Advice from a Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Member Working in Congress About Getting Involved and Advocating for Your People
To influence policies that impact our people and lands, it’s important that Native youth learn how to be effective advocates. To gather more information about this important topic, I spoke with Bobby Ahern- a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Legislative Assistant for Senator Ron Wyden.
Can you talk about how you got involved in politics?
I was born and raised in central Oregon. I got my introduction to politics working for my tribe. I saw how tribal government works. It also gave me an opportunity to see how my tribe communicates with elected officials in Washington D.C.
When I was wrapping up college, I found a fellowship that was offered to Native American youth in the Northwest, the Hatfield Fellowship. This fellowship gave me the opportunity to work in D.C. in a congressional office for almost a year. It was incredible.
What mentors have helped you along the way?
When I moved to D.C. one influential mentor was another tribal member from Warm Springs. He was working for the tribe and advocating to Congress. We ended up having a meeting together, and it sparked a good relationship.
Can you talk about your job?
I work on policy related to the environment and natural resources for Senator Wyden. I also handle tribal policy for the office… Often you run into people in Congress who may not have tribes in their states or in the districts they represent. With everything going on today, I think it’s always important to make sure that tribal communities aren’t overlooked and that they’re part of the conversation.
What does passing a law actually look like?
One of the first things we do is talk to the people who will be impacted the most by the law. If a community, say, has old or failing infrastructure or doesn’t have access to clean water, the federal government has an opportunity to support changing those things. You can also make a difference by talking to people in your state or district, to identify things that are really successful already and you can aim to make them even better or expand on them. Tribes do a lot of good work already.
Next you write a bill [a possible law]. Then, the bill is “introduced” and sent to a Congressional committee. Each committee focuses on particular issues. For example, my boss, Senator Wyden is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which focuses on things like taxes, healthcare, and trade. He also sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
When a bill is with a committee, if you want to be a good advocate, call or write to the Senators on that committee.
Once you convince the group of Senators on the committee to support your bill, it goes to all 100 Senators to vote on. When this happens, it’s a good time to advocate to your Senators about the bill.
What do you recommend for people who want to get involved in politics but can’t travel to D.C.?
The best thing you can do is get involved locally. I worked for my tribe. The office I worked in was 10 minutes away from where I grew up. You don’t have to move across the country to make a difference. Every Senator and member of Congress has offices across the state they represent.
Find out where your elected officials’ offices are. Write them letters and make phone calls. All offices keep track of who calls, who writes in, and what issues the caller or writer cares about. The more people who do that, the more we pay attention to it and try to do something about it.
One final question, since we all know that self-care is extremely important. How do you tend to your own wellness?
Self-care is extremely important. I really try to prioritize the things I care about and hobbies I have. I like basketball, so I make time to play or shoot baskets on the weekend or ride my bike or do something active.
I also talk with people I trust about everything that’s going on – what’s been fun, what’s been difficult, or even just how I’ve been feeling.
Want to learn more about getting involved in advocacy?
- Advocacy in the Three Branches of Government
- What is Tribal Consultation?
- Be The Change: Tips for Being an Advocate in Your Tribal Community
Interviewer: Abaki Beck (Blackfeet and Red River Metis) is a freelance writer and public health researcher passionate about health equity in Native communities, particularly for justice-involved community members. She earned her Master’s in Public Health in 2020 and grew up in Montana.