know” if the member of Congress or congressional staffer asks you a follow-up question to which you don’t know the answer. Take detailed notes and let them know you will try to find the answer. Feel free to contact NAFSA’s Public Policy team at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions. Try to respond to the congressional staff within the next day or two to make yourself a trusted resource.
6. Don’t leave early. After the event is often the best time to further your advocacy efforts by asking additional questions to Congressional staff members. You may even have the chance to speak directly with the member.
7. Bring business cards and network. There will likely be people at the event who care about the same issues you do—take time to get to know them and increase your circle! Advocacy is most effective when large numbers of people are speaking out with one voice on one issue.
8. Find a Congressional staff member and exchange contact info. The most direct route to a member’s ear is through their staff, and it’s their job to listen to your concerns. Don’t hesitate to ask for their card so that you can follow up and build what may be a vital relationship for your advocacy efforts.
After the Town Hall
1. Stay engaged in your issue, keeping track of actions your member of Congress takes. To be an effective advocate, you’ll need to keep up with current events and know how your member responds.
2. Follow up with an email or call to the member’s office for a progress report. This is a great opportunity to strengthen connections with Congressional staff members and let them know that you can be a resource. Ask if there is anything you can do to help, like provide compelling stories on your issue.
3. Share your success and strategize next steps. Share your feedback from your meeting with the NAFSA Public Policy team at email@example.com. We’ll help you strategize on what to do next to advance our policy agenda of creating a more globally engaged and welcoming United States.
4. Stay engaged with your member on social media. Give them a shout out when they help drive your issue forward, or politely express your frustration when they don’t. This is a quick and easy way to publicly let your member know you’re paying attention.
5. Stay in touch with other advocates you met who attended the town hall. You may find that you have a lot in common and are more productive when you work together to advocate for your shared issues!