3 important tips from a former congressional staffer on how to get your voice heard.

I started working as a congressional staffer in 2009. I was 22.

I had no previous government or civic service experience, but I was idealistic and wanted to show the constituents of my district that their voices mattered.

I spent the next six years working for two members of Congress, mostly listening to stories from hundreds of people with diverse backgrounds.


My day-to-day responsibilities included answering phone calls, writing letters and emails, meeting with advocacy groups, and helping individual people navigate the federal government system. It was a mentally and emotionally challenging job, but it was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life. It taught me the power of an individual story and the serious duty of a congressional representative.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

It’s been two years since I worked as an aide, but I’m still pretty involved in politics. After the election results came in on Nov. 8, I was devastated.

I spent the next two days in bed or on my couch, reeling from the unexpected results. Donald Trump’s victory wasn’t what I’d expected. It felt like a more serious blow than any of the other political losses I’d seen throughout my career.

But then I woke up on Friday, Nov. 11, ready to take action. I saw my friends talking about their desire to stand against policies that would be harmful to their families and their friends' families.

Photo by Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

I posted a series of tweets, drawing from the knowledge I had as a former congressional staffer, to show how impactful a group of citizens can be when they all work together for a cause.

I outlined which specific actions would be effective. I explained how to best leverage your voice so you can be heard. Since then, those tweets have been seen nearly 24 million times on Twitter, with millions more views in articles on Facebook, Tumblr, and LinkedIn.

But there is so much more you can do, so much more that I didn’t include in those tweets.

Here’s what you need to know about taking action now against policies that could harm your loved ones once Trump takes office. It’s not enough anymore to vote once every two or four years. It’s not enough to expect that your representative will know your opinion. Now, we must make our voices heard.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

1. Research your elected officials.

Websites such as whoismyrepresentative.com allow you to put in your ZIP code and find your representatives in Congress. It’s an easy step to take, and it ensures that you’ll know who your federal, state, and local elected officials are when you need to make your voice heard. If it’s helpful to you, put their numbers in your phone. Get a general sense of who they are by reading their websites. Figure out what committees they are on and which issues matter most to them.

If you’re unclear about the different roles of the House of Representatives and the Senate, do some internet research or visit your local library and speak to a librarian. Librarians are the masters of research and can help you find the resources you need.

Photo by Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images.

2. Identify your key issues and get active.

Local advocacy groups and citizen lobbyist groups are powerful in the way they combine resources and forces to educate and speak out. While you might feel like your individual voice gets lost in the crowd — remember that elected officials can represent hundreds of thousands or even millions of constituents — a large group of people speaking together will be heard. Advocacy groups such as the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, EMILY’S List, the Native American Rights Fund, RAINN, and many others create legislative priorities at the beginning of each session. They do research and activism on a variety of issues coming before Congress, and they can use your money as well as your time.

Getting on their political action lists means you’ll know when important legislation is coming and who to call in your state and federal government.

3. Get comfortable with the phone.

The most effective tool for advocacy is still the telephone. It works because it’s immediate and personal. The staffer on the other end of the phone needs to answer your questions and take your comments immediately. I know — I’ve been on the other side of the phone. And I can promise that with enough calls, the representative’s staff will understand that there’s a problem. They’ll know they need to take action or make a statement.

If you’ve never called your reps before, you may wonder what to say. If your phone phobia is such that you need a script, go ahead and either write one or borrow one from an advocacy group. But do not underestimate the power of your own personal story.

I received a tweet that asked if staffers were used to listening to sobbing, emotional people. The answer is yes. I’ve cried on the phone with a constituent before — more than once, actually. I always kept a box of tissues by my desk, and I listened to stories that affected me profoundly. Those messages were the ones I made sure my boss heard. So, be authentic with the person on the other end of the phone about how you are feeling. They need to know how they can represent you. Your story is more important than the nitty-gritty details of how legislation works.

Photo via iStock.

However you choose to reach out to your representative, know that each message, letter, and phone call is important.

For the next few years, your activism will mean more than it ever has before.

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Here's to the stepdads who step in and step up to fatherhood.

Happy Father's Day to all the stellar stepdads.

Some fathers are there at the starting line. And some fathers step in partway through the race.

My biological dad left my mom when I was a toddler. I don't even remember living with him, and my memories of weekend visits throughout my early childhood are vague. He loved me, I'm sure, but he eventually slipped off the radar. He wasn't abusive or a massive jerk or anything. He just wasn't there.

