WriteCast Episode 56: Writing for Social Change: Letters to Legislators
© Walden University Writing Center 2018
CLAIRE: Welcome to Write Cast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers, a monthly podcast by the Walden University Writing Center. I’m Claire Helakoski,
KACY: and I’m Kacy Walz.
KACY: Today we’re talking with two other Walden Writing Center Instructors, Melissa Sharpe and Meghan Barnes. Melissa and Meghan have agreed to talk with us today about their experiences writing for social change.
CLAIRE: Hi everyone and welcome to today’s episode. Today Kacy and I have two guests with us, Melissa Sharpe and Meghan Barnes. Welcome Melissa and Meghan! We’re going to be talking about writing for social change today and both Melissa and Meghan have some recent experience with that that they’re going to share with us.
KACY: In this episode Melissa and Meghan will talk about some communication they’ve written to their local representatives and through an app. Everything we discuss today is personal opinion, and not endorsed by Walden University. We hope that this episode inspires you to think about how you could use your academic writing skills to write for social change in your own lives and communities.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Melissa and Meghan!
MELISSA: Thanks, Kacy, it’s great to be here.
MEGHAN: I’m super excited to be here, guys. Thanks so much for having us.
KACY: Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourselves before we start talking about your writing?
MELISSA: Sure. So, I’m Melissa Sharpe and, as you know, I’m a Writing Instructor here in the Walden Writing Center. I join in every day from Detroit, Michigan. And I am excited to get to share my experiences writing for social change because it’s something that I help all of our students do.
MEGHAN: And my name is Meghan Barnes and I am out of North Carolina, I’m actually out of the capitol there in Raleigh. I have a miniature Great Dane and a Frenchie who are also here and being very quiet and joining us today as well. And I’m excited to talk to you guys about this because I was always brought up that it was really important that if you felt that you needed your voice to be heard and you felt that there needed to be some kind of changes in your community, your state, your region, that it was your responsibility to enact that social change yourself and to reach out to your representatives. Because they will not know how you feel unless you do. So, I’m really happy to be here to speak with you.
CLAIRE: Thanks so much, both of you. So, let’s get started and talking about your recent experiences. Can you tell us all a little bit more about the e-mails and/or letters that you’ve written recently?
MELISSA: Sure so, I got into an e-mailing-my-representatives kick a couple months ago. And I went through and everybody who is an elected official that represents me, all the way from the President down to City Council, I reached out to them, just in an e-mail, sharing some of the topics that were most important to me, things I would like to see happen. Probably just your most general overview of my beliefs because it occurred to me that, even if people who I vote for win, and go out there into the world to represent me and work on creating legislation…it doesn’t necessarily mean that what they do will still align with what I would want to see. And so, I realized it was important to just send out there and hope that it makes it all the way to the person, the things that I would like to see and the things that I believe in. Because otherwise, they don’t know. And they are representing me and being paid for with our tax dollars. So, I wanted to make sure that the things that were important to me were leaving my brain and making it to the people representing me.
MEGHAN: And this is Meghan, here. I like to use…I use very similar approach. So, I use something called ResistBot which is a text-based application for them and you can let them know what you’re interested in, where you reside, who the council members are that you want to speak to. And they will send you a text message anywhere from once a week to three times a week or once a month…you choose the amount of reminders. I have them send me one once a week and they ask me specifically which representatives you would like to speak to. And what they do is, they take the texts you send them and they put it into an e-mail that they also send it to an actual fax through a fax machine. And what I found really cool about that is I’ve actually gotten way more responses through using this app than I have using traditional means. And I think some of this has to do with the actual, physical paper fax getting into somebody.
A lot of what I like to write about are before votes. I do write to some of our larger representatives, but I do write a lot for our local representatives, for things like budgeting for schools and road maintenance and different projects that they’re going to be doing in the area. Especially since I am in the capitol, we are constantly expanding especially since we just got the new Apple headquarters and we’re getting Amazon HQ, too. It’s a very big time for things to be developed. So I like to make sure that before there are people that move to vote to represent me and my community, that they know exactly where I stand and exactly how I feel so that they know however many number of people that they represent have reached out to them to let them know how they would like them to vote. Because a lot of times I feel that the people that are meant to represent us are not given enough direction from us to know what we would like to be represented in. It could be something simple so they know, “Ok, well I’ve gotten a lot of messages from people in my community that support this, therefore I should voting towards that.” So, I like to focus on it on both the larger and the smaller scale, but a lot of times I do focus the most of my effort on the smaller community and within my actual immediate area.
