Drawing the Line — Speaking Up in the Illinois 6th

America is Still Beautiful: It’s Just Wearing an Ugly Outfit Right Now.

6th Congressional District Office in West Chicago

Yesterday, I trudged west with six women from my community to a remote office building located near a rural airport (with a surprising number of jets) where it turns out our local Congressman has a pretty nice office. We were going to meet with two staffers from the Illinois 6th because our Congressman wasn’t available, despite a month’s notice between the request and the action meeting time. You see, he doesn’t like to come to meetings that are open to the public. I tried to go listen to him in places where I wasn’t welcome (and tried to join in anyway). I was unsuccessful.

This story is not just about the meeting but about how it came to be, what happened, and what I learned. But more than that, as frustrating as it is, I hope it offers a sliver of light — that the only hope for democracy is for people sit down and talk to each other civilly and respectfully. The lesson of the 2016 election was once again reinforced: we have to get out of our own echo chambers.

In January, I called Representative Roskam’s office and asked for a meeting, figuring that I’m a constituent and he was posting pictures of himself on facebook with other people from the district (I should have realized the picture that was the friendliest was him with someone who was in DC for 45th President’s inauguration). Tom, who answered the phone, said I had to request such a meeting on the Congressman’s website, where you can request a meeting for up to 25 people (he “doesn’t like town hall meetings”).

So, thinking it would be a more compelling request — and a better use of the Congressman’s time — if more voters were present, I posted on facebook that I was requesting this meeting and offered up to any neighbors or others in the district that they were welcome to join. I figured I didn’t want to waste the Congressman’s time and hoped there were lots of people who would also want the chance to be heard. You see, our Congressman doesn’t seem to listen much to people who aren’t his donors or aren’t Republicans. And he doesn’t make it easy to do much more than send an email.

Within less than a day, 25 people, some of whom I knew well and some who were friends of friends, said they were interested. So I requested the meeting. In the box where they asked who was coming, I listed the names of about 20+ voters from the Congressman’s own district. I heard nothing. Maybe I didn’t click “submit.” Maybe there was a software glitch. Anyway, I was met with silence. So I called back. No luck. So I went back on the website and requested another meeting.

Lesson One: silence is unacceptable — don’t take no for an answer.

(By the way, if you are from the Illinois 6th, I encourage you to schedule a meeting with the Congressman or his staff. The link on the website is: https://roskam.house.gov/scheduling.)

This time, a polite email from Amanda in the Washington office said he was too busy, but she offered up a meeting with two local staffers instead. I said yes to the meeting, and said I would be requesting another meeting with the Congressman himself. See, while the meeting wasn’t what I wanted, long ago, I was a staffer. And, really, staffers are voters too, so it would be enlightening. These days, I kind of feel bad for them — they are probably the ones taking a lot of the heat of late.

So I emailed them and they very kindly offered a time. Unfortunately, it was just two days later, so I wrote back and said, sorry, the group was not official or organized, people had jobs, and I could not get people to come on such short notice. So I requested a day about a month out.

Which was yesterday.

Once we knew the date, I emailed all the people who had expressed interest in coming with me. I told them the time and asked if they could come and to send me the top three issues that they cared about even if they couldn’t make it. I wanted to make sure I was talking about things that mattered. (I did also, as I posted the question, wonder the last time the Congressman asked this same question of a group of concerned citizens who had nothing more in common than an acquaintance, a proximate zip code and a love of democracy.)

Lesson Two: It might not be what you asked for but it can still be beneficial.

When Eddie reached out to me (that’s his job: Outreach Coordinator) after I accepted the meeting (which I had requested) I told him I would let him know before the meeting who would be there and what we wanted to talk about. This is just common courtesy. Turns out it was a fortuitous strategy because as the weeks in February unfolded, some pretty ugly shouting happened at lots of meetings around the country, as people aired their bottled up anger and screaming desire to be heard. Before the meeting, I sent a list of the top five questions we had and a short paragraph on each of the people who would be in the meeting. When we added someone at the last minute, I called to let them know so they wouldn’t be surprised when we arrived.

Because the meeting was a weekday morning, not that many of my original 25 were available. It didn’t matter. What I got instead was quality. I had concerned citizens.

We met at a local breakfast place an hour before we needed to leave to plan how to make best use of the time, and for some of us, to meet for the first time. Each person spoke briefly about their deepest concerns. The group spanned, in age, five decades. They spanned, in affiliation, a wide swath. We had a self-proclaimed “life-long Republican.” We had a self-described “almost socialist.” And while they cared deeply about a lot of issues, from immigration to the arts to healthcare to taxes, what surprised me was how simple it was and how unified we were about what mattered more than policy.

