It’s almost inarguable that today's political climate is polarizing. But another polarizing sub-climate is among activists who desire social change. During a classic 2 a.m. conversation in the Fishbowl, a friend and I came to a conclusion. There are two prominent styles among those who mobilize communities to effect change: marchers and lobbyists. Marchers are the types of people who see the value and efficacy of public demonstrations as the most efficient allocation of their time. Lobbyists derive value from working within governmental institutions to effect change. Both styles are invaluable, but only when they work in tandem.
When the historic and global Women’s March took place on Jan. 21, I watched in awe as streets flooded with inspired and patriotic folks from all backgrounds. The passion in the air was infectious. However, in the days that followed, silence filled the lobbying sphere. I waited to hear any appeals made to government in the form of actionable change and real goals. My inner lobbyist was left hungry while my inner marcher felt full and satisfied.
Some argue this was the point of the Women’s March. In a compelling piece for the Independent, Kate Maltby reasons that the demonstration wasn’t designed to “change anything — but that’s not why we’re doing it.” She cites the cathartic relief of protesting as a main driver of the Women’s March. But wouldn’t it be great to harness the capacity for tangible change created as a healthy side effect?
When marchers nonviolently demonstrate and protest, they tap into a potential to make headlines, inspire reaction, spark dialogues and much more. These values are almost unique to the act of organizing and, as such, anyone desiring of change must recognize and appreciate marchers. But what marchers lack is an avenue to hold their audience, oftentimes governmental institutions, accountable.
This is where lobbyists come in. Lobbyists tailor the message of the march to finite and few requests of their audience. Whether it’s a meeting with a congresswoman or her staffer, and whether it’s in Washington D.C. or at the local district office, the meeting will always end in, “So these are our requests.” And the requests are a powerful tool; they do what protests cannot. The requests define a space within which the institution can work, as well as a goal that can be achieved.
Take my Muslim community as an example. For seven years we’ve held annual “Day on the Hill” events, meeting with more than 1,000 elected officials and their staff to clear up misconceptions about Islam and advocate for global religious tolerance. Each year, more than 100 Muslims join the D.C. hustle and bustle as a part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s annual "Day on the Hill.” As #MuslimsOnTheHill, we combine lobbying and marching to put passion into action.
In 2014, our efforts came to fruition with the launch of the first and only Muslim caucus in Congress, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Caucus. The bipartisan-chaired caucus fights violations of religious liberties globally. This year, we were the largest Muslim group to meet with elected officials post-immigration ban. This means we shared with our nation’s leaders what the state of Muslim refugees and Islamophobia is like in the United States. Sharing personal stories gives a personality to a movement, which in turn begins breaking down identity politics. Furthermore, it incentivizes action and accountability. If a representative’s office feels personally connected to a movement through a physical handshake, they’ll care more about accomplishing those all-important requests.
As my friend pointed out to me during our 2 a.m. conversation in the Fishbowl, we can’t just have lobbyists. In fact, it is essential for lobbyists to be able to reference some form of a movement for the sake of relevance.
For the #MuslimsOnTheHill, we referenced the grassroots TrueIslam.com campaign. The viral campaign, which seeks to clearly and concisely establish Islam’s true values, provided our Congressional representatives with two things. First, it showed our congresspeople the level of public interest in our message. After all, who would want to waste their office’s time, and taxpayer money, on unpopular ideas? And second, it gave our representatives a tangible action their office could take to support the movement, like becoming a #MuslimAlly. See that? The marcher’s grassroots campaign paired with the lobbyist’s specific requests harnesses potential for change more effectively than each working individually ever could.
Intermittently, lobbyists and marchers work in headline-making tandem, as is evident with the influx in passionate town halls across the nation. Citizens are able to cathartically express their feelings while simultaneously holding their representatives accountable. In Ann Arbor, Students4Justice showed our campus how to combine the marcher mentality with the lobbyist mentality when the coalition coupled its sit-in with a thorough list of requests to “President Mark Schlissel, the Administration, and the Central Student Government of the University of Michigan.” Quite formally, the administration issued a thorough response to each point raised by S4J. Whether or not the response was adequate is up for debate. But what’s happening here is an exchange between activists, who want social change, and their administration.
So what does this mean for you? Well, it depends. If you haven’t been politically active about issues that affect us all, it’s time to start. If you have been politically active, then consider what else you can do. Lobbyists, look into supporting nonviolent protests. Marchers, think about setting up a meeting at your local representative’s office. If it’s an on-campus issue, consider teaming up with other students and organizations, both lobbyists and marchers of course, to take that crucial first step. Let’s all put our passion into action, and work in tandem with activists to effect positive and tolerant change in our society.
Ibrahim Ijaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.