Testifying Before a Political Body
Rev. Jane Dwinell
When the call came, I was not surprised. I was, at first, flattered, and then petrified. I had been asked to speak before the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the Civil Union Bill, one of six clergy to testify on a morning in March—three in favor, three against. I knew my subject—or thought I did—but did not know what actually I should do when testifying. This is what I learned:
- In this case, I had been chosen to speak. You may be in a situation where you request an opportunity to testify. In either case, you need to find out the logistics of testifying. When and where? What time? Just who will you be speaking to? Will there be media present? Who else will be speaking? Where do you come in the "lineup"? How long do you have to speak? Will there be a time for questions after your presentation? Once you have the answers to these "detail" questions, you can begin to plan your testimony.
- Find out what has been said before, and/or who will also be speaking at the same time you are. This is important. You don't want to beat them over the head with information they already have. You don't want to act pompous and know-it-all. You may want to reinforce something they've already been told, or you may want to introduce new information.
- In either case, it is vital that you know what you're talking about. Do not present information in your testimony that you are not prepared to back up intelligently during the question and answer period (if there is one). In my case, I knew the foes of Civil Unions would be pulling out the Bible and throwing quote after quote at the Senators. I knew it would be counterproductive for me to get into a Biblically-based shooting match with them. I would leave that to the rabbi and the Episcopal priest who were also testifying in favor.
- If you are speaking as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) (not just as a concerned citizen), then find out what relevant General Assembly Resolutions (as well as District or congregational) there are that support your position. I was stunned at the hush that fell over the room when I read our Resolution in Support of Same Gender Marriage. Each "whereas," that before seemed such bureaucratic language, just flowed off my tongue as I watched the faces of the Senators. Clearly, this was one religious denomination that was in full support of Civil Unions.
- Don't go over your allotted time. In the Public Hearings on Civil Unions, individuals chosen by lottery were given two minutes to speak, period. The timer went off, and you were done. When I testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I was allotted one half-hour. I chose to speak from prepared remarks for 12-15 minutes and leave the rest of the time for questions. Whatever length of time you have to speak, practice your remarks over and over until they are the right length, clear, and persuasive.
- Be prepared for questions. Be sure to get there early so that you can hear those who testify before you and what kinds of questions they are asked. Formulate your own answers. Take your time when asked a question—you want to give a thoughtful, intelligent answer. And don't be afraid to answer a question that someone else was asked if you think you have a relevant answer.
- Get help! I spoke with the lobbyists who had been hired by the Freedom to Marry Action Committee. I spoke with Keith Kron and Barb Greve at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns. I spoke with Meg Riley at the UUA Washington Office. There are folks in the know, at both the UUA and in your own community. Use them. Grill them. They can be a tremendous resource in many ways.
- Be polite. It seems like this should go without saying, but I saw plenty of arrogant rudeness this past year at the Vermont Statehouse. Address the people to whom you are speaking by their proper titles. Do not go over your time, and at the opposite end, arrive early. Dress appropriately—the elected officials will be in suits or dresses, you should be, too. Bring copies of your testimony for the whole committee or board to whom you are speaking. And if tensions get high, refrain from getting into a shouting match, either with the group you are testifying to or with the "other side" in the hall afterwards. And don't forget to thank people when it's all over.
- Be prepared to speak to the media. This could be everything from your small town weekly paper to national or international television. Maintain your same calm, articulate demeanor for the press as you did for your testimony. The media may ask more inflammatory or leading questions, so again, take your time when you answer. Offer your home phone number (if you feel comfortable) so they can reach you for clarifying questions and information if needed.
- Bring support with you. In my case, I gathered pro-civil union clergy from all over the state to come as a presence. Some friends and family came as well. The room was packed with both supporters and foes, and it was helpful to me to see those smiling, supportive faces around the room. Helpful for the Senators and the media, too.
- Once the thrill—or terror—is over, assess how you did. Share copies of your testimony with others—at your church, with the media, with the UUA. Talk about your experience with the Junior High RE kids or your Social Action Committee. We can all learn from one another.
- If you were not able to testify, ask to testify on Sunday morning. This past winter, ten members of our congregation went to Montpelier in the hopes of being chosen to speak for two minutes at the Public Hearing on Civil Unions. None of us were chosen to speak, so I cancelled the sermon for Sunday and, instead, had everyone offer their testimony to the congregation. It was one of the most moving services we had last year—and it also galvanized the congregation to join together to work locally on the Civil Union issue by attending legislative breakfasts, writing letters to the editor and to the Legislature, and participating in subsequent meetings and public hearings.
Now that Civil Unions are legal in Vermont, I can look back on the whirlwind of testimony and community presence that I and the members of my congregation provided this past winter. We worked hard, but we worked together, with other UUs around Vermont, to ensure the passage of the Bill. Our work is not done, as we must ensure the re-election of each Senator and Representative who voted for the Bill.
The experience of helping pass an important piece of legislation will always be with me. Even now, each time I say, "By the power vested in me by the State of Vermont, I now pronounce you spouses joined in civil union," tears come to my eyes. I know that committed people, working together from the ground up, can change the world.