The dreaded phone call

In mourning RBG, don’t skip contacting your senators

5 minute read
Writer Alaina Johns on a 2019 visit to ‘Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’ at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Center City. (Photo courtesy of Alaina Johns.)
Writer Alaina Johns on a 2019 visit to ‘Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’ at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Center City. (Photo courtesy of Alaina Johns.)

The three of us were eating meal-kit burgers at home on Friday night, string lights and IKEA lamps fending off the early dark, my dog parked hopefully under the table. My friend saw a news notification. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg died,” he said.

My roommate and I spoke at the same time. “What.” “No.” For several minutes, we slumped silently in our chairs, our dinner forgotten.

Another day, another reason to contact your members of Congress.

Calling Congress

I’m among the oldest millennials—the last people on Earth who remember what it’s like to dial a landline, say hello to a grownup, and ask to speak to your friend. But apparently many of us, of all generations, now regard making a phone call on a spectrum of stress somewhere between getting engaged and dismantling a bomb.

And a phone call to a member of Congress? Forget about it.

Does contacting your reps—especially at the federal level—mean anything at all in 2020? In Pennsylvania, we have an entire activist network branded because one of our own senators can’t even be bothered to show up.

Maybe there will be a day when Senator Toomey cares that I and thousands of my fellow voters called, wrote, or visited his office. Maybe there are other members of Congress who take their constituents’ views into account before voting. Maybe there are members of Congress who are fortified by hearing from us when we support the positions they take. But even if none of that ever happens, I will not stop getting in touch.

Resistance by text

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell waited approximately three minutes after the passing of Justice Ginsburg to announce that it is imperative for him to discard his 2016 principles on not bringing a Supreme Court nomination to a vote in advance of the presidential election. Almost as quickly, my friends erupted in calls to use Resistbot to tell our senators that Republicans should abide by the scruples that drove them four years ago, and delay a Supreme Court vote until after the coming inauguration.

Resistbot is a digital platform that makes it as easy as texting to send a letter to your reps. I’m glad folks are using it, but I’m doing this the old-fashioned way.

My reasons

To me, making that call or writing that email myself is an ongoing exercise in gathering my thoughts on a particular issue, effectively focusing and articulating my values, and carrying them outside my immediate network. It’s like the physical therapy of democracy: repetitive, a little bit challenging, and building your capacity for other important activities.

Because beyond the satisfaction of expressing my values in a targeted way on critical issues like racial justice, a fair judiciary, healthcare access, voting rights, gender equality, and reproductive rights, my Senate-dialing habit primes me to use the call as a starting point.

Take that energy (and maybe the little flare of civic pride you get?) and apply it to voting (in every election), buying from businesses you’re proud to support, volunteering for causes that matter to you, participating in mutual aid, and carrying your values in specific ways to your family, your community, and your workplace. Isn’t that a great way to honor people like Justice Ginsburg?

I’m also a believer in holding up my end of the bargain, especially when the action in question takes only a few moments out of my day. Members of Congress, even those as shamelessly venal as McConnell, work for me—for us—and damned if I’ll stop going on the record to remind them.

Yes, you matter

I’m also not going to stop making the calls because I’m afraid my voice is too small to make a difference. As election day looms, we remember the razor-thin margins across the country that handed victory to our current president, who won Pennsylvania, a commonwealth with almost 16 million residents, by less than 50,000 votes in 2016. Your vote matters, and your voice does too, especially when we use them all together.

And don’t forget: keeping in touch with your members of Congress is a way to stick up not just for yourself, but your neighbors too. If you don’t feel personally affected by, say, the collapse of the Affordable Care Act or the loss of voting protections, what about the folks next door? “My voice won’t matter” doesn’t cut it as an excuse not to make noise on behalf of people whose health or rights are at risk.

What to do

It’s easy to say that calling and emailing your reps is easy, but for some folks, it’s not. They experience uncertainty or even acute anxiety about it. In my experience, there are ways to make it more doable.

Put the outreach on your to-do list, just like a deadline or the laundry or an errand. Write what you want to say before dialing, if that helps. Often, you’ll just be leaving a voicemail. But if a staffer picks up, it’ll be a quick polite conversation right from your notes after you give your name and residence: “I’m calling to let the Senator know that I…” Be brief and specific.

Will anyone be rude to you, or argue with you? Almost certainly not. It has happened to me when I called Toomey offices, but so what? You’ll hear worse at the South Philly Acme.

After you call or email, post about it on social media if you want, so your friends know how civically minded you are—and as a bonus, maybe they’ll be inspired to get in touch, too. And then maybe their friends will do the same…

Whom should you call? Despite campaigns to contact members of Congress nationwide, I think advice to contact only your own representatives makes sense. Members of Congress who don’t directly represent you are accountable to their own voters, not to you—and you might be gumming up the works for local constituents with other urgent needs. And focusing on your own legislators, instead of a long outside list, makes the task of calling more sustainable in the long run.

Once you’ve made the call or sent the email, stay grounded in your home, your chosen family, and your community. Hours after the news about RBG, I was still shaky and raw.

“I need you to hold onto me,” I told my friend. And he did.

Image Description: Alaina Johns, a 37-year-old blonde woman wearing a green sweater, stands next to a life-sized cardboard cutout of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Supreme Court robe.

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