Interview with Grace Miller of Indiana Friends Committee on Legislation
Over the summer, we heard from a Friend in Indiana named Bill Chapman. Bill was calling to give us an update on Indiana Friends Committee on Legislation (IFCL), for which he serves as clerk. IFCL was founded by a small group of Indianapolis-based Friends in 1972. Bill got involved about two years ago as the policy clerk; then this past spring, he was asked to be clerk. Today, there are 15 people on the committee—all Quaker, all volunteers, and all active in the community. About a year and a half ago, the committee decided to hire its first paid lobbyist.
“There was no problem reaching unity on that,” Bill said. “We all agreed we needed a dedicated lobbyist with time and energy to focus on the job.” The members offered the position to Grace Miller, an energetic young adult Friend who says she feels like she’s been led into this work almost her whole life. When she first heard about the opening from her father early last year, Grace wasted no time in sending in her application and résumé. She started working for IFCL in March 2015.
A lifelong Quaker and 2015 graduate of Indiana University, Grace first became interested in following politics in high school while on a youth mission trip through her meeting, Irvington Meeting in Indianapolis. The meeting organized a trip to Washington, D.C., that included a service project and a visit to the offices of Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), where she “nerded out unbelievably.” The visit made a big impression on her: “I will never forget going to that FCNL building and seeing all the skylights and just being in awe of everything awesome that ever existed.”
After graduating from college with a major in rhetoric and public advocacy and a double minor in legal studies and German, Grace felt ready to jump into Indiana’s political scene and was attracted to the prospect of doing that in a Quaker context. Being a liberal Quaker in Indiana makes one a minority, especially in politics: the state has a predominantly Republican legislature. The 2015–2016 Senate has a Republican supermajority, with Republicans holding 40 out of 50 seats; the House of Representatives has a Republican majority of 71 seats, while the Democrats have 29 seats.
As stated on its website, IFCL “exists as an instrument in the search for God’s will for Quakers who are wrestling with the social issues of our day. IFCL attempts to translate the social concerns of Friends into legislative action by advocating Quaker beliefs to Indiana legislators.” The group is one of only a handful of Quaker state lobbying organizations in the United States. Others include Friends Committee on Legislation of California, Friends Committee on Washington State Public Policy, Friends Committee on Maine Public Policy, and Quaker Committee on Kentucky Legislation.
IFCL receives some funding from Western Yearly Meeting (WYM) and Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting (OVYM) and is invited to present at and participate in annual sessions for both but remains an independent committee, free from any enforced constraints in process or strategy. The group is largely based on the voluntary work of interested Quakers and like-minded individuals, and is governed by Friends procedure, holding annual meetings to discuss legislative policies and issues or to plan for upcoming sessions of the legislature. All Indiana Friends are invited to attend and participate in these meetings.
Bill shared more about how IFCL functions: “We believe Quaker process is important, and we have our own policy committee to help reach unity. We believe how we arrive at a decision is more important than the outcome. We are advocates not for political ideology, but advocates for a fair and just society. We meet with both parties. Historically, as Quakers we don’t give up; we are persistent.” After considering what he hopes Friends learn from IFCL, he added that one goal is “getting others to think about what it means to be a voter in Indiana, and a Quaker voter specifically.”
In her lobbyist role with IFCL, Grace works 15 to 20 hours a week for a yearly stipend; her responsibilities include following the work of IFCL’s subcommittees on specific issues such as education, prison reform, and the environment; nurturing alliances with other similar groups; meeting with state legislators and coalitions; analyzing bills to find common ground; and maintaining the group’s Twitter account (@INQuakerPolicy), mostly using it as a platform to inform followers through retweets of other local organizations. She has other two other jobs but of her role at IFCL says, “This is where my heart lies.” Starting this month, she’ll begin working more hours per week to keep up with the increased activity that comes with Indiana’s annual legislative sessions which begin January 5 and will adjourn by March 15. We spoke with Grace over the phone in August 2015 and again in early December.
Did you have any other experience working in politics before joining IFCL?
Yes, while I was attending Indiana University, I did a summer internship with the Indiana Department of Education and worked with superintendent Glenda Ritz. We really realized that we had a lot of work to do here in Indiana on education, and that’s what I wanted to focus on. Then the following session, I interned with the state senate and got to stay on through the summer there until I had to go back for my last year of school. Around late January or early February, I found out about the IFCL position, and it just seemed pretty perfect, honestly. I grew up a Quaker, so these issues are near and dear to my heart. It aligned my personal life with what I wanted to do professionally really well. I just feel super lucky that I got it.
How would you describe IFCL’s role in the state and within the Quaker community?
We want to be a reasonable voice. We’re trying to build relationships; we’re not trying to form alliances and create enemies. We want to see where we can find the common ground on both sides of the issue and make little changes here and there as we can. We’re not expecting necessarily to change the state in one or even five sessions. I think we’re pretty realistic, but we’re hoping that by finding common ground and relating to both sides, which we definitely think is absolutely possible, we’ll be able to at least form relationships if not make small changes: you know, one line of one bill—maybe someday, that would be awesome—but the only way we can do that is by working with everybody and trying to be a reasonable voice.
