THE BLOG
11/26/2014 02:35 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Learning to Turn the Wheels of Democracy

Even though I consider myself an engaged citizen and active participant in politics, I had never been to visit one of our elected officials' Washington, DC offices.

That's partially because something felt intimidating about it. The powerful debates of Congress that do so much to shape our future both domestically and globally always felt impenetrable, something that happens on CNN rather than something I can directly affect.

That changed in a wonderful way last week when I and my wife attended the Friends Committee on National Legislation's annual conference, where 430 people (including 50+ non-Quakers) from 41 states engaged in more than 200 visits to their members of Congress.

We were fully equipped with training, talking points, and practice in how to become a citizen lobbyist, specifically in support of championing diplomacy with Iran as the best strategy to end its nuclear program and avert another war.

Participating in this event led me to embrace the rather obvious truth that our members of Congress are there to serve us and represent us. While I could say this objectively in the past, I didn't really feel it on an emotional level, instead subtly buying into the cynicism about DC that pervades our culture.

But there's nothing like direct personal experience to shift us!

I was delighted by the welcome that our delegations received from smart and caring staff members in each of our member of Congress' offices. They clearly were interested to hear their constituents concerns and made it obvious just how seriously their bosses were taking the issue, as well as help us to understand the many nuances in the global diplomacy underway.

In Senator Barbara Boxer's office, more than 30 of us crowded into the conference room and shared our rehearsed case for asking her to reiterate her public support of the ongoing work of diplomacy with Iran.

In Senator Diane Feinstein's office, the 24 or so people in our delegation were dazzled by the brilliance of her staff member's command of the subject. By the end, we were all asking how we could better help him and Senator Feinstein!

In a more intimate setting, with four of us visiting Representative Jared Huffman's office, we had an engaging meeting in which they were very receptive to making a public statement. We came away feeling like we started a longer-term relationship.

In all three visits, we drew upon the startling facts that had been shared in the previous day's FCNL conference by people like Col. Wilkerson, a remarkable Republican who served as Chief of Staff under Sec. of State Powell. When he had run scenario planning in previous administrations, they estimated a war with Iran would require 500,000 troops, 10 years and a trillion dollars, dwarfing both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in terms of the impact to the United States and body counts, not to mention the negative effect on terrorism.

So the stakes with the negotiations with Iran are very high if we fail to reach a diplomatic solution and descend into war, as some hawks want to do.

I was surprised by how much we learned about geopolitics and the gears of democracy in our visits as they talked, for instance, about the delicate dance with hardliners in both countries who are firmly opposed to any détente between the two countries.

At the end of the day, I came away first of all deeply impressed that Quakers -- who only have 100,000 or so active members of the religion -- have had such a sustained and trusted impact on public policy by embracing political engagement as central to their faith. Their practical, non-polarizing advocacy has led to a long track record of effective citizen lobbying, building trust and respect on the Hill.

As the largest peace lobby, they work both sides of the aisle to diminish military spending, promote diplomacy, prevent war and violence, and champion social justice and sustainability.

Speaker and author Parker Palmer said at the conference, "FCNL gives lobbying a good name."

Their conference speakers were thoughtful, passionate, and clearly committed to making a difference, including several members of Congress (Senator Chris Murphy and retiring Congressman Russ Holt) who spoke alongside retired military and leaders of progressive change.

I came away excited to keep working with them in the future and I strongly encourage you to join their mailing list and support their organization (our company is now a monthly contributor) and especially use their website resources to directly communicate with your members of Congress about making a statement in support of ongoing diplomacy with Iran.

Second, I came away deeply impressed by the caliber of people who are called to serve our country by working in Congressional offices: smart, dedicated, fully committed young leaders who work 70-hour work weeks in often intense circumstances to turn the wheels of democracy in a better direction.

Several years ago, I served on a jury and found that my top takeaway was a deepened respect for how well that aspect of our civic process actually works. Similarly, I found the staffers in Congress eager for us to feel heard, share our opinions and concerns, and get engaged at every level in making positive political change.

Working within the halls of power requires a great deal of patience, as the wheels of democracy can turn painfully slowly. So their steadfast commitment and upbeat attitude was all the more admirable.

Overall, I highly recommend the experience and look forward to inviting friends and members of our company, The Shift Network, to join us at next year's annual meeting to make a still-larger and more impactful day of citizen lobbying for peace. I encourage you to mark your calendar for November, 2015 and then get engaged at FCNL, as every week they have lobbying efforts to create peaceful change.

Finally, I offer a deep bow of gratitude to new friends at FCNL such as Executive Secretary Diane Randall, Jim Cason, Stephen Donahoe, Matt Southworth, Allyson Neville-Morgan for lighting the way to a more constructive, hopeful, and bipartisan way to make democracy work for us and for humanity.