KACY: You guys have both brought up some really important points that come up in writing reviews a lot for me. Which is, thinking about your reader and thinking about the fact that your reader is not inside your head. And I love what both of you are saying about how it is really important for our representatives to know how we’re feeling. Because, you’re absolutely right, they don’t know unless we take that action and go out of our way to inform them.
MELISSA: Yeah, and that was something that was something I realized – kind of an “aha! moment” is that if there’s a really big issue that’s getting a lot of publicity, or there’s something that makes a lot of people angry, our representatives likely get a big influx of messages regarding those topics. But when it comes to everything else or you know, moments of calm, they probably are hearing less often. And so I think that outside of the biggest issues that receive the most press and attention, everything else is still very important. It’s just perhaps quieter on their end. So it still matters that we write in and reach out to share how we feel even if something is not, you know, the hottest topic of that day.
CLAIRE: That’s a really good point, Melissa. And I think, you know, I hope that’s something that really resonates with our students, too, because I know a lot of the Walden assignments have components where you actually take some kind of action in the real world, right? And contacting representatives is similar to that in that you’re sort of putting the social change you want to see into action whether that’s on a larger or smaller scale.
MEGHAN: I agree with what you’re saying as well, Melissa, because I feel like a lot of the things that do get more steam are ones that might have been picked up by the news or are, as you said, more heavy-handed topics. But it doesn’t make them any more or less important than the others. And I feel like a large amount of that is that a lot of the people at least in my community here aren’t aware of when votes are happening or what votes are on, and in a lot of cases, that if they were to reach out to people, that they could actually influence their representatives to vote in a way that better reflects themselves as well as their communities. So I think that’s a very important point, that we need to be aware of a lot of these situations in order to take action on them. And sometimes the awareness comes through the media and the larger scale things, but sometimes it comes through our own exploration of how our school funding be paying, how our roads are being paid for, how is this specific vote going to impact me, my family, my community, for the next ten years. And once we kind of get into that idea of taking action for the larger issues that we might be more aware of, it kind of opens the flood gate into us teaching ourselves to find additional things that we’re passionate about and that we care about to let people know how we feel they should be voting.
KACY: That’s a great, Meghan. And you guys have both talked a little bit about kind of what inspired you to write, about your passions, and I know we have a lot of very passionate students here at Walden. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how these e-mails or interactions are different, or maybe even similar to, academic writing?
MELISSA: Academic writing…we think of it as being its own form of writing and even though every type and genre of writing differs, there are some similarities that create high quality writing no matter what it is. So, in academic writing, some of the things we consider are our topic, we want to make sure that we have a strong thesis or guiding statement. and that we support it throughout that paper, it if is just a single page discussion post, or a 20-page final project. and the same is true if you are writing an e-mail to a person on your city council. You want to make sure that you have a point and the focus and that you stick to that throughout the message and support it with relevant details. So that general structure of having a main idea that is supported with reasons and that is supported with your explanation and evidence, that stays the same. You know, in an e-mail to an elected official, I’m not going to put an APA citation at the end of a sentence, although I may refer them to a source that backs up that piece of evidence. So, there’s some of those differences in form, but the basic tenant of having your idea supporting it, sticking to it, developing thoughtful paragraphs…stays the same, no matter what you’re writing.
