Civic Engagement in Action: Students Visit D.C., Meet with Lawmakers

It’s sometimes said that laws are like sausages: It’s better not to see them being made. A group of Rivers students recently got a rare glimpse of the lawmaking process and came away convinced that the reverse is actually true. Romy Arie ’21 said, “You feel like citizens have a big effect on what laws go into place. You can really change the laws of our country.”

Arie was one of seven students who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the CARE National Conference in June, accompanied by Amy Enright, director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement, and Kit Cunningham, director of service learning. CARE is an international humanitarian agency that works to defeat poverty and achieve social justice, largely through improving the lives of women and girls worldwide. Said Enright, “The amazing thing about CARE is that although they do direct-intervention, boots-on-the-ground work in over 90 countries, they also have a whole section of the organization that is geared toward advocacy and systemic change.”

It was the latter area that served as the focus of the conference. On the first day, attendees heard from a number of speakers, including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who served as Liberia’s president from 2006 to 2018. Two women from Guatemala spoke of how CARE had empowered them to create economic opportunities for themselves and for other women in their community. Lauren Barich ’20, another student who attended the conference, said, “My Spanish teacher would have been proud. One of the women didn’t speak any English, but I understood her”— and in the process picked up nuances, says Barich, that she wouldn’t have gotten through the translator.

The first day of the conference helped train participants for advocacy. The next day, conference attendees mobilized into action, visiting the offices of their states’ lawmakers to advocate on behalf of CARE’s initiatives. The organization’s focus for this particular event was two specific “asks”: protecting the foreign-assistance budget and advancing the Safe from the Start Act, a government program that responds to gender-based violence worldwide.

Rivers was one of the very few high-school contingents in attendance, but the students’ youth proved no obstacle to their access or participation. The group visited the offices of five Massachusetts members of congress—Stephen Lynch, Katherine Clark, Ayanna Pressley, Joe Kennedy, and Seth Moulton—as well as senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, meeting with aides or, in the cases of Moulton and Kennedy, briefly with the lawmakers themselves. Using research provided by CARE, students had spent the previous evening planning and preparing their remarks and talking points. Nonetheless, says Enright, “It was incredible to see the students grow in their sense of confidence and their communication skills over the course of the day.”

Barich noted that the members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, all Democrats, were predisposed to support the asks, and that it might have been interesting to address legislators who put up more opposition. But, she said, the trip was “very impactful,” and she found it interesting to see the various styles of Bay State-themed décor in the lawmakers’ offices: stylized drawings of towns in her district for Clark; JFK memorabilia for Kennedy; Bruins and Red Sox items for Lynch. It brought home a valuable point for Barich: “What we care about is what they care about.”

Enright was pleased that the Washington trip—one of the first concrete undertakings of the CCCE, launched last fall—so clearly dovetailed with the center’s mission of promoting civic engagement. “The CARE conference experience, with its unique combination of training in communication and leadership skills and the opportunity to make a direct pitch to D.C. lawmakers, was an illustration of the kinds of programs that the CCCE brings to the Rivers community and a great way to finish up the Center’s first year,” she said.

For Arie, the lesson in civic engagement couldn’t have been more clear. “People think we’re electing officials and trusting them to make decisions for us, but actually, we’re electing them to hear our voice,” she said. “They were interested in us. I think that’s really cool—that congress people really care what their constituents think and are willing to work with them.”

To view a gallery of photos from the trip, click here.