How To Testify Before Congress In Your State
Since the inauguration of Trump, the nation has seen an explosion of progressive involvement in politics, ranging from protest marches to phone calls to congressmen.
People have realized that an active role in the policy world is key in achieving their goals around defending human rights, and it's been amazing to witness -- especially at the state level of government.
Watching so many activists enter the realm of policy advocacy reminds me of my own journey, one that included first learning how to testify for hearings in the Texas Legislature as a college student in 2013.
I realize this might be a step that many activists have not yet taken in their own states, so my hope is to provide an idea of what this process entails and some best practices for success.
Here's a comforting hint: It's easier than you think.
The First Step of Anything Ever: Research
Whether we're planning a protest or testifying at a hearing, I always tell folks that the first step of anything is research.
In 2011, I attended a Lobby Day hosted by Equality Texas that taught LGBTQ Texans and their families how to talk to representatives, senators, and their staffers about legislation that impacted the community.
I learned how to use the state legislature's website to look up bills, read them, track them, and find out if there was going to be a hearing over them. All of that information was crucial in preparing me to testify for the first time in 2013.
I had been contacted by Rep. Senfronia Thompson as a student advocate to testify in favor of a bill that banned insurance discrimination for LGBTQ Texans, called HB 226.
At the time it was an issue that was forcing many LGBTQ Texans to go without healthcare, particularly if they were transgender. Insurance companies in Texas frequently declined to serve transgender people or refused to cover hormone replacement therapy and transition surgery.
Before even stepping foot into the Capitol, I needed to know the context of the bill, as well as:
1. The bill number and author. In this first case, it was HB 226 by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a longtime ally of LGBTQ Texans.
2. What the bill did. HB 226 added language to Texas Insurance Code that prohibited insurance providers from denying coverage based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. The text of the bill was easy to find on the Texas legislature website.
3. When and where the hearing was taking place. At the time, this information was provided to me by Rep. Thompson's office, but most state legislative websites will post upcoming hearings too.
4. How the hearings proceed. In Texas, most witnesses are given three minutes to testify, and all testimony must start with your name, who you represent (yourself and/or an organization), and your position (for/against) the bill.
5. Who I was speaking to. In this case, the House Insurance Committee, headed by conservative Rep. John Smithee. I was able to look up the membership of the committee and their party affiliation online as well.
6. What our allies were saying about the bill. Equality Texas had talking points and data on their website that gave me a clearer picture of how the bill would impact the LGBTQ community, so I grabbed some of that data for use in my own testimony.
Once I had all the information I needed, it was easier to begin the next step of the process: writing the testimony.
Three Minutes To Make A Point
I had a number of options I could use when it came to the writing portion of testifying. Many folks write the entirety of their testimony on paper and practice reading it aloud until they consistently finish within the three-minute mark. Writing the entire testimony out is especially helpful if you plan to submit a written copy to the committee. You will need to make about 20 copies to ensure the members and staff each receive one.
I was in college and had too many essays to write as it was, so I opted for more of an outline, a simple bulleted list of the main points I wanted to say to the committee. I knew myself well enough to know that my speaking would be rushed due to stage fright, so I didn't feel pressured to practice keeping my thoughts contained in the three-minute limit, but I did want to make sure I included the data I'd found and what I felt was important from my perspective.
The most important thing for me to keep in mind was that I was there more than anything to provide my perspective as a young, genderqueer-lesbian student; the data was secondary and could be sprinkled in to back up my concerns.
Legislators want to hear stories much more than they want to hear statistics. Knowing that, I was able to produce a simple list pretty quickly, and felt at least somewhat confident about my content.
This tends to be the part where all of my fellow introverts gulp thickly and wonder why they thought this was a good idea. All I can say there is that I've never regretted testifying, even when I wasn't at the top of my game.
And I was not at the top of my game for that first hearing.
I was ridiculously nervous, clutching my little list for dear life, surrounded by people I perceived as being more important than me. Representative Thompson, the committee members, professional lobbyists, nonprofit leaders, and even faculty from my university were in the room.
I was called up and stumbled my way through introducing myself. I commented that it was my first time testifying and that I was nervous, and to his credit, Chairman Smithee joked that the entire committee was nervous, too. I successfully hit every point on my list, and finished well under three minutes.
The Committee Members Might Ask Questions
I did not count on receiving any questions from the members, and I definitely should have.
A member asked me to stay at the mic, and asked whether I knew if the discrimination transgender people were facing from insurance companies was overt or covert.
Not knowing that I was allowed the option of saying, "I don't know, I can find that information for you and send it to you later," I proceeded to blank so hard that I mixed up the definitions of overt and covert, to the amusement of the committee. They were kind about it and thanked me for my testimony.
After the hearing ended, Representative Thompson and some of the university faculty said I'd done a good job, which was surprising to me at the time (I was very hung up on the overt and covert mix-up.), but makes more sense now.
I'd been polite, made my point, and tried to have a meaningful conversation with the committee. I had stage fright, but I was still effective.
Since then, I've lost count of how many times I've testified. I make the bullet point lists in my head now, so I can maximize eye contact with the committee members. I'm always ready for questions, and I don't feel as nervous these days.
Most of the members know me pretty well, and feel comfortable asking me questions or debating with me on the merits of my points, and I match them in that comfort.
I figure if that anxious college kid can make that progression from novice to expert, so can you.