MEGHAN: I agree with that, Melissa. And think for me it also builds upon the idea of code shifting. A lot of our students, especially at Walden Writing Center, this is something that goes across the board for all students, whether they are in middle school, high school, university, grad school, or completing their post-doc…you have to develop this sense of code-shifting because a lot of times you’re going to be working with the same topic but you may be writing a discussion board post that is later transitioned to an outline which is transitioned to a paper which is transitioned to a project or presentation. They might all be on the same topic, but the way you deliver it and the audience that you have are completely different. It’s kind of similar to the way that, if you have a really bad day, you would talk about that bad day differently with your best friend than you with your grandmother. And both of those would be drastically different than the way you communicate those issues with your boss the next day when you come in for your meeting. So, it’s this idea of being able to use your writing skills, use your critical thinking skills to develop the best way to present information. and the best way for that information to be received by your specific audience. So you think of these elements as code-shifting rather than developing something completely different, there’s not a lot of differences between that academic paper and that e-mail to your representative because as Melissa was saying, you are going to make sure that you have a developed point, you’re going to make sure that you have a focus, you’re going to make sure that you’re aware of your audience, and what you need to do to make sure that your presentation is successful to that audience. And all of those are very valuable parts of code-shifting. And that’s something that a lot of us do on a daily basis. But we don’t realize that we have that skill and that that skill is so strong and so well-developed within each of us, that we don’t tune into it and we don’t tap into it enough until we have that realization that, “Oh! I do have these skills, I do have these abilities!” So I really like that point that you made, Melissa.
CLAIRE: Thanks so much, both of you and I would add to that looking over other pieces of work in the format that you’re trying to write is really helpful, too. Because you’ll be able to kind of see those key points. For example, in a typical business letter, your paragraphs look a little different than they do in a course paper. Your introduction looks a little different, but they have similarities. So, taking a little extra time and reading a couple things in the new format, whether that’s a letter or an e-mail or a flier or pamphlet…can be really helpful to kind of pay attention to the nuances and differences. and fit the information that you have into this new format.
MELISSA: That’s a really great point. And, you know, when we think about some forms of art that we create, if you’re a musician you probably listen to other musicians who play your instrument…if you’re a creative writer, you probably read a lot. But when it comes to writing letters or sometimes even academic writing, I don’t think we sit down to read other people’s letters or read other essays to develop an ear for it. That’s a great point.
KACY: And similarly, I know, Melissa, you were kind of joking about using APA citation style in your e-mails, but another aspect of academic writing that might pertain is I think both of you mentioned having outside information to support whatever it is you want to say, making sure that that information is solid, right? Is credible information.
MELISSA: Yeah, that’s really important. And I think it’s easy for people to not take the time to stop and check where some of their beliefs come from, or to see if there’s evidence to base those thoughts on. So, before I would write somebody about an issue, and this is particularly true at the local level, I would want to make sure that those, that you know, that gut reaction, the emotion, the feeling, that rawness behind my opinion, that there was something other than feeling behind it. So, one of the things that I was concerned about is that there’s an EPA super fund site five blocks south of me. And after they figured out the cause of what was leaking these chemicals into the soil and then eventually the lake that’s next to us, they kind of put a block there and they said “ok, that’s our solution. Maybe we can come back and clean it if you want us to.” And I was like, “wait, how is that even an option? It can’t be just, let’s leave it there. We should clean it!” But I had to do research to make sure that continuing the cleaning process and widening the soil testing was important. We live on a block that was not soil tested because that they said this particular chemical is really heavy and it doesn’t spread out very far in the soil, tends to stay where it is. but, I believe it was something that conducts electricity that had been buried in the thirties or forties, that has been in the soil for a long time. So I wanted to do research to see if it was possible for this chemical to reach us before I you know, was storming my city council demanding you know, that you soil test my property, too. So, having research to back up the things that you are pushing for regarding social change or writing representatives is important. And it has more of an impact on the reader if you show up with those resources and proof and evidence.
CLAIRE: I think that’s definitely a really important component of social change. Is, in any format, beyond just academic writing, is to have those strong points and to have done your research because you can’t just rely on being persuasive in the words or the language that you use. You also need to have that information for somebody. Because your audience, when you’re writing about social change, is usually somebody who might not agree with you, right? So to convince somebody who might not agree with you, or who doesn’t know about your topic, then you need to inform them about that topic and you need to be informed so that you can provide them with that additional information and really establish yourself as a credible source, but also so that they can learn more so that they can have their own takeaways and opinions and ideas based on what you’ve written. And that’s sort of the idea behind using evidence in academic writing, but it really applies to writing for social change in any format.
KACY: That’s a great point, Claire. Can you guys talk a little bit about how these writing experiences might be different from academic writing? I think you’ve given some great examples about how it’s similar, but did you find it to be a different writing technique or writing skill that you used?
