Last week, I had the privilege of attending the first virtual Language Advocacy Days event organized by JNCL-NCLIS. Although this organization is celebrating its 40th anniversary, it has never before hosted a virtual conference–and holy moly, was it impressive. Not only was this event the first online iteration of the annual gathering, but it was the first year that all 50 states and the District of Columbia were represented by attendees, AND the first year that Canadian citizens held their own Language Advocacy Day at the same time!
In a very small and inadequate nutshell, this event brings people in the language business together to advocate for legislation that’s important to the survival and success of our industry and the future we want for our citizens.
When I say “people in the language business”, I mean K-12 educators, university professors, administrators, executive directors and employees of language-based businesses, linguists, interpreters, translators, and leaders of statewide and national groups in which language plays a critical part. Over the last three days, I met and spoke with the executive director for the American Association of Teachers of German; a linguist who works for Mango Languages and who is working on creating a curriculum for the indigenous language of the Potawatomi tribe in the Grand Rapids area; a linguistics professor from Baton Rouge who speaks five languages but doesn’t claim more than two; and three previous ACTFL Teacher of the Year Award recipients.
During the event, we learned about the legislative asks that are important to the organization, their origin stories and their potential impact. A group of staffers from all over the country gave us tips for meeting with their bosses and colleagues. We practiced our asks in state groups to get ready for our meetings, and we went in as prepared as we could be. We conquered our nerves and made our pitches to staffers, Representatives and Senators (who were quite impressed, if I may toot a horn on behalf of my colleagues and myself). We made plans to follow up with our representatives in order to provide updates on the legislation we had addressed and to build relationships with the staffers in their DC and state offices. We did a lot in each 15-minute meeting, and we did it so well because we had been so well prepared. LAD is a civics lesson, a public-speaking bootcamp, a pep rally, and a networking fiesta all in one three-day experience.
I’ve been to a lot of conferences. This is something different. It makes me better at what I do, but it also makes me want to be better at what I do. One of the women I met commented, “This feels different than a conference because all of that energy that is generated from us language nerds getting together is aimed in one direction.” And let me tell you, that concentrated energy has helped us accomplish a lot.
The World Language Readiness and Advancement Grant Program, funded with 15 million dollars of federal funds, allows schools with JROTC programs to apply for grants with the goal of increasing their language offerings and adding less commonly taught languages to their curricula. It came into being last year. The Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act eliminated barriers and increased federal funding for the teaching of indigenous languages–and it was passed unanimously at the beginning of 2020 in both the House and the Senate. The Seal of Biliteracy is now recognized in 40 states and the District of Columbia–and can be achieved in dozens of languages through a variety of assessment pathways. Though JNCL doesn’t accomplish this work alone, they–and the people who show up to take meetings with their representatives–play a significant role in moving this work forward.
I never thought advocacy was particularly important. After all, what change can I make? Now, I want everyone to know what this feels like: the sense of empowerment and responsibility make me feel like I can take on the world.
It allows us to crystallize what we believe in
Legislation is easy to ignore at any level, but the results of lawmakers’ decisions impact us every second of every day. The ability to point to four actions that I would like to see my representatives take–and to argue for them–made me more cognizant of why they are important to me, and by extension, why I do what I do every day. I believe in the power of access to language education and services. I think it makes for a kinder and more empathetic citizenry and it’s something I want my Congresswoman and Senators to value, too. I know that, and I can articulate it, because of this experience.
We put faces to the work of government
It turns out that knowing a little bit about “how the sausage gets made” can be a good thing. I didn’t know that Representatives could join as many caucuses as they want, but Senators are limited to a select few, so they have to be more choosy. Some representatives haven’t joined a caucus because they don’t know it exists yet. “Dear Colleague” letters are a way to spread the word about upcoming legislation in a way that shows support from an elected official. Staffers–and their bosses–are people, trying to accomplish (herculean) tasks in an environment that often resembles a treadmill in a mud pit. A number of the staffers who met with us were on the Hill on January 6th, and all of them are dealing with the logistical and emotional fallout. They’re doing the best they can, and even though they don’t always prioritize what we wish they would, they are humans. That’s easy to forget.
We’re not lobbyists
Several of the staffers that I’ve met have thanked us for taking the time to meet with them and share our concerns and aspirations–because we’re constituents. Representatives can’t represent if they don’t know what their constituents want, and setting a meeting is the prerogative of anyone who lives in the district of a Member of Congress. Lobbyists make up a substantial portion of staffer meetings, but they represent the interests of a corporation, not of a community.
We can use these same relationships–and these same skills–at the state and local levels
Knowing what words and phrases move the needle in changing a representative’s mind are similar at all levels of government. Representatives want to know what their constituents want, and they want to know how to serve them best. (They also enjoy positive reinforcement of past instances when they got it right in the eyes of their constituents.) They are often swayed by a connection of an initiative to their history of decision-making and voting, and to their personal philosophy. Knowing how to have conversations designed to elicit action from people in positions of power is an essential skill, and one that we often don’t have until after we need it.
I am immensely grateful for this experience. I got to be a part of something bigger than myself and to effect change on a level that increases my respect for the systems of government and the people who function inside them. I can critique more efficiently because I know how to critique the framework, rather than the people. Advocacy makes me a stronger teacher and a better member of the democratic republic in which I live, and I have #LAD21 to thank.
If you’re interested in attending next year’s Language Advocacy Days, check out https://www.languagepolicy.org/ for more information!