They were thoughtful. They were worried. They were angry. They were confused. They were frightened. And they were sad. And it just so happened that they were all women. But what they really had in common, and the reason they were willing to take the morning off from work to schlep to the distant hinterlands of the 6th distract, was that they wanted to know was when, when, when was our Congressman going to finally speak up against the hatred and ill-conceived plans coming from the White House.

Lesson Three: You will probably learn more if you talk to people.

So we left the breakfast place and headed to our cars. I have to say, I didn’t believe the meeting was going to happen until we were actually in the room. I’ve been rabble-rousing and writing a lot in the first 38 days of our 45th president and not a lot of it was complimentary. I was blocked from my Congressman’s facebook page (yes, the one we were headed to meet) for a while (and magically when I started posting about that it was suddenly unblocked). I even wrote a piece that Indivisible (not exactly a friend of my Congressman) asked to publish and it was all about how he snuck out the back door to avoid constituents. I don’t know whether Eddie and Lee missed this or if they knew it and took the meeting anyway. But good for them… and actually a big shout out to them… for going forward with the meeting organized by someone who very publicly has not been a friend.

But off we went. Seven kick-ass women. Seven kick-ass Americans.

We had a pastor in full dress on Ash Wednesday who pointed out that she is a Millennial, she works with the youth of her church and talked about how much pastoral care of late has been on the topic of what is happening as a result of the current administration. She was heartfelt, sincere, strong, extremely clear, and in a way they must teach in divinity school, very kind.

We had a mom who dresses guinea pigs in hats and has the most unbelievably creative children and reminds me regularly about our jobs as parents to help our children’s imaginations flourish; she was originally unable to come but showed up half an hour before we left and said, “I had other things I am supposed to do but I just couldn’t let a spot go unfilled so I had to come.” Bless her. She hasn’t gone to her Congressman’s office before and her story of why she was there was one of the most compelling comments of the day.

We had the artistic director of a local children’s chorus who truly lives her purpose — to transform the lives of children through music (who by the way, during the meeting offered to lead the Congress in the lessons of choral music that include leadership, room for others and getting along). She spoke of the ties that bind us all and the deep fear that has settled on this country as a result of the President and the unwillingness of Congressional Republicans to speak out against him. She also reminded us all that anger has a place even if shouting isn’t the best strategy.

We had a brilliant woman — a friend of a friend whom I didn’t meet until an hour before the meeting — who courageously shared how she voted for the Congressman and with incredibly heartbreaking care and a sense of almost palpable guilt, said she was feeling regret over it. She said when she cast her vote for him, she truly believed our Congressman to be a good man. And she challenged his staff directly to show that indeed he still is.

We had an executive who said she’d always considered herself a liberal Republican but could not support this Congressman until he “grows a spine” and stands up and stands out against the dangerous and offensive rhetoric and action coming from the White House. She was smart and candid and clear and said she would fly to Washington to meet directly with the Congressman in order to ensure that he heard what she had to say.

We had an amazing communications skills expert who offered to coach, free of charge, the Congressman on how to deal with anger and conflict in a public setting. She brought a gift of “seeking to understand” to our meeting and demonstrated the power of it in action when she asked the outreach coordinator how he did “outreach.” She pro-actively and firmly offered to help solve a problem that they identified — that the Congressman seemed afraid (my words, not theirs) to have a town hall meeting (their words were something like “they always dissolve into shouting matches”).

And finally, me… by night an angry, frustrated, sad Citizen, ready to move to England, whose only hope is if we can all start respecting each other again and by day — on a good day — a catalyst for democracy. Or something. I offered some specific ideas on how the Congressman — or his office — could let people know he was listening and I offered to help facilitate, organize and ensure meetings with others who might not be so agreeable with the Congressman’s position.

Somehow, though, with this group, I felt like I had an awful lot more to give and a very clear view of what mattered.

Lesson Four: you are not alone in this democracy.

I opened the meeting by telling Lee and Eddie about what I saw on the train platform on January 21st as I headed to Chicago to march with 250,000 women. I told them how the train was full by the time we got loaded and they had to run it as an express train. I told them about the platforms we passed on the way into the city that were also filled with people with hats and signs and a love of this country. That was not the 6th District safe seat they knew and if I could share with them nothing else, I wanted them to see the picture that painted. I think they heard us.

And then we asked questions. We asked for clarity on some of the things the Congressman has failed to explain… like what possible reason he had for waiting to distance himself from the Muslim ban, how he could possibly not speak out about the possibility of guns in schools and how he, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, could for one second support a tax increase on products imported from Mexico to pay for a wall that doesn’t make sense.

We met for over an hour. The staff had their notepads laid out and their pens in hand. They told us from the outset they weren’t the policy guys but they would get back to us with specifics on things where they couldn’t answer.

And we shared out points of view.

But more than that, these amazing women, perhaps without intending to, told their stories. They talked about their anger and their fear about what was happening in Washington and they talked about their passion for this country, our community and their families.