Who was there was my Dad. My stepdad, technically, but for all intents and purposes, he was and is my Dad. He stepped in when I was four, and stepped up to raise two kids who weren't his. He went to the parent-teacher conferences, attended the school plays, surprised us with trips to the ice cream shop, taught us how to change a tire. He loved us, not just in word but in action.

As a parent myself, I now understand how hard it must have been to step into that role. Step-parenting involves unique relationship dynamics, and you have to figure a lot of things out as you go along.

My Dad had his own demons from his own childhood to deal with on top of that, and his cycle-breaking parenting still awes me. But he was always there to cheer me on, comfort me, and talk me through life's challenges. He wasn't perfect, but he was there, actively engaged in the marathon of fatherhood every step of the way.

Stepparents are often vilified in stories, but there are millions of awesome stepdads out there.

Without a doubt there are some terrible stepdads (and stepmoms) out there, just as there are some terrible parents in general. But there are a lot of great ones, too.

Alison Tedford's 11-year-old son Liam is lucky to have such a stepdad. Liam shares his time between his mom's and dad's house equally, but when he is with his mom, he's also with his stepdad, Paul. Alison says that Liam adores Paul, who stepped into the stepdad role when Liam was 7. Paul spent the first couple of years carrying Liam to bed every night, per Liam's request. Now that he's too big for that, they practice lacrosse and play video games together.

"To support Liam in his love of lacrosse, Paul took a lacrosse coaching course and is the team statistics manager," says Tedford. "They are best buds and Paul treats him with all the love and kindness he does his own kids. He drives him all sorts of places, goes on field trips, and makes sure he has everything he needs and is having fun. He's a really great stepdad."

These aren't the kinds of stories that make the news. But millions of stepdads dive into supportive, involved parenting as they fall in love with their loved ones' kids.

Having a stepparent is now about as common as not having one.

According to the US Census Bureau, half of the 60 million kids in the U.S. live with a biological parent and the parent's partner. And the most common stepfamily configuration—85% of them—is a mom, her biological kids, and a stepfather. That's a whole lot of stepdads.

Blending families can be complicated, and figuring out how to navigate those waters isn't easy. But family counselor and researcher Joshua Gold calls becoming a stepdad both "a challenge and an opportunity."

"The challenge comes in rejecting previously held beliefs about what it means to be a father," Gold wrote in The Conversation. "Stepfathers – and I count myself as one – must avoid outmoded notions of compensating for the absent biological father or paternal dominance."

"The opportunity comes in devising a parenting role that expresses the best and fullest aspects of being a man and a father figure," he wrote. "Done consciously and deliberately, the role and function of the stepfather can be tremendously fulfilling for all, and a source of lifelong joy and pride."

Here's to the stepdads who step into that role, step up to the challenge, and make the most of the opportunity to have a positive, nurturing influence in children's lives.

Family

'Love is a battlefield' indeed. They say you have to kiss ~~at least~~ a few frogs to find your prince and it's inevitable that in seeking long-term romantic satisfaction, slip ups will happen. Whether it's a lack of compatibility, unfortunate circumstances, or straight up bad taste in the desired sex, your first shot at monogamous bliss might not succeed. And that's okay! Those experiences enrich our lives and strengthen our resolve to find love. That's what I tell myself when trying to rationalize my three-month stint with the bassist of a terrible noise rock band.


One woman's viral tweet about a tacky mug wall encouraged people to share stories about second loves. Okay, first things first: Ana Stanowick's mom has a new boyfriend who's basically perfect. All the evidence you need is in the photograph:

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Family



The Poison Garden of Alnwick www.youtube.com


Plants have the power to heal us, yet plants have the power to harm us. There's an unusual garden that's dedicated solely to the latter. The Poison Garden located on the grounds of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England is the deadliest garden in the world. In the Poison Garden, you can admire the plants with your eyes, but you're not allowed to touch or smell anything, because every plant in the garden is poisonous, and can possibly even kill you. The name of the garden should be a dead giveaway.

The garden was created in 2005 when Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, wanted to show people the scariest plants around. "I wondered why so many gardens around the world focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill," the Duchess said. "I felt that most children I knew would be more interested in hearing how a plant killed, how long it would take you to die if you ate it, and how gruesome and painful the death might be." Honestly, she's got a point.

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Planet

I had a strange experience in the Vancouver, B.C. airport last week that I can't stop thinking about.

I was on my way to the Women Deliver conference—the largest international conference on the rights, health, and well-being of women and girls. As a woman and an American, I was excited to be immersed in conversations about improving gender equality globally. I was excited to meet people leading movements to improve the lives of women and girls around the world. Justin Trudeau, Melinda Gates, Tarana Burke, and other major movers and shakers were going to be there. The conference had been sold out for months.