MEGHAN: I have found there to be a great difference in my writing for social change and personal types of writing rather than my academic writing. And a lot of that has to do with the passion that I feel for these topics. So, when I’m dealing with academic writing, I’m dealing with a very close case set. I have my statistics, I have my figures, I have my facts, I have the source material that I’ve found, and I am beautifully weaving a tale to incorporate all of these different materials. however, when I’m writing something to one of my representatives or for anything that has to do with social change, I’m specifically focusing on things that I feel very strongly one way or the other about, so I find that I don’t have this objective viewpoint that I do within academic writing. However, all of my training in academic writing has allowed me to read over what I write and reign myself in. it allows me to look at the places where I might be relying more on an emotional appeal which I find to be very common in my first draft. sometimes they seem almost like angry rants! And that is absolutely fantastic and perfect for a first draft if you have the skills to go back and revise it. So, for me there is a very big difference, but it comes back to the skillset that I’ve developed that allows me to focus that writing. because if you’re able to take something that might seem like an angry, emotional appeal, and revise it so you are including things that you might include with an academic paper, such as facts or statistics or you are providing them information that links to a peer-reviewed article or in Melissa’s case, you could link them directly to the findings of different soil test and give them a map that shows how close those locations are, you are taking that emotional appeal, you’re taming it down, and you’re providing secondary information that will take something that was once emotional and will make it relevant, focused, specific, and pertinent to what your representatives are going to be looking at. So, again for me there’s a big difference, but it all comes back to that training of how do we refocus our own writing.
MELISSA: And when we think about the use of emotional appeal and that emotional language when we’re writing for social change, I think there is a little bit more room for those emotionally charged phrases to appear, although, as Meghan points out, the support needs to come from a logical side in order to have an impact on the reader. I also found that when I write for social change, I can base that entire piece on personal experience because for a lot of purposes that we write for personal experience is the root for why we’re writing for social change. whereas when I’m writing academically, everything cannot be rooted in my own personal experiences. I have to reach beyond that or perhaps my starting point isn’t even within my personal experiences, you know, we’re given a prompt and direction and things that we have to fulfill when we’re writing academically, but when we’re writing for social change and reaching out to our representatives, we’re really in control of that entire process.
CLAIRE: Great, thank you both so much for those important sort of distinctions between academic writing and writing for social change or writing e-mails or letters in particular. So, let’s shift gears a little bit. You both have written what sounds like several different e-mails or letters to these representatives. So how did you know or find out where to send this information about these issues that were important to you?
MELISSA: I did a good old Google search to help me identify some of my elected officials. Some I know by name, but there are some representatives that go to Lansing, which is our capitol here in Michigan, that I did not know their names and I’ll be honest about that. And I had to look up my district number, who was elected from there, and then I was able to find their websites. in all of the state websites, there’s a listing of every representative and you can do a search that way and you get their general e-mail. I found that the higher up you go when reaching out, the more likely you are to get a stock response, you know, “Thank you for e-mailing us, we appreciate taking the time…” but that when you get closer to representatives on a more local level, you will get personal responses. And I’ve also found that there are different ways to reach out to them. The city I live in has a Facebook group for residents and some of our council members are in that group and participate and comment on things. you know, we have access to that traditional e-mail, but there are some other ways to find your representatives.
MEGHAN: So, with the app that I use, the ResistBot App, the first stages when you use it the first time it asks you your state, it asks you your zip code. You also have the option to let it know if you have a specific party that you follow or that you vote for, but the app gives you all of that information. So, it will tell you who all the representatives are within your city, within your state, and once a week or once a month or whatever you choose when you set up your account, it will send you a reminder and ask you who specifically you would like to write to. And if you’re not quite sure you can even ask it more specifically about some of the issues that are at hand and what future votes are coming about. So it will tell you what votes are coming and it will give you all of the contact information for all of your representatives within your local community as well as your larger community at the state level or if you even want to go up to the country level, it will give you the information for that. So, I was very thankful to not have to do as much leg work to find some of this information. And I find that I’m much more readily writing once a week because I don’t have to do anything other than pick who I want to write to and write my message. And it gets sent for me.
KACY: You both have talked a lot about audience and the importance of audience when you’re doing this kind of writing. Can you tell us, did you get any responses?