Right now a lot of people don’t know that we exist, so part of our goal is making sure that people are aware we are here and that we’re getting out a clear message. Our job is to the best of our ability represent Quakers, the yearly meetings in Indiana. We want people to volunteer with us so that their voices are being heard. Hopefully Quakers will look to us to focus their political interests. We want to be a resource for them for information and access, as well as a resource for legislators to understand what the Quaker voice is.
Does IFCL have a relationship with FCNL? Do you share strategies or approaches to lobbying?
We don’t necessarily work directly with FCNL on issues, because they’re focused on national issues more and we’re just focusing on state issues. But we do pay attention to each other’s issues and where we can possibly help each other. FCNL is a great resource, and they’re doing some great work. We have a lot to learn, so we’re happy to work with them when we can. IFCL is trying to work on a grassroots approach, getting more Quakers involved, getting more Quakers to care about these issues and write in and call in, but it’s just at the state level instead of the national level. I would say that we probably are very similar in our approach, and we definitely look to them as an example of what we hope to do and hope to achieve.
What sorts of issues is IFCL focusing on right now?
It will depend on what issues come up at sessions, but there are a lot of things that we’re already on the lookout for. There’s a lot of talk about expanding gambling in the state; some developer out in Vegas wants to put a huge casino out by our airport. That’s the kind of thing we know, if it comes to the state level at all, we’re going to oppose. Environmental issues are a big concern for us. Indiana also has a big problem with human trafficking, so if anything comes up that could possibly lead to a bill or more regulation, we’re going to support it. Honestly, our policies touch so many different issues: education, prison reform, sentencing reform, redistricting … these are all issues that we’re very much looking out for, but it’s going to depend on what bills are written and which ones are going to get a hearing in committee. So we have an evolving list as things come up.
Do you see a lot of young people like you involved in state politics?
I think it depends. When I was at OVYM sessions, it seemed like there was a pretty decent representation of age. I can’t speak to Western Yearly Meeting because I was not there [at sessions], but I’d always love to see more young people out there. I’m lucky in that my particular social circles have pretty active folks politically, but unfortunately that is really not the case statewide. Even among my friends, I know people who essentially refuse to vote no matter how much I plead with them and try to convince them how important it is.
Why won’t they vote?
They honestly are convinced that elections are 100 percent bought and that their votes don’t count. And I say no to that. To me, state issues are so important because they have a greater impact on your everyday life. Our state representative, Christina Hale, won by 51 votes the first time she was elected. Every single vote counts, but people just do not believe it, because there’s a lot of messaging out there saying: “Oh well, corporations own everybody and nobody has a real say.” It’s part of my everyday struggle to figure out how to combat that.
It’s really difficult, but there is hope. There are a lot of people who understand the importance of voting, and my hope is just that through example and trying and trying again and again to convince people to vote, hopefully we can raise our numbers. Indiana has some of the lowest voter turnout in the country, especially in non-presidential years. It’s absolutely dismal, and it’s very disheartening, I have to say.
Most of my friends don’t identify as Quaker, which they may need to reevaluate because I think that there are a lot of Quakers who don’t realize they’re Quaker. But with folks that I know within the meeting, a lot of them see this work as part of the social justice mission that goes along with being a Quaker, which is really cool and one of the things I like about this faith.
What would you say to a young adult Quaker who is interested in politics but not sure where to start?
The best thing you can do is educate yourself: read articles from every side, get a good grasp on one issue that is important to your life, and then you’ll find that lots of other ones just seem to fall in after that. I find that focusing on one particular issue can help, because if you focus on too many, sometimes it can get a little overwhelming. But if you find an issue that you care about—mine was education, at first—there’s a lot of work that can be done, not just voting but calling and getting active, and you can get as involved or stay out of it as much as you want. I understand a lot of people don’t have time to get into the nitty-gritty of it, but if you’ve got five minutes to make a call, that can make a huge difference.
Why is it important to have the Quaker voice heard at the legislative level?
I think that Quakers are known nationally and within this state for being people of integrity. We will come in and be reasonable and listen but also be willing to share our voice and what we see as speaking truth to power. I think it’s incredibly important because we have that respect that we go in and try to work with people, but it’s also important that we maintain it. We want to go in and build relationships and find common ground where we can, and if we can maintain that, I think that we can have an impact; even if it doesn’t result in certain votes, I think that we will gain some ears if nothing else.
Do you hope to work at FCNL one day?
I certainly wouldn’t mind it! My concentration is more on state issues just because I really see the states as the battleground right now, especially in Indiana, and by improving each state, we then improve the whole country. So I see my calling as being more with the states, but I’m pretty young. I don’t want to say I would never do something in D.C., but right now, my focus is definitely states. I love FCNL; I love what they’re doing. And just like with IFCL, any way I can help, I’m more than happy to, because there’s so much work to be done.