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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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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