Hailing from a country that has experienced serious subjugation of civil society forces primarily by the military dictators and to a large extent by its nonchalant political leadership; one can imagine the level of apprehension I felt while walking through the halls of New York State Legislative Buildings as a member of the civil society. Lobbying at the New York state capitol in Albany was the latest among the many rich experiences encountered while serving at Center for Environmental Health (CEH) through the Atlas Corps Fellowship. Since its inception in 1998, CEH has remained central in the nationwide (U.S) efforts towards protecting the population from hazardous effects of toxic chemicals in daily use consumer products. The efforts have been focused through but not limited to research, advocacy, litigation, and lobbying.
The recent lobbying effort was to push for the tabling of New York (NY) State bill titled “The Child Safe Products Act”. The bill aims to ban the use of toxic chemicals in children products, including but not limited to toys. The bill has been in the legislative offices of the NY state since past 8 years, and due to the tireless efforts of environmental health organizations and citizen groups the bill was passed by the NY state assembly. However due to strong opposition of the bill by various corporate groups including the toy industry, the bill has not yet been tabled for debate in the state’s upper house i.e. NY state senate.
The lobbying day was organized by a New York state coalition of civil society organizations focusing on environmental health. Throughout the day, the group organized and met with several state senators and members of senate advisory committees on environment, in efforts to convince them for presentation of the bill in the senate session to be held on Friday June 12. The lobbying day was also significantly important as the NY State Senate entered its final sessions for legislative amendments for the year 2015. Apart from the meetings inside the legislative offices, the coalition organized a rally in front of the New York State Capitol building.
The overall experience was thought provoking from a social sector professional belonging to a developing country, as I discern many facets of learning that encompassed 6 hours spent in and around the legislative offices of the Empire State. An organized effort from the members of the society, many of them parents, convened to demand a safer future of children, not just their children. They were resolute as they have remained since past 8 years. They have remained united and their support has extended. During the rally the group setup a large inflatable rubber duck named “Betty – the Be Safe Ducky”. The duck symbolizes a seemingly harmless toy which in fact is made up by toxic chemicals. Betty has been a highlight of the campaign and since 2006 has been alongside the group and has featured in advocacy and lobbying efforts in 13 U.S states. Apart from the public, the rally attracted media attention including CNN, while the participation of state senators in the rally was highly promising as how the representatives valued the efforts of their citizens and demonstrated commitment towards the cause.
The stanchness of the civil society towards its cause was comforting, but more plausible were the experiences inside the legislative offices and the state capitol buildings. Accessing the staff of a public representative in my part of the world is indeed and uphill task, even entering the legislative offices without a strong inside connection is next to impossible.
Meanwhile inside the buildings in Albany, situation was considerably dissimilar. The environment inside the buildings was bureaucratic indeed, state staffers heavily dressed in formal attire, a customary seriousness on majority of the faces seen inside, however the first interaction changed my expression. The welcoming attitude of the staff inside a senator’s office was slightly unexpected for me. However throughout the rest of the meetings during the day, my perspective of public service changed considerably. The staff members and even the senators were receptive of the lobbying group. They listened to the demands, agreed to the points, explained the difficulties, and vowed their commitment to the cause. They were public representatives, and the way they treated their public was indeed encouraging.
The experience was an insight into democracy, democratic processes, and the responsible role being played by the civil society. Although the preceding media coverage of the lobbying day does not spell out encouraging signs, yet the determination witnessed on the faces of the coalition members confirmed they are here to win.