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Advocacy Seminar Students Take the Hill

By Maggie Daubenspeck, Connections Intern

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In mid-March of 2016, five members from the Advocacy Seminar class and their professor, Adam Braver, visited Washington, D.C. to advocate on behalf of the seventy-two-year-old Mohammad Hossein Rafiee Fanood, an imprisoned scholar and chemist in Iran. The Seminar works in collaboration with Scholars at Risk to serve as case minders on behalf of international scholars who are imprisoned for issues directly correlated to violations of their freedom of expression. Maggie Daubenspeck, Abby DeVeuve, Diandra Franks, Jen Gonzalez, Grace Napoli, and Adam Braver scheduled a total of thirteen meetings to be completed in a single day.

 

Tuesday Evening – March 15, 2016

The team arrived at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport at 10:00 pm, successfully navigated the Metro, and made their way to their Dupont Circle hotel. Being surrounded by the sights and sounds of the city made their mission real: they were in the nation’s capitol as participants of the democratic system—there to talk to members of congress and other officials about an issue of great importance.

But could they have an impact?

 

Wednesday Morning – March 16, 2016

The day’s first hitch was the late breaking announcement that all Metro transportation would be suspended due to maintenance. This news forced the group to have to rejigger their transportation and logistical planning. Somehow that seemed part and parcel of a day of advocacy in D.C., always being ready to rethink, readjust, and refine expectations.

But by 9:15am, the entire team was sitting down in the office of Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) in the Rayburn Office Building. The idea of meeting with congressional members on the Hill initially may have been intimidating, but once in action, the group was ready, relaxed, and motivated. After all, a man’s future was at stake.

The team then split up into two separate groups to tackle a series of morning meetings, toggling between House and Senate offices at the Hart and Cannon buildings. While scrambling to different meetings in different buildings was initially confusing, the students soon became experts at navigating the legislative passages, making sure to include small breaks for team meetings to discuss all they were hearing, and continually strategizing for upcoming conferences. Before lunch, Team One met with Representative Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA), the staff of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Senator Bob Menendez (R-NJ). Team Two focused on an extended meeting with a law clerk from the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

Throughout the morning meetings, the students were met with mixed reactions, particularly on strategies specific to addressing human rights issues in Iran. What became more and more clear: most members were willing to lend some form of support, but they preferred someone else to take the lead.

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Wednesday Afternoon – March 16, 2016

The entire team attended a meeting at the State Department with Democracy, Rights, and Labor (DRL). This meeting proved to be very informative as the group sat down with the Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby, Foreign Affairs and Near Eastern Affairs Officer Matthew Hickey, and Iranian Affairs Officer Emily Norris. In addition to helping the team further understand the relationship between the nuances and complexities of human rights in Iran and the case against Dr. Rafiee, the meeting also introduced new speaking points to present in the day’s remaining meetings on the Hill.

By far, the most promising meeting of the day came at the end of the schedule. Following a spirited and up-tempo meeting with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and his staff, the team left Senator Whitehouse’s office with a strong indication from the Senator that he would draft a letter in support of Dr. Rafiee’s release. Finally, the students had found a representative willing to take the lead.

Other meetings to round out the day included the staffs of Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Representative Lee Zeldin (R-NY), and Representative Leonard Lance (R-NJ).

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Wednesday Evening – March 16, 2016

With all the meetings finished, the exhausted but happy team met over dinner to discuss and compare the details from the various meetings, as well as the overall experience. A plan was set up to send out follow up emails, and to write a final report for Scholars at Risk about the findings, allowing the parent organization to engage further with some of the representatives, as needed.

By 10:15pm, the team was in the air, and en route back to Rhode Island. A full day of meeting directly with government officials about Dr. Rafiee’s situation made the students feel hopeful that the case would receive the much needed attention that might help contribute to a positive outcome—further highlighting the responsibility of those who live in cultures that are granted freedom of expression to speak up for those who don’t have that right.