In this Age of Abramoff, some grassroots activists find themselves going unheard in Harrisburg and Washington. But on Mon., May 8, they can receive plenty of training to further their causes, as the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter hosts a workshop featuring speakers on how lobbyists give and receive.
Voices favoring conservative legislation seem to be drowning out more progressive thinkers, says Lisa Krebs, ACLU's community education organizer. A case in point: the push for a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as strictly between one man and one woman, negating other forms of marital arrangement. The amendment, House Bill 2381, is currently under consideration.
"There is a lot of lobbying on the other side in support of this amendment," says Krebs. "We need to be galvanizing people ... and to build a broader lobbying base." Because of the distance between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, "we tend to get isolated out here," she adds.
Called "Stand Up and Stand Out," the ACLU training has invited state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill) to share tips on how advocates can ensure their message reaches elected officials.
Before being elected to the General Assembly, Frankel sat on the other of the table to advocate on behalf of the United Jewish Federation in Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition.
"Advocates need to understand what they're going into," he says. "People need to be knowledgeable about the issue and the counter-arguments and what their opponents are saying."
Even given her experience in getting an audience with state legislators and their staffs, Janet Hunt says the chance to hear directly from Frankel may help hone her advocacy. Hunt, of East Liberty, suffers from depression and belongs to an advocacy group organized by the Mental Health Association of Allegheny County. She frequently travels to Harrisburg to speak to legislators.
"Just as they want to know our story, we want to know their story," she says. "You become more educated and savvy. What moves them is personal testimony. They want to see what a person with mental illness looks like, and what his or her personal story is."
The need for advocacy training, especially for those in social services, also stems from funding shortfalls in public transportation and services for the disabled. In recent years, both beneficiaries and providers of such services have found themselves fending off budget cuts by telling legislators no, straight to their faces.
Family Services of Western Pennsylvania will hold a separate training for advocates for mental health issues on May 12. As coordinator of public education for the county mental health association, Rachel Freund will have plenty to speak about at the May 12 event. Freund has taken advocates and social workers to Harrisburg by the busload in order to rally against cuts to services that are crucial for the disabled.
"In this political climate, people feel under siege, and they have to work hard and stand their ground to preserve their funding," says Freund. "They feel that they need to have a greater political presence than ever before."
"Stand Up and Stand Out": 7 p.m., Mon., May 8, Carnegie Library, Squirrel Hill, 5801 Forbes Ave.