13 February, 2019
In late 2015, my high school AP Government and Politics class wrote the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, a bill which sought justice for victims of civil rights cold cases. When we started this project, we never imagined it would take us much of anywhere. Throughout the school year, we made a few phone calls, had a few meetings with some congressional staffers and got some positive feedback, but little more than that. Flash forward to 2016, my class had graduated high school and moved onto our respective post-graduate plans—but we hadn’t put the Cold Case Act behind us. When I woke up in May 2017 to an email from my former high school teacher, Stuart Wexler, letting us know our legislation had been introduced into the House of Representatives by Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, reality set in that my class had set in motion something much larger than we left it almost a year before.
Nearly another year passed before we got our next big piece of news: in July 2018, the newly-elected Senator Doug Jones was introducing our legislation into the Senate; what’s more, on the day he presented our legislation to the Senate floor, Ted Cruz was present and was very impressed with what he heard. Several months later, the two would spearhead a bipartisan effort to get the legislation passed. In December 2018, the legislation passed the Senate by unanimous consent, and a few days later, cleared the house by a 376-6 margin. On Jan. 8, 2019, the Cold Case Act was signed by the President, becoming the first federal law on record written by high schoolers in US history.
It wasn’t easy. The previous two paragraphs summarize three years of efforts by high school classes and alumni visiting D.C. to meet with congressional staffers, congresspeople and senators; contacting media outlets; and, most importantly, attempting to have our legislation seen as more than a simple class project. At its core, the Cold Case Act was experiential learning that begged the answer to a core question in public relations for any small organization: how do you get attention with virtually no resources? How do you get taken seriously when the odds are stacked against you?
It sounds painfully simple, but this was a huge leap for lots of the people in the class, including myself. At the start, few of us truly believed our legislation would be seen by anyone with the power to support it in any meaningful context. Indeed, that was my graduating class’ experience. Even our own local representatives seemed to treat us with a sort of warm indifference—more of an appeasement to a group of kids than a serious consideration of a policy proposal. Who could blame them? Staffers are incredibly busy, and we probably weren’t the first group of students to try to pass something off to them as a well-developed piece of legislation.
It wasn’t until we started to see some serious attention that the more reluctant of us started to wake up to the idea that we were capable of doing this. I sometimes think about what we could have accomplished if we had all jumped into the start of it with that same zeal that a couple of people in the class had brought to the table.
I learned late in the game a crucial lesson that I imagine a lot of us felt at some point or another: you’ve got to swallow your pride. Make a meeting, reach out to a journalist, whatever you have to do—just go for it. If the odds are stacked against you, getting media coverage is going to be a fight and you have to be prepared to be ignored again and again to find someone who will listen to you.
There’s no ignoring the fact that we were a group of public high school students. While our school district was tremendously supportive and threw us a fair share of resources, we weren’t going to be getting funding for much more than a once-a-year field trip to D.C. With virtually nothing to build on, we relied on finding free shortcuts where we could. Some of these things were naturally and obviously costless—writing dozens of emails is more a factor of patience and repetition than cost. But there are certain things we didn’t have access to that would have helped tremendously, such as repositories of reporter contact information or paid advertisements to spread the word and increase civic engagement.
When you’ve got limited resources, you use what you have. For us, this often meant leveraging connections and trying to garner as much social media attention as we could. Exponentially large social networks create exponentially large distribution channels. My Twitter account, for example, has only 38 followers as of this writing. However, many of the top tweets I wrote advocating the Cold Case Act had impressions in the range of 300-500, with engagement rates as high as 6-8%. 300-500 people for a national campaign might be inconsequentially small, but when a class of dozens of students experience similar growth in temporary audiences, the collective result can be an incredibly powerful information campaign.
This was true for almost every aspect of the Cold Case Act, both visible and behind-the-scenes, from the ways we went about contacting legislative aides to the ways in which we conducted search engine optimization. Everything was done by hand in a painstaking—but costless—DIY approach.
One night a few days after the legislation passed, I checked my email before heading to bed. I noticed a message from a reporter who wanted a story. His deadline was at 11am. Several of my classmates and I woke up early the next morning and cranked out answers to his genuinely thorough questions. It occurred to my friend and I, as we edited over these questions, still rubbing the sleep from our protesting winter-break eyes, that in virtually no other circumstance would we ever have been compelled to pick up an assignment at midnight (while on break) and have it done by 10am. This was the kind of experience that drove the Cold Case Act through the busy periods when it seemed like the legislation was moving at warp speed. We were all busy students with other things going on in our lives, but we made time to give it our all. It’s another cliche on the pile, but this one rang truer for me then than ever before: you get out what you put in. We poured our hearts into the Cold Case Act, and it showed during its journey from a small high school classroom to the Oval Office.
Our work isn’t done—not by a long shot. We’ve shifted gears to advocating for a successful implementation of the legislation, a task made more relevant by the White House’s signing statement which was unusually long and pointed out several criticisms of the legislation. I expect as we pivot to this new role I’ll learn even more along the way. As it stands, though, working on the Cold Case Act has been one of the most humbling and influential experiences of my life.