They literally offered their skills and talents to find a way to help the Congressman do a better job of communicating with people of different perspectives in the changing district he now finds himself charged with representing.

They were clear and articulate and heartfelt and so, so compelling. Here we were, telling the staff of one of the most right wing Congressmen in the country that we are depending on him to draw a line. To stand up for basic ethics. To speak up and fight back against this White House and this President.

“Where. Does. He. Draw. His. Personal. Line?” asked one person with so much clarity that the room feel dramatically and totally silent.

“When will he speak out against the President?” asked another.

“What will it take for the Congressional Republicans to stop protecting the White House?” asked another.

It was clear to me right then and there that we personified the major disconnect that is happening all over the country. We were, ironically, as frustrated and angry as those “unheard” voices who showed up and voted for our current president. For them it was about jobs and their collective future, but it was more about not being heard. That’s why they literally cried out to drain the swamp.

And we were, in that moment, exactly the same. Unheard. Frustrated. And very very worried. For our collective futures. And for the future of our democracy, our community and our families.

Our Congressman is one of three people we sent to Washington to help us. In a country of hundreds of millions of people, the currency of our vote can only impact, outside of the President and Vice President, three people. The entire future of this country swings in the balance and the only one who can do something about it who specifically resides in our community is someone who has failed to speak up or speak out against a White House which operates from hate, creates fake news, has conflicts of interest (if we’re wrong about that, release the tax returns and prove it) and is apparently in cahoots with the Russians (if we’re wrong about that, appoint a special prosecutor and prove it).

But the worse part, and what we tried hard to communicate, is that where Congressman Roskam is willing to “draw his personal line” is not clear. He voted against forcing the president to release his tax returns and did not offer alternative legislation that accomplished this goal while overcoming his concerns. If he really believes the returns should be released, he should have done that. It took him a week to speak out against the Muslim Ban, and only after lots of others did. He did not speak out against any cabinet nominee. And he won’t hold a Town Hall meeting.

For each of us in the room, our own personal lines have been crossed. That’s why we were there. But the man who is supposed to represent us?

What we know is that we can’t seem to figure out a way to be in the same room with him, he doesn’t like town hall meetings and he won’t speak out against this White House. He’s in his 6th term. That’s what he stands for after all this time?

Where. Does. He. Draw. The. Line?

Lesson Five: for each of us, there must be a line, that when crossed, morally requires us to take action.

When I requested this meeting, I did not organize a group of people with a specific agenda. Instead, I simply asked people to raise their hands if they were interested and show up if they could.

After we left the meeting, what changed? We still have the same Congressman. He still hasn’t spoken up. We still don’t know where he stands on important things and he still seems to falling in line with the Congressional Republicans who are showing more and more cowardice as each day unfolds. His staff told us he doesn’t like to “shoot from the hip” and he likes to analyze things. We told them we were glad about that. But at some point, it simply is not enough. To stand idly by is a choice. And not a good one.

That said, this experience yielded a lot of good. I was reminded about the power of democracy and what we can do when we simply come together in a respectful way. I felt gratitude for my neighbors and my community and I was happy because I am clearly not alone. And the next time I march, I’m going to invite Eddie and Lee to come along. I liked them. I don’t agree with them. But they live in an echo chamber too and I can at least try to share some other perspective. If they say no I will understand. And then I will invite them again to the next one.

Lesson Six: America still is beautiful — it’s just wearing an ugly outfit right now.

Tonight, I had the chance to listen to an incredibly smart and committed state senator talk about what is going on here in our home state. He said that he understood how frustrated and angry people are, and that it is not sustainable. This kind of conflict and fight is exhausting. Yes, I thought, as he spoke, thank you…. thank you for understanding how tiring this is. What the meeting with the Congressman’s staff gave me, ironically, were positive feelings that will help sustain and energize me. Instead of conflict and anger, I felt the collective power of the other women, I felt gratitude for my community, love for my friends and admiration that these citizens (Eddie and Lee included) would take the time to come together.

Most of all, this experience illustrated to me the power of drawing our own lines. Once you do, the course of action you must take reveals itself.

Now about those tax returns...

Lee and Eddie heard us. And they promised to get back to us on our questions. I hope someday we will all march for the same thing.

Most of all, though, I hope somehow, they will help the Congressman communicate better just where he draws the line.

For me? Well, I’m going to keep trying.

My line is clear. And as for that other kind of line? In the end, I hope I will be in a really big line (that moves efficiently) in November of 2018, and I hope I will see every one of you there too.

Looking to do your part? One way to get involved is to read the Indivisible Guide, which is written by former congressional staffers and is loaded with best practices for making Congress listen. Or follow this publication, connect with us on Twitter, join us on Facebook, or check out our shop on Threadless.