MELISSA: So, I’ve received quite a few stock letters from my representatives thanking me for writing in, but at the local level I saw a lot more personal and genuine responses and even a little bit of action. It lets me know that I have city council members who are responsive and working and listening to the things that I have to say. Also regarding the soil testing, I was put in contact with companies that do independent soil testing that is funded through the county, and I’m hoping that once I complete that and have the results, if there is anything of concern I’ll be able to return to these same elected officials to make sure that they push for proper clean up and represent us and our safety and our health in an appropriate way. So, you know, I received some responses, I don’t think I have created a large wave of social change, but I know that at least the things that are important to me have been spoken and will potentially influence the future actions of the people who represent me.
KACY: And it can be hard to see those giant waves of social change as you mention, but I do think, Melissa, that you’re making a great point that just sharing your thoughts and sharing what is important to you will make a difference even if you can’t see immediately or even you can’t see it in a large way that there’s some difference being made.
MEGHAN: And I agree with Melissa, I’ve actually received a lot of form letters from the larger offices which is usually signed by staff, but it’s the more local levels I have gotten more personalized responses and somethings that are actually really validating is there have been a couple issues where I’ve actually gone to the city council meetings and I’ve introduced myself to some of the representatives and they knew my name, they knew who I was and that I had written them a dozen or so times about a very specific topic. They recalled what I had addressed, and they were willing to talk about it in person with me. And a lot of these topics were larger issues, they aren’t things that could be changed or fixed or addressed in a couple of weeks, they’re things that would take multiple budgeting expenses and different issues that would have to bring in larger parties from the larger community together, but the fact that somebody listened, knew my name, and remembered what I had addressed them about, was very, very meaningful to me because in order for you to have social change, your voice has to be heard. And a lot of times when I do get those form letters I feel good for writing them, I know they got to where they needed to go, and I know that they keep a tally as to who writes for or against certain issue so they know which way they should vote, but it doesn’t feel as personalized. So to have those small wins where somebody on a more local level actually realized what you brought to the table was of value was something that was very, very meaningful to me and that’s what drives e to continue to write the letters to the larger representatives as well as the local ones because even if the larger representatives don’t have as much time to send a personal response, you get the feeling of community and the feeling of taking part in change.
CLAIRE: Thank you so much, Meghan and Melissa, for joining us today and giving our students some additional insight into how they can use their academic writing skills to enact social change in different forums.
KACY: Yes, thank you so much, it was great to hear about both of your experiences.
MELISSA: Thank you, it was great to be here today!
MEGHAN: I had a lot of fun, thanks for having us on, guys!
CLAIRE: So now we’re wrap things up and go over a few of those resources that we mentioned and these will be available in our show notes as well with live links. So, we talked about audience today, we have a page on scholarly voice and a page on audience on our website if you’d like to learn more on those topics. We also talked about using evidence, we have a page on that, we have a podcast episode about using evidence, so you can check those out as well. The application that Meghan mentioned is called ResistBot and we will have that in our show notes as well.
KACY: We also have a webinar series Writing for Social Change and you can find that in our webinar archive. There are several posts related to writing for social change on the Walden Writing blog and more about social change efforts at the Walden University Writing Center can be found on our homepage at academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. You can look under the ”About” tab for our page called “Social Change at the Writing Center.”
CLAIRE: We also have a little bit of news regarding social change. If you’re a Walden student writing for social change outside of your coursework, keep an eye on our Writing Center webpage and e-mail newsletter for a social change related initiative in mid-October. Which is during Walden’s Global Days of Service.
KACY: The Writing Center puts out a weekly newsletter that provides information about upcoming webinars, featured podcast episodes, different writing tips, and other things like that. If you would like to receive our newsletter, you can write to us at [email protected]and let us know that you would like your name added to that list.
So thank you again so much, Melissa and Meghan, for joining today, and thank you listeners for listening! Until next time, keep writing!
CLAIRE: Keep inspiring!
KACY: WriteCast is a monthly podcast produced by the Walden University Writing Center. Visit our online Writing Center at academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter. Find more WriteCast episodes on iTunes,Stitcher,TuneInor your favorite podcast app. We would love to hear from you. Connect with us on our blog, Facebook, and Twitter, and at [email protected]. Thanks for listening!