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Regional Interests

How to Shift From Protest to Policy

The Bay’s How-To newsletter series is an extension of By The People episodes that looks into how democracy functions in the spaces around us — and where, exactly, each of us can plug in. These features include changemakers who have learned how to get involved locally and who are now sharing their step-by-step guides with you.

Protest and policy can work together. Protests may raise awareness and understanding about issues and impact legislation — such as the 2016 protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline in North Dakota that threatened sacred Native American sites and burial grounds, and risked polluting a major water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The added pressure from protests led to President Joe Biden cancelling permits for the controversial project on his first day in office. Last year’s protests around George Floyd’s death have shifted the national conversation and demands for change in policing and funding.

The March for Our Lives protests can also be added to the list. After the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February 2018, an estimated two million people in 387 congressional districts across the country protested the lack of meaningful gun control legislation. Since then, the organization has done bus tours to understand how gun violence affects communities, and registered over 50,000 new voters — contributing to record youth voter turnout during the 2018 election. In 2020 March for Our Lives wrote specific policy demands for the Biden-Harris administration.

March for Our Lives members Yasmine Mabene and Eve Levenson believe protest and policy don’t have to be seen as separate from one another. “Once you’re able to get people mobilized, you have the attention and then you can come up with demands and policy proposals for your legislators,” Mabene said.

Levenson added, that “the powerful personal stories that we hear at protests and see on social media also need to be shared directly with the people who are writing laws.”

Mabene and Levenson both got involved with the organization by leading demonstrations at their own high schools in Southern California, after the Parkland shootings. Neither had been involved in policy work before, and they learned quite a bit from their time with the organization.

Here are Mabene and Levenson’s tips for leveraging protest for policy:

1. Start local

Mabene and Levenson acknowledged how inaccessible policy work can be, so it’s best to find organizations and people that are doing this kind of work by looking in your own community. Are you passionate about the environment, housing, or voting access? Keep yourself up-to-date on the issues that are most important to you and follow up on the policies impacting those issues. Mabene suggests researching coalitions, organizations or people who are working on something you are passionate about, and then joining in to see where you can provide support.

Levenson also suggests getting connected to programs that invest in teaching young people about policy making and lobbying, like Blue Future (check out Team ENOUGH and the Brady Campaign, both of which Levenson helped found). In addition to these groups, Levenson recommends knowing who the decision makers are in your community, such as city council and local elected leaders. “Those people are more likely to listen to you because you help to vote them in. You can contact them via phone, email, and once COVID gets better, also in-person lobbying meetings,” Levenson said.

2. Dip your foot in the pool

Policy work involves writing, research, creative thinking, and most of all, participation. For Mabene, attending city council or school board meetings helped her gain awareness of how these meetings work and allowed her to gain some exposure to what city council does. “A lot of times local officials will host town halls and not a lot of people show up, especially not a lot of young people,” Mabene said.

City Council agendas are made public and there is usually a time period allotted for the public to make comments. You can speak out during those meetings or you can email elected officials directly.

If you choose to lobby legislators, Mabene says you won’t always talk to the elected officials themselves, but rather their chief lobbyist or someone of a similar position. Most of the time, legislative staff are the ones taking notes and relaying the message, but they’re still important people to talk to and establish relationships with.

Lastly, you don’t have to be registered or eligible to vote to partake in this process. Plus, you can also lobby in areas that you don’t live in as seen through nationwide efforts for climate change.

For more on how to prepare for city council meetings check out “By the People: Oakland’s Longtime City Clerk on Participating in Council Meetings”

3. Do your research

Suddenly you’ve got partners and you’re sitting in on local meetings. Next, it’s all about putting those policy ideas on paper, and finding the money to support them. How? Research!

First, identify the issue you want to fix. “If you have a specific issue in your city, look at neighboring cities that don’t have that issue,” Mabene said. “Base your proposal off what models they have and explore if that can work in your specific jurisdiction.” You can also look into the models of other states or countries to really examine what the issue you are trying to address for a solutions-oriented perspective.

4. Stay with it

It’s important to note that passing policy is just the first step. The next step is making sure it gets implemented properly. “There are a lot of times where you’ll have really good policy, there’s research that backs it, but it ends up getting implemented poorly,” Mabene said. “It ends up not really achieving the goal you wanted.”

Policy takes time. In general, Levenson says policy at the federal level moves slowly. Gun legislation, for example, moves dangerously slow. Nevertheless, Levenson and Mabene are hopeful about President Biden’s recent executive actions on guns. “It’s definitely exciting that the Biden administration is recognizing gun violence as a public health epidemic, which it is, and it’s long overdue for it to be treated as such,” Mabene said. “I think a lot of attempts at reducing gun violence have led to criminalization that hurt communities of color so it’s also important to make sure that the approach that they’re taking, isn’t going to further marginalize communities.”

Getting policy passed and implemented requires a team and nonstop work. But, there is solace in the partnerships created and unfaltering motivation in the pursuit for bigger change. “I’m only 21 right now, and to know that there are people who have been doing this work for much longer, it gives me hope,” Levenson said.

Isabeth Mendoza is the engagement producer for The Bay, a podcast that explores local news every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We launched a newsletter and episode series called By The People shortly after the U.S. Election Day in 2020. The purpose of the series was to look into how democracy functions in the spaces around us and by extension, the newsletter continued the conversation focusing on how to plug in. We looked at how to run for office, how to use digital spaces for advocacy and how to get a measure on a ballot. If any of these spark your curiosity, keep reading because we break it down for you in simple how-to guides.

Copyright 2021 KQED