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Wisconsin Volunteer Advocates Go Virtual Amid COVID

State Capitol of Wisconsin

As a corporate executive with cleaning products manufacturer SC Johnson, Jan Thornberg, 68, often traveled to Asia to help put in place standardized information technology systems.

Now retired, the Waterford resident is applying her cross-cultural communication skills as an AARP Wisconsin volunteer advocate, urging state lawmakers to support policies that help older adults and family caregivers. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed in-person conversations with legislators and AARP’s group presence at town halls, with volunteers wearing their signature red shirts. Lawmakers have also limited citizen participation for virtual meetings. 

But that’s not stopping AARP volunteers from making their voices heard, carrying on their conversations with legislators the old-fashioned way, through calls, letters and emails.

Thornberg plans lists of calls and letters to press lawmakers to vote for key AARP Wisconsin initiatives, including legislation that would create a $1,000 tax credit to help offset the cost to families of caring for loved ones.

Other priorities include pushing for a state-facilitated retirement savings program for private-sector workers who don’t have access to employer-based options, accountability for how nursing homes protect residents during the coronavirus pandemic and expanded access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

“One thing we learned from the 2016 election is how to be more active,” Thornberg said. “You have to show up for town halls—when you can—and call and email.” 

Keep messages short, focused

With the pandemic, it’s more challenging for citizens to participate in government, but “it makes us more determined,” said Helen Marks Dicks, AARP Wisconsin state issues advocacy director. “The more barriers they put in the way, the more we’ll respond and make sure our voices are heard.” 

The principles of effective communication with lawmakers are the same regardless of the medium, said Thornberg and Jody Lowe, who runs a public relations firm in Wauwatosa. 

“Always do research, and make sure you’re using real facts,” Thornberg said. “Write a script so you don’t forget your main points, especially when you’re leaving a short voice message.” 

Lawmakers appreciate input from constituents who respect their time, she said.

“Keep it short and keep it focused,” Lowe added. “Identify the most salient and memorable points and concentrate on that. Keep it to 90 seconds or less.” 

Thornberg and Lowe also agree that a succinct follow-up letter or email reiterating your main points gives lawmakers a powerful reminder and record of your input. 

AARP Wisconsin members gained momentum in 2020 with traditional mail, email and social media, which can drive change this year, too, Dicks said. “It’s more challenging to be heard, but if they won’t give us a platform, we will create one.”

Residents can track the status of AARP Wisconsin’s legislative priorities at, where there is also a link to submit testimony in support of issues important to older adults. 

“You’re not alone; you’re part of an organization that represents the entire 50-plus population,” said Sam Wilson, AARP Wisconsin state director. “You’re in good company.”

Joanne Cleaver is a writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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