The oversight hearing for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is February 28, 2013. Many arts supporters know that they want to support the arts, and are prepared to testify, but don’t know exactly what they should say, or how to say it. Here are a few answers to specific questions about the upcoming hearing from Robert Bettmann, Board Chair of the DC Advocates for the Arts. Robert has testified at hearings for the better part of a decade, and if you have additional questions you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. What is this hearing?
It’s easier to be an effective advocate if you know a little bit about what the advocacy opportunity (in this instance, hearing) is.
Every year each city agency has an Oversight Hearing. The purpose of the Oversight Hearing is to review the current year’s agency budget, and determine whether or not the agency should have more or less next year. The agency — which is part of the executive branch of the government — is required by law to report back to the legislature on how they used their budget appropriation. At this hearing the agency will submit a more or less detailed review to the City Council about how they have spent the money, and members of the public are invited to testify as well. As a member of the public you will likely not have access to the agency’s report, so your role as an advocate is to offer your personal opinion on what the agency has done the prior year.
The politics of any Oversight Hearing make it a great opportunity to make a case for the need to increase the budget next year. One can highlight the wonderful things that have been accomplished with the existing monies, but also highlight the need for additional support: “If only they had more funding they could have also funded x, and wouldn’t it be great if they could next year?”
2. Who will I be advocating to?
Whenever you advocate it’s good to know who you are testifying/talking to.
This particular hearing will be chaired by Council member Jack Evans, who is probably the strongest ally that the arts has on the Council. In some communities there is a real split among policy makers, with some legislators supporting government arts funding, and some not supporting any government arts funding at all. Here in DC we are blessed that ALL of the current DC City Council support some arts funding, and the factor that differentiates legislators on arts support is the amount of arts funding they support. Jack Evans believes there should be lots of arts support.
Prior to advocacy day last year we asked all legislators whether or not they support at least $10 million dollars in local funding for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Three council members stated outright that they supported at least $10 million in arts funding: Jack Evans, Jim Graham, and Marion Barry. And last year, when the mayor’s budget proposal did NOT include an increase in local funds, Jack Evans found money elsewhere in the budget and moved it to the DC Commission’s budget. At this hearing the arts community will be testifying to the best friend our community has had in government in recent years.
3. Should I keep it real?
Many amateur advocates want to “keep it real” when they testify. I would encourage you to instead “keep it positive”, and “keep it personal.” When you testify you will be speaking to a real human, who will likely have already been sitting for the better part of a day listening to other people talk at him. I encourage you to tell your personal stories with humility, and simplicity, and above all: to not lecture. If you were going to be testifying to someone who didn’t support the arts – sure, go ahead and lecture. But in this case, you’ll be talking to Jack Evans (an incredibly informed longtime ally of the arts community.)
4. What should I try and DO with my testimony?
You don’t need to try and convince anyone of anything with your testimony. And lets be clear: you probably couldn’t even if you tried. When you spend enough time going to these hearings you realize that these policy makers are sitting there all day long, every day, listening to people tell them what to do (for years.) Your role isn’t to try and convince anyone – it’s to show up and advocate positively for the arts.
Your participation is your way of telling all the policymakers — not only those at the hearing — that you really care about this issue. If only three people show up to a hearing, policy makers know “eh, not many people really care about this issue.” If there are thirty people on a witness list, and the hearing goes on for hours and hours, all of the policymakers in the building hear about it. By showing up and testifying you are standing up for the arts. It almost doesn’t matter what you say. (See: “should I keep it real? No, keep it positive.”) Your job as an arts advocate is to show up and talk about all of the wonderful wonderful things that this budget line does for you, those you care about, and the city as a whole. If you need any ideas check back in a week and we’ll have some template testimony posted.