Nayantara Mehta

Learning to Lobby for Reproductive Justice

It’s too easy for legislators to make decisions without being confronted by the human toll of those choices. Our role as nonprofit advocates is to keep reminding them of the hard realities of life for many of their constituents.

Lobbying is a skill we can all learn. This is one of the main takeaways from my year-long fellowship with the Women’s Policy Institute. We don’t need to be based in D.C., Sacramento, or other state capitols to be able to weigh in, speak out, and support the public’s engagement with their elected representatives. Nor does lobbying have to be your full-time job to make a difference.

The team working on the bill and Assemblymember Holly Mitchell, holding the frame.

The team working on the bill and Assemblymember Holly Mitchell, holding the frame.

I’m learning this firsthand as part of the WPI team working to pass AB 271, which would repeal the “family cap” the government places on families receiving federal aid, limiting the number of children they can have. After rehearsing our message in support of AB 271, this past month we’ve focused on meeting with legislators and/or their staff, and preparing for legislative hearings.

Our first victory

Last week we celebrated the news that AB 271 made it past a crucial hurdle. It was voted out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which assesses the financial impact of proposed legislation. I will admit I was pretty nervous about that vote, because some legislators have been hesitant to support legislation with a high price tag. But we have said over and over that the Maximum Family grant is a failed and immoral policy, and happily, all of the Democrats on the Appropriations Committee seem to have agreed with us.

We now hope that a majority of the California Assembly agrees with us, too; AB 271 is up for a vote before the entire Assembly this week, before going on to the state Senate. UPDATE: On May 30, AB 271 passed the full Assembly 44-16!

The role of the public-interest lobbyist

In the month leading up to last week’s vote, we lobbied key members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee. To help us prepare for these meetings, the Women’s Policy Institute arranged for us to hear a wonderful presentation from former Assemblymember Dion Aroner.

Aroner reminded us that the role of lobbyists is to transfer information. The better we are at transferring information, the more successful we will be as lobbyists.

At first this seems like an obvious concept, but Aroner reminded me that legislators need lobbyists that represent public interests because lobbyists present information that most others, including busy lawmakers, don’t know, but should. Our role as nonprofit lobbyists is to make sure that the information we know – about the communities we serve, about the issues we work on, about the unintended consequences of proposed legislation – gets to the people who are making the decisions that affect us all.

In our meetings with staffers in Sacramento, it was important to be concise and to the point in our 15 to 20 minutes together. Doing research on the legislators and understanding their political leanings allowed us to tailor our messages slightly, and share with them the information that we thought would be most significant to them.

Importance of “real” people

While lobbyists like me and my colleagues have an important role to play in conveying information to lawmakers, we can’t leave out the voices and experiences of “real people.” That is, we can’t leave out the voices of people whose lives, families and futures are directly affected by a policy.

That’s why it was so effective to have a mom receiving assistance from CalWORKs—the state welfare program—tell her story to the Assembly Human Services Committee in April. It’s easy for lawmakers to debate the merits of a policy in the abstract; it’s hard to avoid the real-life result of a policy when it’s embodied in the person sitting right in front of you.

Stereotypes of welfare moms have a way of vanishing when you hear from a struggling mother on welfare, and how being in the foster care system herself, and suffering abuse and neglect have led her to need help for herself and her family today. I have now heard this woman speak publicly about her story twice, and I can already see that her confidence has grown, along with her sense that her voice deserves to be heard.

Pushing the bill through the California legislature

From the Mamas Day campaign for AB 271.

Around Mother’s Day, an e-card campaign helped spread the word about AB 271.

We plan to continue to bring CalWORKs parents to meet with legislators, to remind the people who were elected to represent us that “us” includes those who are prospering as well as struggling.

It’s too easy for legislators to make decisions without being confronted by the human toll of those choices. Our role as nonprofit advocates is to keep reminding them of the hard realities of life for many of their constituents.

I will share updates on the progress of AB 271 as we learn of new developments. Regardless of the outcome of this bill, however, I know that we are opening the eyes of many legislators and their staff to the injustice of the Maximum Family Grant, or family cap.  I feel confident that the process of lobbying for AB 271 has helped educate lawmakers and has mobilized a strong coalition of determined advocates. Our message, combined with the stories of moms and their families living every day with the consequences of the family cap rule, will one day lead to the end of this policy in California.

Follow Nayantara on Twitter: @NayantaraAFJ

This is Part 5 in our “How an Idea Becomes a Bill” series by AFJ counsel Nayantara Mehta who is participating this year in the Women’s Policy Institute fellows program. She has been writing periodically about her experience.

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