As I made my through customs at the Vancouver airport, I expected to feel some excitement about being there. I did not, however, expect to feel what I felt as I left the terminal.

The signs for exiting the Vancouver airport don't say "Exit," they say "Way Out." And as I walked toward the Way Out sign, something about those two words and the realization that I had just left American soil hit hard. A wave of unexpected emotion washed over me.

Relief.

Scenes from The Handmaid's Tale—of people fleeing the hellscape the U.S. had become and seeking asylum in Canada—flashed through my mind. A mere few years ago, such scenes would have felt like far-fetched fiction. But walking toward the Way Out signs in the Vancouver airport, it felt too close to home. For a moment, I had an urge to run toward those signs like my life depended on it. To run toward sanity—toward freedom.

We have "American freedoms" drilled into us from the time we're children. Right now, it feels like a lie.

I hadn't fully realized how psychologically oppressive the U.S. had become until I left it, even just temporarily. The steady drip of regressive policies, the erosion of facts and denial of science, the resurgence of racist and nationalist movements, the daily insanity coming from the highest levels of our government, and the intensely polarized atmosphere here has worn on me more than I realized.

And I'm generally a super positive person. Seriously, I'm like the Pollyanna of politics—if I'm struggling here, what are other people feeling? (I'm also a middle-class white lady whose privilege has prevented me from fully grasping the fear and angst marginalized communities have been feeling for, well, ever. I'm well aware that I'm late to the game of uncertainty.)

Stepping into Canada, I felt like I could fully exhale for the first time in several years, only I didn't even know I had been holding my breath. Ironically, leaving "the land of the free" gave me a keen feeling of freedom and a sense of safety I didn't know I'd lost. I never expected to feel that way leaving my own country.

My internal dialogue has always been, "America, I love you. You aren't perfect, but your positives outweigh your negatives." Now it's, "America, I want to love you. But it's clear that our relationship has become toxic and I'm not sure how much longer I can do this."

Attending a women's rights conference as an American right now was surreal.

The Women Deliver conference was a powerful four days filled with people from 165 countries working to empower women and fight for their health and well-being. Heads of international aid organizations, heads of women's associations, heads of movements, Heads of State, and thousands of others all gathered together to discuss the state of the world's women and girls.

And you want to know the biggest contribution my country made to that conversation? A litany of regressive policies and legislation that prompted a collective, international rallying cry: "We refuse to go backwards."

I got to see some of the ways our current policies affect women not just in the U.S., but outside of it. For example, I was embarrassed by our reimplementation and expansion of the "global gag rule," which removes funding from any organization that so much as mentions abortion—even in countries where abortion is legal—and puts the lives of women and girls at risk.

I don't think most average Americans understand how harmful the global gag rule is. I watched a woman from Kenya share her story of escaping female genital mutilation at age 8. I heard from a woman in Pakistan who escaped child marriage at 11 years old. I watched an 18-year-old from Nigeria who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram at 14 and repeatedly raped until she escaped at 16—eight months pregnant. The organizations that helped these girls focus their work on sexual and reproductive health, including ending child marriage and genital cutting, educating communities on safe sex, and providing resources to prevent unwanted pregnancy. And if any such organization were to inform a child bride whose body would be ravaged by childbirth or a Boko Haram escapee impregnated by violence that abortion was one possible option for them, they would lose all funding from the U.S.

That is criminal. And it is happening. And it's just one backwards policy America is responsible for.

However, I left the conference—and Canada—with a strong sense of hope.

One thing stepping out of the U.S. and meeting agents of change from around the world showed me was that there are so many incredible people doing important, world-changing work out there. The Maasai woman who has helped save 17,000 girls from genital cutting by helping transform coming-of-age rituals into celebrations of girls' hopes and dreams, for example. Orhe 18-year-old Zambian girl who earned a standing ovation from four heads of state after eloquently calling out politicians for being all talk and no action. Or the organizers who pulled together all of these individuals to help women support one another, to stand in their power wherever they live.

I returned to the U.S. not with a sense of dread, but with a sense of purpose. Women are making waves in the world, pushing back against centuries of inequality and patriarchal norms. Naturally, there will be pushback against that pushback, but we will not go backwards.

Everything isn't okay, and we are living in strange times. But there are positive things happening. Old systems have to be broken down in order to build something new. Sometimes a step back clears the way for two steps forward. I have to believe that's where we are right now—poised for a great leap into a better future, where all of us feel free and safe on our own soil.

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