In a moment of optimism several months ago, I signed up to lobby with the Harvard Democrats at the Massachusetts State House. I was reminded of my decision a couple of days before the event by an email detailing my shifts and the bills I had to lobby on behalf of.
All of a sudden, I realised just how out of my depth I was. I had no idea how American state politics worked beyond the words of a textbook. I hadn’t attended the training, because I had been recovering from minor leg surgery. I hadn’t even read the bills.
I sent a panicked email to the organiser of the Lobby Day, expressing my fear that as an international and vastly underprepared student, I would be hopelessly overwhelmed on the day. He reassured me to turn up anyway, that they needed all the help they could get. I am incredibly thankful he convinced me to attend, because the Lobby Day would turn out to be one of the most amazing and stimulating experiences of the semester.
It was my first interaction with the Harvard Democrats. I found a group of people completely focused on reforming their country one step at a time; I admired their drive and dedication to pass bills on anything from sexual assault on campus to grants for low-income students. It didn’t matter that I came from another country, or that I was a member of another party back in the UK; we found common ground in our passion to provide students with a safe environment on campus and in the importance of social mobility.
Follow the rest of Raphaëlle’s journey here
Brits in America: Heading to Harvard
Brits in America: Ordering ‘chips’ is a very different thing here
Brits in America: a day in the life of a Harvard student
Brits in America: ‘Look, it’s Bernie Sanders!’
Brits in America: the international family at Harvard
As we travelled into Boston, I was quickly briefed on the bills I would be advocating for, their importance and the representatives I was in charge of convincing. I suddenly felt like I was in an episode of The West Wing, diving headfirst into American politics and hoping that my inexperience didn’t drag the bill down with me.
We set up our laptops and bill handouts in a small room located to the west side of the building, and this acted as our base from which small teams would be sent out to lobby representatives.
My first meeting was with the legislative director to Rep. Thomas Stanley. He listened attentively and agreed to support a reform bill on sexual assault. It turns out that convincing the advisers and staff to the representatives is just as important as convincing the representatives themselves. I was fortunate enough to have been paired with an experienced sophomore and this gave me the confidence to be more vocal about my bill.
My second meeting went even better than the first, with the legislative aide to Rep. Russell Holmes agreeing to support all the bills we advocated for. As I left that final meeting, I felt a surge of pride that I had personally helped gather support for bills that would help students all across the state of Massachusetts. I felt like I had made a difference through acting upon what was important to me and seeing the results.
I will never forget the moment Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier spoke to us in the room where we were based. In an emotional speech, she thanked us for coming out, emphasising how important our work that day had been. It demonstrated to all of us in the room how together, as a force of lobbyists, we were able to push for invaluable reform. I was also moved by the words of the Harvard Dems legislative director at the time, Reed Shafer-Ray, who added a special thank you to me in an email sent out to the team of lobbyists. It read as follows:
“Raphaelle Soffe, you came out to lobby for the first time, even though you are from Wales and weren't as familiar with the Massachusetts legislative process, and couldn't make it to the Simulation. Because of rescheduling issues, I then had to send you into a meeting with only one other volunteer, which you took on bravely. Kudos to you for stepping up and helping us out at the busiest time of the day, despite your tentativeness!”
Although initially daunting, Lobby Day turned out to be one of the most memorable days of my first semester at Harvard.
Read more: What can you do with a politics degree?