Thursday, March 1, 2012

Advocacy Day Adventures

By Leslie Howard

The American Association of Museums recently held its fourth annual Museums Advocacy Day in our nation's Capitol. Over 300 people attended the two day event. There were over 20 people representing New England museums. NEMA's executive director, Dan, attended last year and I was excited to be able to attend this year along with my YEPs PAG co-chairs Kate Laurel Burgess-Mac Intosh and Zerah Jakub.

Our first day was a full day of training- learning more about the issues like funding for the Office of Museums Services at IMLS, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and charitable giving. We learned advocacy etiquette, like not to bring your pets with you on your visit to the Hill, and to expect to meet with staff members, not the Members of Congress themselves. We had time to meet with other advocates from our state and districts and plan our strategies.
Monday night we headed to Capitol Hill for a reception where AAM honored members of Congress for their service to museums and the field.

The next morning, we woke early to head back to the Hill for a breakfast with remarks from several members of Congress, and NEMA's own Dan Yaeger. After breakfast we headed off to our meetings.

The Massachusetts advocates met first with Senator John Kerry. We all received calls the night before informing us that our meeting location had changed. Little did we know that, because there were so many of us, we were going to meet with a member of Senator Kerry's staff in the Committee on Foreign Relations hearing room! That was the first cool "wow I am really here doing this" moment of the day. We had a terrific meeting with Megan, snapped a quick picture and we went our separate ways.

New Hampshire was under represented at advocacy day, so Dan offered to visit those offices. Knowing Massachusetts was in good hands, I gladly accepted Dan’s offer to join him visiting New Hampshire's members of Congress. I grew up in New Hampshire and much of my immediate family lives there, so I felt like I was an honorary constituent. We met with staff from Senator Jeanne Shaheen's office and took a picture with Oscar the Moose in Senator Kelly Ayotte's office. After a quick lunch break, Dan and I met up again for a meeting with Representative Charlie Bass. We were both excited for this meeting because our schedule indicated we were going to actually meet with the Congressman himself.

I arrived a few minutes early and waited outside the office for Dan to arrive from his other meeting. Now, to back track a bit, we were warned during training that not all of our meetings will happen the way we think they will. They could be five minutes long, they could be much longer, or they could happen while walking down the hallway while the member of Congress or staff was en route to a vote or another meeting. It was important then, they stressed, that we knew exactly what action we wanted the representative to take. Fast forward, then, to our meeting with Charlie Bass...

...I was minding my own business standing outside his office when I caught a glimpse of him in the hallway. I got a little star struck, I admit it. I overheard that he was in the middle of a meeting. Rep. Bass then walked right up to me and asked if I was waiting to meet with him. I said, "Yes, I am! My name is Leslie Howard and I work for the New England Museum Association. I also grew up in Bedford." He apologized that he was in another meeting, that I would meet with a member of his staff and asked that I sum up why I am here to talk about museums in two minutes.

This was my shot! I had two minutes! What to say?! I said, as clearly and as succinctly as possible that we would like him to sign onto a "Dear Colleague letter" to support funding for the Institute of Museums and Library Services. He said he'd love to take a look at it and he disappeared back into his office.

Just a minute later, I saw Dan walking down the hall, right on time for our 1:30 meeting. I said, "You just missed our meeting with the Congressman!" I explained to him what happened and that we were still going to meet with someone from his office, but our meeting with the Congressman himself happened just outside in the hallway, just like we were warned, and I had to give the quickest presentation that I have ever given.

The rest of the day's meetings went very well. With Neil Gordon of the Discovery Museums and Kate, I visited the office of Rep. Niki Tsongas, representing the 5th Massachusetts district, and my town of Westford. I ended the day at Rep. Frank Guinta's office.

It was whirlwind two day experience that I will never forget. I often found myself singing "oh I'm just a bill..." and played scenes from West Wing and The American President in my head while taking in the sights and sounds of being on Capitol Hill. It was fascinating to see each member's office, the Committee on Foreign Relations Hearing Room, Oscar the Moose, sketches of Jack Kerouac in Rep. Tsongas’ office, and my quick solo meeting with Charlie Bass.

I eat, sleep, and breathe museums and sometimes forget that not everyone else does. I don't think a day goes by when I don't think about or talk about IMLS with my colleagues. It is an acronym we do not have to define when speaking with them and they automatically know how vital the organization is to the field. Of course, I will take away one very, VERY important thing. I was shocked (naively), when we asked during every meeting, if the person knew what IMLS was. Of the New England advocates that we spoke to, only ONE office had ever heard of IMLS before. If we only raised awareness about museums by letting our Congressmen and women know that the language of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act harms museums and that the Institute for Museum and Library Services exists and is the only source of federal funding for museums, I will consider my trip a success. And that is why what we did in Washington, D.C. was so important and why it must continue year round.