Speaking up to a senator in the national spotlight

October 13, 2021
by Rayna Castillo, Tempe, Arizona

This fall Senator Sinema has been in the national headlines almost daily as Congress debates the essential recovery package. Her office is getting inundated with calls from lobbyists and activists and journalists from every part of the country. She’s in regular contact with President Biden. So the first time I met with her staff, I was incredibly nervous, wondering how I was even qualified. 

It was my first ever meeting with a congressional office, and I was constantly checking the time and making sure I had the right Zoom link. I had thoroughly prepared, but I couldn’t shake my nerves. Yet when the call began, I was surprised and excited to realize I was leading the meeting by myself. No one else was taking over – this was on me. And I realized that as Senator Sinema’s Arizona constituent, and as someone with firsthand experience of poverty, I was more than qualified to be bringing the issues I care about to her.  

When I was a kid, I remember thinking, “If we had even just $20 right now it would feel like so much.” My mom, my brother and I were struggling to get by. Wages were garnished. I remember my mom having to make difficult decisions about which bills to pay, and what she could afford to be late on. We struggled to find stable and affordable housing and had to move frequently. Even small sums of money would have made a big difference for us.

Our story is not unique. Now as an adult, I advocate to Congress on issues like affordable housing and the expansion of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, which put money in the pockets of people who really need it. It feels really powerful to be able to empathize with the need and use my own experiences to make strong arguments for these programs. 

In that first meeting with the Senator’s office, I was able to get out of the mindset of having to hit every point perfectly, and instead have Sen. Sinema’s aide do a lot of the talking and ask her questions about what she thought and where the senator stood on an issue.  

Though the aide was non-committal, I felt that putting myself in a position to make them answer to how they’re responding to these issues was important. Being in Arizona, currently a pivotal state in big decisions that are being made in Congress, can be motivating. I know that I have a voice, and there’s a lot of room for being able to influence policy. I walked away from that meeting with a big confidence boost.  

I appreciate that this work lets me use my own experiences with poverty to make a difference. To me it can be a strength in advocacy when you do have those experiences that you can share. My personal understanding of poverty motivates me to help make sure no one else goes through the kinds of struggles that my family and I went through. When we’re able to actually change public policy, it can have such a transformational impact for so many people. If you are looking to create real tangible change in a way that affects the broader community and not just at an individual level, advocacy is a fantastic way to do that.  

Now with a year under my belt as a RESULTS Fellow, I feel like I am more than prepared to be able to handle congressional meetings. I have discovered that it’s not that large of a hurdle – you don’t have to know everything to get started. It takes a little bit of courage to take that first step. And then when you do it once, it becomes a lot easier. You even look forward to it. 

One of the best meetings I’ve had was with my representative’s office. I went in expecting a lot of pushback from her aide and not a whole lot of willingness to listen, but her aide was super interested in what I was doing and how I’d been involved in issues that impact Arizona. I felt a genuine connection with the aide and walked away feeling happy with how it went. I believe it is really important to keep an open mind when going into congressional meetings. 

Now even when I feel intimidated, I remember that my members of Congress, including those as in-demand as Senator Sinema, work for me. I’m proud that I am speaking up for myself, my community, and Arizona, and I continue to follow up with my congressional offices and be persistent. You never know how your voice can make an impact!

Interested in the RESULTS Fellowship? The 11-month advocacy and organizing program is open to young people age 20-35. Learn more and apply here: results.org/fellowship.

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