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Students Learn to Lobby on Capitol Hill

Hands-On Experience Designed to Produce More Effective Citizens

April 14, 2014

Senior Brad Fuller lobbies U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers in the Congressman's Capitol Hill office as other members of the Wilmington contingent await their turn.

Senior Brad Fuller lobbies U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers in the Congressman's Capitol Hill office as other members of the Wilmington contingent await their turn.

Thousands of students each year visit Washington D.C. It’s a fascinating tourist destination full of monuments, memorials and museums. But, beyond that substantive facade lies the heartbeat of the Nation’s Capital — the government.

In the shadow of the Capitol dome, a group of some 40 Wilmington College students lobbied their respective members of Congress in late March.

The WC contingent participated in the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s (FCNL) annual Spring Lobby Weekend in which 186 persons from 15 colleges and universities and 27 states went on 47 lobby visits on Capitol Hill after an intensive two days of training in Washington.

Michael Snarr, professor of political science, has led the annual pilgrimage of WC students to Washington D.C. for many of the past dozen years. He’s seen Spring Lobby Weekend grow in both numbers and educational impact.

“The lobby trip equips students to become more effective citizens,” he said. “It shows them the actual process of how lobbying works, to an extent how Congress works and, instead of sitting at home reading the newspaper or watching CNN, students actually get involved in the process of social and political engagement.”

Each year, FCNL, which describes itself as a “Quaker lobby in the public interest,” selects a topic on which they have been working. They bring in experts for a full day to share with the students the subject’s history, rationalization and ramifications, followed by a day of actual training by seasoned lobbyists, both professional and grassroots.

This year’s mission was for the students to convince their respective members of Congress to support or continue their support for a repeal of the Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) Act. The law essentially gives the president carte blanche with regard to actions ranging from drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia and unwarranted surveillance to detaining captives at Guantanamo and carrying out the war in Afghanistan — all with no required oversight by the Congress.

(LEFT) Freshman Genesis Rocks lobbies members of U.S. Sen. Sherrod brown's staff.

AUMF has been the legal justification for the Global War on Terror since it was passed with overwhelming support from both houses of Congress in the uneasy days following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

FCNL contends both the Bush and Obama administrations exceeded the law’s original intent of tracking down the 9/11 perpetrators. It believes that repealing AUMF would lead to more presidential transparency and Congressional approval for any acts of war. The bill, which fell short by only 33 votes in the House upon its first vote as an amendment, actually has bipartisan support and President Obama’s implicit backing.

On the third day, armed with testimonials, statistics, expert opinion, anecdotal evidence and a day of lobbying instruction, the students dressed in business attire made their way to Capitol Hill for their appointments in the Senate and House office buildings.

Featured among the WC students’ lobbying visits were meetings with Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, whose 15th District includes Wilmington, and staff members of Ohio’s U.S. Senators, Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, as well as U.S. Representatives John Boehner (R-8th District) and Mike Turner (R-10th District). Also, others met with representatives from their individual districts in Michigan, Iowa and throughout Ohio.

Megan Canfield, a freshman from Wakeman majoring in psychology and political communications for social change, said the experience of having an audience at her U.S. Representative’s office was empowering.

(SEATED FROM THE LEFT) Corbin Hellwarth, Nate Godby and Kevin Carr speak on their support for repealing the Authorization of Military Force Act with members of U.S. Sen Rob Portman's staff in Washington, D.C.

“We never could have learned what we did on this trip in a classroom,” she said. “You can’t explain what it’s like to actually sit in your representatives’ offices and tell them why the issue matters to you so much.

“It’s a very unique learning experience you can’t replicate,” Canfield added. “You have to go there and feel the action, the joy and, yes, the nerves that come along with really being a part of your government.”

Corbin Hellwarth, a senior from Celina majoring in business, engaged in his fourth lobby weekend experience. He was selected to be part of the team that lobbied Ohio’s Republican senator, Rob Portman. Hellwarth contrasted being a four-year veteran with his rookie year.

(LEFT) Against a backdrop of an early spring snow storm, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff spoke of his sponsorship of a bill to repeal AUMF. Many of WC's student lobbyists get a bird's eye view of the Congressman.

“Since my first lobbying experience, I’ve seen the people I was talking to as being more on the same level as me,” he said. “Also, I got a lot better at listening during the presentations and picking up facts, and being able to present them in a way the person I was talking to could understand — hopefully they listened to me and got something out of it.”

Ellen Short, a junior from Middletown majoring in environmental sustainability, has already realized the value of Spring Lobby Weekend as a resume bullet point.

Just prior to this year’s trip, she landed a prestigious and well-paid summer internship for which the interviewer was impressed that she, not only possessed an interest in such a hands-on learning experience as lobbying, but also was selected to be WC’s student leader for the 2013 and 2014 Spring Lobby Weekends.

“It spurred on such good discussion that, what was supposed to be a five-minute interview, went on to be an hour,” she said. “He said it set me a part from the other applicants.”

Short and her co-leader, twin sister Erin, led a Wilmington College group that made its presence known at the FCNL’s information and training sessions, not only as the largest cadre in attendance, but as one well-prepared and excited to actively engage.

“I think the other Wilmington students and I were so eager to participate because we had been given so much information about the issues — we came prepared and felt it was more like a dialogue,” Ellen Short said, noting that many of the students have taken Snarr’s political science course that embraces lobbying as a means for more effective citizenship.

“Also, we are used to being in classes at Wilmington where we can be engaged with people who are talking to us because our classes are generally smaller,” she added. “Also, I wanted to show the Wilmington College students on their first trip that it’s OK to stand up and share what you’re feeling.”

(RIGHT) The U.S. Capitol.

Snarr said those moments when WC students actively joined the likes of a lieutenant colonel and other distinguished presenters in dialogue were especially gratifying.

“When our students repeatedly got up and participated, I was really proud,” he said. “It was exciting for me to see them perform on par with some of the most highly educated and motivated students in the United States.”

The sight of that impressive Wilmington College presence also didn’t escape WC President Jim Reynolds, who, with his wife, Sue, made the bus trip and attended the sessions before engaging in other College-related business in Washington.

“Our students were an integral part of what was going on,” he said. “They asked great questions and maneuvered through the experience with a lot of confidence. I’m really proud and impressed with that. FCNL does a great job of making it relevant and making it hands-on. That’s why I think our students had such an engaging time there.”

WC alumnus (2009) Matthew Southworth recalls his first lobby trip in 2006, which was his freshman year at WC and only two years after returning from his U.S. Army deployment in Iraq.

“I didn’t realize how effective we could be as citizen lobbyists,” he said. “I didn’t even think it was possible for me to come to Congress and talk to somebody and they would listen to my experience.
“That experience transformed me as a person.”

(LEFT) 2009 WC graduate and FCNL staff member Matt Southworth chats with U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) befor the Congressman addressed the group.

Matt Southworth credits it with “galvanizing” his interest in a career in public advocacy within the Quaker and veteran communities. Upon his graduation from WC, he gained an 11-month internship with FCNL, which subsequently hired him as its lead lobbyist on Afghanistan and other foreign policy issues, and, earlier this year, as a major gifts officer.

Southworth was among FCNL’s facilitators of this year’s lobbying program.

“Spring Lobby Weekend helped me realize that I have a voice and it’s helped so many other students learn that they too have a voice,” he said.

“This is the kind of experience that every institution should try to provide for their students,” he added. “It gives them that experience that helps them do good in the world, which is really the core mission of every college in America, not just Wilmington.”