Since the election, many progressives have the burning desire to make their voices heard. And many are opting to write letters to politicians. The bright spot in our bad new world? The best way to write a political letter is at a party.
Getting together with friends, pouring wine, sipping tea, and talking politics is pure democracy. And if you want to know the truth, a letter-writing party is also good for the soul. I've been throwing letter-writing parties for over 10 years; in bars, at cafés, inside museums and, maybe best of all, at home. Lately, lots of people have asked me how, and I'm happy to help—personally, I'm busy trying to help foster the kind of world The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead once described, in which people "incorporate a little bit of activism into their social lives, and so it becomes something that you do—like your yoga practice." I hear the word "normalize" a lot: Let's normalize letter writing! (And phone calls. And demonstrations. And difficult conversations. But for now, I'll focus on writing letters.) Let's have a party.
A satisfied writer at the recent Bioneers Conference letter party.
The basic idea of writing a political letter is that when your envelope reaches the Senator's office, someone opens it, reads it, and makes a tally of the opinion it expresses. All the tallied opinions are presented to the elected person at the appropriate time. Best of all, the senator uses a kind of algebra: For every one person who writes a real letter—on paper, without a printer—the senator's office assumes it's likely that 99 other people feel the same as you do but didn't bother to write. So, your single letter represents a far louder voice than an email. Two separate former congressional staff members have confirmed to me directly that one real letter equals 100 (or more) voices.
Sahar Shirazi, an Oakland resident and a Senior Planning Advisor at Governor Jerry Brown's Office of Planning and Research, confirms that all mail gets read, tallied, and answered. She stresses that "sounding unhinged" to the reader isn't really much to worry about—it's literally their job, after all. Just don't cuss or threaten, and try to be accurate, and chances are your professional representatives will be happy to hear from you.
Handwritten calligraphy delivers the message home: This is a real letter from a real human who really cares.(Courtesy of Hiya Swanhuyser)
Now let's get to the more Instagrammable elements of the party. If you throw a political letter–writing party, please use it as an excuse to buy special things and get crafty! Since laser printers can make your painstakingly typed letter look mass produced, I recommend handwritten letters that are easily identifiable as unique documents, and are therefore able to rack up all those extra citizen points.
Typewriters also work. My husband and I collect portable manual typewriters (we have about 20 by now) and, for the past 10 years or so, we've been hosting public events to remind people that it's a fine idea to write a letter to elected people. Typewriters are a visual symbol of writing, hard work, creativity, and the little guy.
Whether you write or type, have fun with it! People have brought calligraphy sets to my events in the past, resulting in some truly beautiful letters and envelopes that were undoubtedly the unique work of one real citizen with deep convictions. Think about stocking up on interesting pens, decorative rubber stamps, and good stationery with matching envelopes. Avoid enclosed glitter, decoupage and anything else that might be perceived as too Anthraxy/Unabombery, but feel free to get creative. Just make sure the writing is legible and the ideas are clear.
A fancy approach isn't necessary, however. If your style is more plain white paper and blue ballpoint, go for it. Some political letter–writing parties have signature sugar-rimmed cocktails, some have herbal tea, and some have beer in cans. The happiness and focus of your guests should guide your decisions. Recent letter party host Jean Johnstone, the executive director of the Teaching Artists Guild, says her preparations were bare-bones. "We cleared off some tables, and I bought stamps because, let's face it, buying stamps is annoying. And we cleaned our house a little bit. We hardly did anything!... I think we should do it every month. It's a great way to gather people together with a purpose, and it was so much fun." Remember fun?
A handwritten reply to the author's husband from former CA State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano.(Courtesy of Hiya Swanhuyser)
...Draft at least one sample letter in advance. It can be a generic version of whatever you, yourself, want to write about. Your guests can write similar, although not verbatim, versions.
...Find the addresses of your representatives online at house.gov.
...Get your DJ on. It's surprising what a wide range of music works with letter writing.
...Provide the basics. From Johnstone's invitation: "We provide the paper, templates, and inspiration, and you pen a real, physical letter to your official of choice! We also have suggested language to help you get started."
...Pay attention to the language of communities other than your own, and ask for input from the people who are directly affected by the things you write about.
...Write to your direct representatives. I have a lot of things I want to say to the Morton County Sheriff's Department right now, but they're not obligated to listen to non-constituents.
...Get a bell to ring when you've completed your letter. "It's immensely satisfying, and then everybody cheers," says Johnstone.
Recently, the author had the chance to get a draft of a letter in front of Tara Houska, a spokesperson for the Indigenous Environmental Network, a Standing Rock stalwart. It was one of her proudest letter-writing moments yet.(Courtesy of Hiya Swanhuyser)
...Be too impatient if people are confused, weird, standoffish, or pissy. Writing letters may seem easy, but in reality, exercising citizenship on paper is hard. Give your guests time and space, and maybe another can of beer.
...Drink too much. It shows in the handwriting.
...Worry if you spill a little or put a coffee ring on your letter. A crossed-out word or the odd crease simply makes it that much more obvious it came from a real person. Just keep in mind it's someone's job to open and read your letter, so make it easy for them; no gum, you know?
...Forget to set a specific time for the event to end. Weekend afternoons and happy hour work well. Late-night letter parties are, frankly, not recommended.
...Shy away from writing fan mail. We once received a handwritten reply from Tom Ammiano; it just goes to show how human the whole postal interaction really is. Fed up with the general tsunami of hate and fear in the U.S. of late, Shirazi is planning to host a letter-writing event dedicated entirely to love letters. It's extreme. I support it.
Letter-Writing Parties and Related Noise-Making:
#Postcards4Democracy: Local activist Terry Baum is generating postcard parties all over the country, with a focus on contacting those "Hamilton Electors." // terrybaum.blogspot.com
Solidarity Sundays: Champagne and activism go hand in hand one afternoon each a month at this Alameda-based women's group. // facebook.com