I recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for a Grassroots Engagement Training sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Leaving for this trip, I felt two very strong, very opposite emotions. On one hand, I was excited to travel and see all that Washington, D.C., had to offer and to meet some of the AFBF staff. But on the other hand, I was dreading the thought listening to someone tell me about politics and how important it is to be involved and to care about what is happening.
I get it, public policy affects me and it is important but I have never been fired up about it. I often thought it doesn’t pay for me to tell my story because there are so many people working against me that my voice won’t be heard. My approach to all things political could be described as passive participant but active complainer … sound like anyone you know? I fully admit guilt to being in this category.
My trip to Washington, D.C., however, completely changed how I view public policy and the role I hold in the process.
The first thing we did was break out into teams with fellow conference attendees. There were four people on a team and each team was to assume the position of a newly-elected representative for a simulation. We were given a description for the district that we represented including demographics for our constituents and a brief background on issues affecting the area. There were 11 rounds to the simulation that would last approximately two hours and represented two years of service in our role, with the goal of being re-elected.
Each round presented different challenges such as voting on issues that may not mesh with our personal beliefs, but matched the wants and desires of our constituents. Figuring out how to vote on an issue was much easier when our ’constituents’ contacted our ’office’ and told us where they stand; however, there were times when we voted the way it seemed most of our constituents wanted and after the vote, we received a report that another group was unhappy with the decision.
This was frustrating because it wasn’t expected and we hadn’t heard anything from people on that side of the issue.
In the end, it gave us a greater appreciation for the role our representatives play. They need to vote on issues in which they have little background knowledge or have little input from the people they represent.
The next task that we were challenged with was to visit a Congressional office and discuss how Farm Bureau members communicate and how we can improve. The participants had a large group discussion about what we learned and identified some common areas of improvement.
Nearly every person mentioned that their representative or senator wants to hear more from Farm Bureau members. Many of them said they hear from hundreds of people in opposition to what farmers and agriculturists support, making it hard to determine which side of the issue would best represent their district.
Now this doesn’t mean you need to fly to D.C. for a meeting every time an issue presents itself. I learned that email is one of the most effective ways to contact legislators and there are district offices within our state that serve as a liaison between us and D.C. Our representatives and senators look to us to politely share our views with a personal story that explains why voting one way or the other will have an impact.
I have never involved myself in the public policy world because it was never something that interested me, but after this trip, my eyes are open to why it is important to be a member of Farm Bureau and to be an active participant in policy.
We have a responsibility to speak up because the lawmakers who represent us want to hear from us. Together we can make a difference.
Sarah Marketon serves as the Director of Communication for Wisconsin Farm Bureau. She is a Minnesota native and an active member of the swine industry, which sparked her interest in helping farmers share their story. She is passionate about answering consumers’ questions about how food is raised and encouraging farmers to engage in those conversations.
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