I was standing at the bottom of the stairs of the Minnesota State Capitol. Thirty minutes earlier I had put on my new pair of black Dansko clogs, a brown business suit from Marshalls, dabbed my cheeks with bronzer, and headed out the door. It was a month away from my 23rd birthday and I was heading to the first day of my new job, lobbying on behalf of college students in support of increased renewable energy and reduced carbon emissions in Minnesota.
The truth was, I had never lobbied. Not really, at least. I had spent six months at a paid internship at Fresh Energy, an advocacy organization that focused on a clean energy future; I watched other people navigate the legislature, but it’s safe to say I was underqualitfied for the job. I was young, out of my league, and nervous. Welcome to life after college.
I liked the altruistic nature of what I was set out to do. In a building filled with “old” people, I was going to be the voice of the next generation. I was going to stand up for all those students in college that couldn’t leave class to sit in hearings and meet with their legislators. I was going to help put our youthful faces on the map, cut through the noise and remind the legislators that their votes impacted young people, young kids just like their own.
So I did what most people do when they are 23 and new to the work focre, I made it up. I walked up the stairs and walked into the Capitol building, pretending like I knew where I was going and what I was doing.
I was a political science major in college but I hated politics. I never thought I’d get myself wrapped up in a world where politics trumped the right thing to do, where every move was calculated, and bickering was common place. But then I learned how most of our biggest problems facing the environment and public health threats, were best solved by policy solutions.
We could, for example, tell all of our friends to change out their light bulbs from incandescent to CFLs and drastically reduce energy consumption (LEDs weren’t a thing then). Or instead of trying to reach every person in the state of Minnesota, we could pass a state level law that would require coal companies to clean up their factories and drastically reduce carbon emissions. The scale of “winning” just got so much bigger, and I liked that. Even better, we could do both, reduce in house energy consumption and clean up or shut down coal plants. It seemed like dealing with “politics” might be worth it after all.
Luckily for me the internship I had introduced me to some of the state’s finest environmental advocates. So when I walked into the Capitol that day, I met with a group of seven colleagues, from different environement or conservation organizations and we had our first strategy meeting.
I loved sitting there like a spounge, at the end of the meeting they would give me list of legisltaors to meet with. I learned the “ask”: we were trying to pass a bill that would set drastic reductions for carbon emissions for the state.
I pulled out my legislator “look book” and started booking appointments. I was grateful to take the first few meetings on my own to get out some of the kinks. And two months later, I was confidently running up to senators in the halls, walking them between meetings and asking for their support on the bill and gathering intelligence. And later that year I testified in front of the legislature for the first time.
I was hooked.
Fast forward ten years: I’ve been at the forefront of policy campaigns that have resulted in some of the nation’s leading environmental and consumer safety laws. And if there is one thing I’ve learned from the wins and losses I have seen, it’s that our individual voices matter and when we use them in a collective manner, big things can happen.
That first year lobbying (long before I started working on consumer safety and reducing toxic chemical exposure) we won. We ran a campaign that passed one of the most health protective carbon reduction bills in the country, and years later the state of Minnesota continues to be a leader in creating renewable energy jobs.
I hated politics, and so I became an advocate. There’s no better way to change a system you hate, then to work it from the inside.
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