Reflections on SWE’s Congressional Outreach Day 2022

For years, I wanted to be involved in SWE’s advocacy but felt intimidated, underprepared, and fearful of making a fool of myself. This year, I finally made the leap and signed up.

By Ambika Dubey, SWE Editorial Board

Perhaps one of the least known yet most rewarding ways to engage with the Society of Women Engineers is to participate in SWE’s advocacy efforts. Most notably, we hold an annual Congressional Outreach Day, during which SWE members can meet with their representatives and advocate diversity and inclusion in engineering and STEM fields. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, this was a two-day event in Washington, D.C., featuring a variety of trainings and briefings followed by visits with representatives and staffers. For the past two years, however, SWE has transitioned to a virtual format.

Determined to participate this year, and anxiously anticipating the talking points training meeting, I skimmed through all the documents that were sent to us in advance to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. I checked and double-checked my specific senators and representatives and what positions they held on various issues of interest to SWE. Once I decided that my nervous energy was not being channeled productively, I stopped my frenzied research and waited for the meeting to begin.

We started the training call as one large group, reviewing SWE’s talking points, examples of how to advocate specific legislation, general tips for interacting with representatives and staff, and the multitude of other resources that the organizers had arranged into a shared folder, and then broke out into groups based on our states. It was in these breakout calls where we were able to speak with fellow participants.

In the California delegation group, we had an incredible presence from all over the state, several different engineering disciplines, a range of years of experience, and even some collegiate participation. Our task was to look at the list of bills and initiatives that we were going to speak about and think about personal stories or anecdotes about why and how they would impact us. We decided to collectively take some time to reflect and coordinate outside of the video call.

Before we disbanded for the day, however, conversation briefly turned to the fact that, for most of us, it was our first time participating in the event, and we were nervous about the meetings with representatives. I had no reference for how prepared we needed to be, how formal we needed to be, or how well versed in the statistics we needed to be.

She answered our questions and talked us through the process, explaining that although the resources SWE gave us were already more than enough, the most important things we could contribute were our personal stories.

It was then that one of the SWE members on the call, Amy Griffin, P.E., the engineering manager for Ortiz Enterprises, in Orange County, California, shared that she had felt the same way the previous year when she participated in the event for the first time. She answered our questions and talked us through the process, explaining that although the resources SWE gave us were already more than enough, the most important things we could contribute were our personal stories.

The actual meetings with representatives passed exactly as she had described. We met with the staff of our representatives and said a few words about ourselves. Each of us briefly mentioned a bill or initiative accompanied by a relevant anecdote, and then either asked if the representative already supported the initiative or requested that they do. By the end of each meeting, we had covered the full list of initiatives in SWE’s talking points, and everyone had the chance to speak about at least one.

Supporting and being supported by the SWE community

When it came time to write my reflections on this experience, I immediately thought back to the California breakout session and how Amy had reassured us that we were more than prepared for what was to come. I knew I had to reach out to her and share her perspective as a second-time participant as well.

A few of Amy’s key observations included:

  • SWE already sends a letter with the talking points to each representative. The biggest contribution we can make as SWE members is to add our personal stories to breathe life into the issues behind certain pieces of legislation. Our contributions add context and depth that make it much easier to empathize with the people these initiatives would affect.
  • Participating in SWE’s Congressional Outreach Day is a fantastic way to participate in a different area of the organization beyond your local collegiate or professional section, and even though you may not become an expert in the way bills become laws in the U.S., you certainly gain more understanding of the process. As an example, Amy shared that she has been able to “listen with more attuned ears” to the conversations around the legislation we discussed.
  • Although there is something special about being at the Capitol taking part in face-to-face meetings, the virtual format allowed for significantly more involvement from folks who might not have been able to participate otherwise. Since calls were generally after work hours, and we didn’t have to physically travel to D.C., SWE members with children or who have more rigid work schedules could be involved. We even had a strong presence of collegiate members, who previously might not have been able to work around class schedules to accommodate the travel.
  • Lastly, it is easy to think that we don’t know what we’re doing, or we aren’t familiar enough with politics. Don’t let any thoughts like that prevent you from participating in Congressional Outreach Day.
  • SWE provides us all the information and support we need, including the template for a follow-up thank you letter with a link to the SWE Magazine State of Women in Engineering issue, full of research and data to support our positions. We aren’t expected to recite legislation or spend hours in a law library. Again, the research has already been done. We are augmenting it with our perspective and our voice.

1. Members participating from India include a combination of U.S. citizens working or traveling abroad; plus non-U.S. citizens seeking the training; and/or non-U.S. citizens working toward citizenship.

In addition to being a member of the SWE editorial board, Ambika Dubey (she, her) is a software engineer at Microsoft, where she works on Project Bonsai. She graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2018 with an undergraduate degree in computer science and a minor in the Hoeft Technology and Management Program. A SWE member since 2014, Dubey has held leadership positions and attended conferences.