Back in 2011-13, I was crisscrossing the country for an ongoing series of advocacy meetings we called “roadshows.” I was working at the Alliance for International Exchange, and I visited everywhere from Norman, OK, to Columbia, SC, to Kansas City, MO, to Ft. Worth, TX. In each location, I gathered a small group of exchange supporters and practitioners from universities and NGOs, and we paid a collective visit to local Congressional offices.
Milwaukee, WI was also a frequent stop, especially to visit the office of Sen. Ron Johnson. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and representing a strong Summer Work Travel (SWT) host state (the Wisconsin Dells and Door County are home to many SWT students each summer), he was a key advocacy target.
While all of these meetings felt important, they were also sometimes deflating. Advocacy can be like that. It’s rare that you’ll leave any given meeting with a very specific outcome or a solid promise of action. Throughout the more than 30 meetings I did during those roadshows, I never walked out with a promise. I wasn’t expecting to, not in those specific moments. But even so, after awhile, I began to doubt. Were these roadshows worth it? Was I accomplishing anything?
Then in May of 2013, I got a call from Sen. Johnson’s Milwaukee office. This was in the thick of the Senate’s try at a comprehensive immigration overhaul. A small piece of that 1,000 page bill was going to significantly harm exchange programs, so we’d jumped into a full court press to get that provision changed.
I’d met with Johnson’s Milwaukee staff four times over the previous three years, so I had a good relationship with them. And it was because of this relationship that they called me – to say that Sen. Johnson was holding a series of town hall meetings over the Memorial Day recess. They wanted to be supportive but needed constituents to raise the issue directly to the Senator, so it’d be a good idea for us to show up. And so we did. Wisconsin businesses who host SWT students came out in force, delivering a loud message of support for the program at nearly all of those town halls.
And wouldn’t you know it: the first day after recess, I got an email from Johnson’s DC office asking: what can we do to help? From there, Sen. Johnson ended up leading a charge that would ultimately result in that harmful provision in the Senate immigration bill being removed. And that all started by showing up and creating a relationship.
The arc of advocacy bends long. It might not be this meeting, or the next one, or even the next one. But persistent, patient effort, and an emphasis on personal relationships, are crucial. If you look first and foremost to make connections, and then you keep at it, the tangible results will come.
After studying in France and teaching in China, Mark was hooked on cultural exchange. He's worked in the field of international education and exchange for more than 10 years, and is InterExchange's Vice President of External Affairs.