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Op-ed: Your Vote is Your Voice

Election day is tomorrow! Have you made plans to vote yet?

My perception of lobbying has never been great. I've always imagined it as a tactic for Mr. Monopoly Man types, where scrooge-like businessmen met with politicians under a haze of cigar smoke while sipping the finest aged scotch. The reality, however, looks much different. I'm standing in my bedroom wearing the nicest clothes I've worn in months, nervously pacing back and forth in front of my laptop. I'm waiting for a Zoom call to start, and when it's time to join, I take a deep breath and hit the link provided by Protect Our Winters. It is the first day of Protect Our Winter's annual Lobby event on Capitol Hill, and this year, it all happened virtually.

This past June, the event took place with the backdrop of a nation reeling from the initial shock from the COVID-19 pandemic. Our team hoped to connect with Congress ahead of a major infrastructure and land bill and ask our representatives to consider stimulus plans that invested in economically sound, climate-minded energy and transportation. Typically, POW sends a team to Washington D.C. to meet with Senators and Congressmen in person. For obvious reasons, this year, POW pivoted to a virtual session, and it ultimately worked out in their favor. More athletes could attend, including Olympians Jessie Diggins, Steven Nyman, Gretchen Bleiler, Maddie Phaneuf, Elena Hight, and dozens of others, as well as different brand representatives, five climate scientists, and journalists like myself.

RELATED: Make a Plan to Vote with Protect Our Winters

When I first got the invitation to join the lobby camp, I was immediately intrigued by the opportunity. Up until this point, my political participation was pretty standard, even dismal if you really think about it. I voted in the major elections, occasionally submitted comments on local policies, signed petitions, and sometimes shared a political meme on social media. Aside from that, I mostly avoided politics. That world felt exhausting, toxic, and sadly hopeless. From talking with colleagues and friends, I knew I wasn't alone. "The world of politics seemed pretty slimy to me originally," explained Tommy Caldwell during an interview. We talked two months before the Lobby event for an article I wrote about his work with Protect Our Winters. His perception of politics changed when he was invited to join a lobby event with The Access Fund, a non-profit rock climbing advocacy group. "That experience taught me how these things worked, like how laws impact the outdoors and can lead to real change or harm to the places we love. When you talk to the lawmakers, it's easy to understand that their decisions matter. Once you start to realize that public lands are dictated by public policy and the people writing laws, it makes you pay attention," he emphasized. Ever since that first lobbying experience, he keeps showing up to D.C. to talk with our elected representatives. Would he rather be out at Yosemite rock climbing? Of course. But it's hard work like this that ensures that public lands stay accessible for climbers, bikers, skiers, and everyday Americans.

Sustainability Efforts at Ski AreasEach year a delegation of athletes heads to Capitol Hill to discuss the outdoor economy. POW photo.

Other POW athletes have had similar moments of reckoning. When skier Amie Engerbretson was invited to come to D.C. with POW, she originally was apprehensive. “I went despite feeling really nervous about the situation,” she says, “But my time there showed me that government and policy are by the people...actually doing politics. Breaking down that wall was huge. So, the more I’ve come to understand about climate-friendly policies and renewable energy, it’s shown me that these paths aren’t perfect, but they’re what we need.” Now she’s using her platform to speak up about the issues she cares about. She emphasizes, “Working with POW has made me realize that there’s a lot of untapped potential inside of me—and we all have that.”

This kind of one-on-one with the government is essential for addressing the issues that are most important to us. When we choose not to use our voices, that doesn't mean our elected officials hear silence. They hear the other side, who, in our absence, know how to speak even louder. "Well, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. You know, these elected officials work for us. They represent us, so they need to hear about the issues that affect our communities," Protect Our Winters Founder Jeremy Jones explained to me. Since launching POW in 2007, Jones has made numerous trips to Capitol Hill and found lobbying to be a useful tool for convincing climate deniers to become climate champions. His most significant takeaway from the experience? Democracy requires participation. "Even though most Republicans have avoided acting on climate change, a few have crossed the aisle after meeting with us again and again. That's what happens when you lobby year after year," he stresses.

My team's zoom meeting with Congressman Huffman.

Back in my bedroom, my laptop chimes that the meeting is about to begin, and I hit the link provided by POW to start the call. I’m brought into a video conference with Jeremy Jones, Adrian Ballinger, Emily Harrington, Forrest Shearer, and POW staffers to speak with U.S. Representative (CA-D) Jared Huffman. Our meeting was just one of 32 meetings—15 with Republicans and 17 with Democrats—that happened over a two day period. Our team met with 17 House Offices and 15 Senate Offices and met with delegations from 17 states. During our meetings, the Protect Our Winters Community made over 400 calls to Congress, and I’m not going to lie, talking with Huffman felt exciting. He listened to what we had to say about clean energy and reducing carbon emissions. When asked for advice on approaching other Congressmen, he says, “I’m delighted to see your team emphasizing jobs and the economic contribution that the outdoor industry brings to our economy. These are the things that can bring Republicans and Democrats together. I don’t think we need to be shy about the reality and science of climate change anymore.” Out of anything he stressed on us, it was to continue pushing boldly.

Following my lobbying experience, I started to see my role with the government a bit differently. I used to always think of it as something that operated autonomously from me. The reality is that we all have a role within our democracy, and we can choose how much we participate in it. This participation starts with voting. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know very well that tomorrow, November 3rd, is election day. I know 2020 has been a raging dumpster fire of a year, but we can’t use that as an excuse not to show up tomorrow and get that “I voted” sticker.

If anything, these last few months should be a reason to start using your voice. See you at the polls tomorrow. 

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