BATH — Settling in to discuss the last 12 months of work with the Maine Advocacy Team, Jerry Provencher is a tad bit distracted. He’ll be talking with U.S. Senator Angus King about Pentagon spending soon, and it’s clear he’s ready to start prepping for that conversation.

Over the past year, the Midcoast-based Maine Advocacy Team has communicated with Senators King and Susan Collins, or their aides, on the issue of wasteful military spending. The video conference with King will be the group’s first conversation directly with the Senator.

“This whole experience is about learning how to communicate with our congressional representatives, how to develop a relationship with our legislators as a small group,” Provencher said.

As part of the team, one of dozens of groups around the country who advocate for various causes by communicating directly with their lawmakers, Provencher and fellow MAT member Lisa Ledwidge insist that open dialogue is the most effective way of impacting lawmakers and effecting change.

“It’s so important that we develop these respectful relationships, and learn to really listen, and how to tell a story,“ said Ledwidge.

When Provencher and Ledwidge, both of whom live in Bath, heard about the Maine team being formed, each gravitated to the opportunity to take concrete action on issues of interest to them. They met at the first informational session, held in Brunswick in early 2017.

The nationwide teams are associated with the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the lobbying arm of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Since 1943, the organization has lobbied the U.S. government on issues such as human rights, reducing nuclear and chemical weapons, and preventing genocide and wartime atrocities. They began offering advocacy training to grassroots groups around the country in 2015. Team members need not be Quakers.

The work of MAT appealed to both Ledwidge, who is the lead for communications with Sen. Collins, and Provencher (lead for Sen. King) for different reasons, and those are the very foundations for each of their own personal “stories.”

A member’s “story” is sometimes shared while doing the lobbying work, and has been found to be an effective way of humanizing and individuating the activists.

Ledwidge’s personal story involves her best friend in college, who became a single mother her junior year. “It was only because of federal and state aid — help with rent, child care, food and tuition — that Jen was able to stay in school and get her degree,” she said. “Without that support, she may have left school and fallen into poverty.”

Today, her friend is a pediatric nurse practitioner, and her 24-year-old college educated daughter is an elementary school teacher.

Provencher’s story traces back to a long-running weekly poker game among friends. One of those friends passed away years ago (the game has been going on for 39 years), and in memory of their buddy, the group donates a “kitty” in their friend’s name each year to a family in need.

“It sometimes covers heating fuel costs, or groceries, or whatever the need is,” Provencher said. Over the years, they have donated some $19,000 to local residents in need.

“What’s so aggravating,” Ledwidge said, “is that we are sitting here talking about Americans who don’t have enough food on the table or can’t afford heating oil, or medical care, while our government literally wastes billions of dollars. That’s really why I’m here. Every part of the country is suffering, and our lawmakers gives $56 billion more than Trump even asked for? It doesn’t make sense.”

Regional Advocacy Teams set their own topic and agenda for the year. The Maine team will soon decide if they will continue to focus on military spending and the elusive Pentagon audit (the only agency unable or unwilling to be audited) in 2018, or if they will change course.

“We offer a way for Maine citizens to balance what our reps hear when they are in D.C.,” Provencher said.

Over the past year, MAT has been responsible for generating scores of letters to the editor, and hundreds of postcards to King and Collins. “We don’t do too much with Rep. Chellie Pingree, because she is basically already with us,” Ledwidge said.

A second group is forming in Congressional District 2, to lobby Rep. Bruce Poliquin.

New members in both groups are welcomed, and needed, in areas of research, outreach, communications and more. Ledwidge said that community and civic leaders are especially needed, and that the current MAT consists of current and retired professors, military officers, nurses and teachers and scientists.

“There has been some movement on the (Pentagon) audit, but it’s hard to say if it’s due to us,” Ledwidge said. “We were told by Collins’ office that she ended up co-sponsoring the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2017 because of us.”

“I do feel that the impact of our visibility and our persistence is paying off,” Provencher said, adding that they now have solid relationships with both senators’ offices.

“One of the greater purposes of this work is to engage more Maine people in what goes on in Washington on a regular basis,” he offered. “People need to be aware of what is being done in our names .We need more people to be involved in democracy.”

To find out more about the Maine Advocacy Team, contact Lisa Ledwidge at [email protected].