RAC Trip, Monday: Lobbying on Capitol Hill

Rebecca Shaw, Aide to Representative Chris Gibson (Left), Engages in Frank Conversation With Vassar Temple High-School Students Brianna E. (Foreground), Kiley Q., and Ali D.

Rebecca Shaw, Aide to Representative Chris Gibson (Left), Engages in Frank Conversation With Vassar Temple High-School Students Brianna E. (Foreground), Kiley Q., and Ali D. as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Monday was the big day.

After an intensive weekend of studying, exploring, debating, and discussing, and after a long evening of writing and rewriting, the students set off to lobby their legislators on Capitol Hill.

The logistics alone demanded complicated charts: Each student is represented on the Hill by two state senators (Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand for us), and one local representative (in our case, Sean Maloney from 18th congressional district or Chris Gibson from the 19th).

I don't know how to convey the thrill of seeing Vassar Temple high-school students engaged in a policy debate at this high level in Washington.The students chose their own topics from among the many they’d been introduced to over the weekend: gun safety, LGBT rights, stem-cell research, etc. And some students worked together. So there was partial overlap among the issues that they had prepared, but we didn’t want to present the same issue twice in front of the same person, and we didn’t have time for more than three presentations. Additionally, we were not the only congregation in New York State, so the Senate presentations required additional coordination.

In the end, everyone spoke at least once, and some people spoke twice. (I’ll post the students’ remarks separately.)

Reeti Kumar, Aide to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Takes Notes From Vassar Temple Students.  Left to Right:  Reeti Kumar (in Blue), Danielle B., and Brianna E.

Reeti Kumar, Aide to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Takes Notes From Vassar Temple Students as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Left to Right From Center: Reeti Kumar (In Blue), Danielle B., and Brianna E.

Our first visit was to Senator Gillibrand’s office, where we were greeted by Ms. Reeti Kumar, an aide to the senator. We met in a stairwell because the senator’s office wasn’t large enough to accommodate our entire group. Danielle B. spoke in favor of more accurate sex education, and Brianna E. addressed LGBT rights in the workplace.

From there we moved on to Senator Schumer, along the way almost literally bumping into Senator John McCain. Once we arrived, an aide to Senator Schumer, Patricio Gonzalez, took us to a conference room where Noah C., Rachel M., and Isaac H-W turned to gun safety.

Patricio Gonzalez, Aide to Senator Charles Schumer, Responds to Students From Vassar Temple and Beth Torah of Upper Nyack.  Clockwise From Head of Table:  Patricio Gonzalez, Noah C., Rachel M., and Isaac H-W.

Patricio Gonzalez, Aide to Senator Charles Schumer, Responds to Students From Vassar Temple and Beth Torah of Upper Nyack as Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar. Clockwise From Head of Table: Patricio Gonzalez, Noah C.Rachel M., and Isaac H-W.

Then we split up. I took one group to Representative Gibson’s office, and Rabbi Hantman took the other to Representative Maloney.

We had an appointment with Rebecca Shaw, aide to Representative Chris Gibson. In a sense, this was our most important meeting yet. Democratic Senators Gillibrand and Schumer were mostly, perhaps entirely, in agreement with our positions. But we didn’t know about Republican Chris Gibson.

I should be clear that the RAC is non-partisan, as was our visit. We were not and are not campaigning. But the general Democratic platform more closely aligned with the issues the students chose than the Republican platform did.

Kiley Q. (Left), Ali D., and Brianna E. Outside Representative Chris Gibson's House Office in Washington, DC.

Kiley Q. (Left), Ali D., and Brianna E. Outside Representative Chris Gibson’s House Office in Washington, DC.

Rebecca Shaw turned out to be gracious, welcoming, and engaging. She took us to the representative’s office, where Brianna, Kiley, and Ali offered their well-researched and carefully-thought-out positions on LGBT rights in the workplace, more accurate sex education, and gun control. After each one, Ms. Shaw responded, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing.

What followed was the highlight of the weekend for me. Rather than simply taking notes to convey to her boss, Ms. Shaw continued with a frank conversation about these important issues. While there was disagreement in the room, the conversation was respectful, cordial, and, it seems, honest.

Isaac H-W (Left), Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C. Outside Representative Sean Maloney's House Office in Washington, DC.

Isaac H-W (Left), Danielle B., Rachel M., and Noah C. Outside Representative Sean Maloney’s House Office in Washington, DC.

Danielle B. (Right) Explains Her Position on Sex Education to Ryan Lehman, Aide to Representative Sean Maloney.

Danielle B. (Right) Explains Her Position on Sex Education to Ryan Lehman, Aide to Representative Sean Maloney.

I don’t know how to convey the thrill of seeing three Vassar Temple high-school students engaged in a policy debate at this high level in Washington.

Because the visits to Representatives Gibson and Maloney took place at the same time, I couldn’t watch Isaac, Noah, and Rachel talk about gun control, or Danielle talk about the need for better sex education. I understand that an aide named Ryan Lehman greeted them on behalf of Representative Maloney, and engaged in a similarly engaging and exciting conversation.

Our meetings ended just before 1:30. We’d spent three hours on the Hill, lobbying in three different buildings. Exhausted but flying high, we had a delicious lunch in a congressional cafeteria, returned to the hotel, and drove home.

From start to finish, the trip was a huge a success.

Vassar Temple Students Walk to Capitol Hill to Lobby Legislators, Part of the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

Vassar Temple Students Walk to Capitol Hill to Lobby Legislators, Part of the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.


High-School Students Isaac H-W (Left), Noah C., Rachel M., Danielle B., Brianna E., Kiley Q., and Ali D. on the RAC's L'Taken Social-Action Seminar.

High-School Students Isaac H-W (Left), Noah C., Rachel M., Danielle B., Brianna E., Kiley Q., and Ali D. on the RAC’s L’Taken Social-Action Seminar.

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2 Comments

  1. Kurt

     /  January 16, 2013

    Once again Joel, thank you so much for a wonderful and engaging synopsis of the weekend. Especially for the pictures of our students in action! Your enthusiasm for this program, and for our students, is evident. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Deb Carbo

     /  January 16, 2013

    So pleased. We feel lucky to have this opportunity. Thank you.

    Reply

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