Friday, May 05, 2006

Pick up your Telephone

Many times I've talked about how we need to have a daily political practice, something that reminds us that we are citizens and that we matter. The way that meditation or yoga work to ground us (or some of us, anyway) in a world larger than ourselves, a world of calm, a daily political practice can remind us that we are not just our individual private selves.

And it might even help make a difference in the world.

Now, we all know that making a positive difference in the world can be an arduous process. It doesn't happen over night. There are some who would respond that individuals can't do a damn thing and you must join an organization. I'm not against organizations. Join them if you'ld like; there's power in numbers, and power in recognition. I know that I'm not much of an organization type, so I'm casting about for ways that individual acts can matter.

I've also mentioned in the past that we should all be in touch with our elected officials. That they rarely hear from us, and as a result they don't realize what we need. Some officials will undoubtedly be against what we want; there's scores, hundreds who will vote against something like paid family leave, or pro-rated benefits policies, or what have you. But many others will actually be emboldened from hearing from us.

I am not organizing a movement. I can barely organize my weekly grocery list. But I will tell you a pair of stories.

This week I've been digging around for stories for an article I'm working on. As part of that, I've been calling elected officials in Pennsylvania who have been introducing various bills about paid family leave. One suggests tax credits for employers who offer paid leave, one offers a wage replacement benefit, and another allows 20 hours a year for parents to take off and go to their kids' school events and medical visits.

I call their office. I tell the person who answers what I want to know. They connect me.

I know we don't believe this happens. We don't believe they're actually this close.

So let me back up. First I google their name. Within a click or two I am on their home page and I have their numbers for the capital and home offices. Or look for the listings in your local phone book.

It's that simple. Really.

And they are nice to you when you call. I promise.

Here's what I found out. I spoke with a member of the PA house, and a member of the PA senate. The House member told me that he introduced his paid familly leave bill because of the many voters who were coming by his office and telling him they needed paid medical leave to care for elderly parents. (That's the M part of the FMLA, the part we new parents forget about, the part that lets you take off to help sick people in your family). The stories added up, and the bill was introduced.

The Senate member told me that a student at a nearby college had written him a letter. She told him about the low percentages of mothers who qualify for paid family leave, about the low numbers who even qualify and take the unpaid FMLA. He read the letter with interest, and a few days later, got his staff involved in thinking up a solution.

Can we talk about the influence of individual acts and stories, and the public telling of those stories?

Now, neither of those bills have been signed into law. There'll need to be some legislative change and a Democrat-controlled statehouse for that to happen. As State Senator Mike Stack told me yesterday, the statehouse is not filled with the old model of Pennsylvania moderate republicans, the Arlen Spectors and John Heinz's of the world, but with a bunch of Rick Santorum clones. (We can and will discuss another day why the Rick Santorum clone-types don't actually support family values in real life). But when that changes, and it must, these bills could make headway. And that would be a big help.

So make those phone calls. Yes, a phonecall doesn't change the law. But it can help get the ball rolling. If we're going to have an impact, we have to begin moving beyond talk, and into the legislative arena.

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