Monday, November 11, 2013

Day 183 - Attending a Special Interest Group Meeting

I have never attended a special interest group meeting. As someone that holds firm political beliefs but avoids subscribing to any cookie cutter form of political ideology, the initial idea of attending a special interest group meeting left me feeling torn. Although I knew I would likely enjoy discussing a topic about which I potentially held strong opinions, I was wary of the idea of affiliating myself with any organization boxed in by the tenets of a political movement. That stated, I knew attending such a meeting would provide great insight regarding the thought processes of those so passionate about a subject they choose to lobby the government, which made me think there was a lot of opportunity for new experiences in meeting with such an organization. Upon weighing out these two perspectives, I knew I would likely forego attending a special interest group meeting at any other point in my life, but in a year of learning from new experiences I knew the right choice was to roll the dice and see what I could gain from such an event.

The Wil-Mar Center
As a result, I decided I would make a special interest group meeting a part of my “I have never...” year, and I set to work trying to find a suitable gathering for the experience. Although I was still hesitant about the idea, I found myself uninterested by the tame and usual special interest group meetings that periodically appeared on Madison event calendars. Eventually, this led me to settle on the idea that the most beneficial experience would likely come from attending a special interest group meeting of a more controversial political organization. That realization helped direct me in my search until I stumbled upon a meeting scheduled for the Madison-based chapter of the national NORML organization, a special interest group working to legalize marijuana throughout the United States. While I don’t condone or disapprove of the group’s efforts, I knew the meeting would provide a unique perspective on a topic at the center of modern politics and would likely help me see an issue through a new lens. As a result, I made time to attend the November Madison NORML meeting this evening and prepared myself for what would likely be an uncommon experience.

When I arrived at the meeting hall at the nearby Wil-Mar Center, no one from the organization had yet arrived. Although I was early, the absence of any NORML presence made me question my choice of special interest group meeting. As I ran through a series of “what-ifs” revolving around the authenticity and credibility of the movement, I wondered how the rest of the night would unfold and if my planned “I have never...” event was bound to never occur. Fortunately, my mulling made the minutes advance quickly until a trickle of typical middle class Wisconsin men began entering the meeting room. One by one they took their position around a small circular table near the back of the room until a group of eight occupied the space. With that, one of the men moved to start the meeting exactly as planned, which opened me up to an experience I won’t soon forget.

Our meeting room
Admittedly, I found it hard to stave off any preconceptions I had about the type of people I could expect at the meeting. While some aspects of the parties in attendance fit the “marijuana advocate” profile many people would envision, the reality is every person at the meeting was a passionate, highly informed, and incredibly intelligent individual. I listened on as the group talked about the voting records and political positions of those supporting and those most vehemently against the idea of marijuana law reform in the Wisconsin State Assembly and the Wisconsin State Senate. I was stunned as the group rifled through statistics and demographics for the districts of each ally and foe to their cause and immediately transitioned in strategic planning for local and statewide 2014 election campaigns. As advertising ideas, marketing concepts, and targeted political actions against primary sources of campaign financing flew across the table I sat back in stunned silence. Without question, the individuals composing the Madison NORML group were smart, savvy, and driven to affect public opinion and legal standing for their chosen issues. With each passing minute it became more and more clear the members of the organization knew the facts, argued positions from points of substance and peer-reviewed citations, and demonstrated their motivation to take action to advance their cause. To see such commitment and passion was uplifting, even if I didn’t hold a strong opinion on the cause, and to simply be a part of their conversation was incredibly insightful.

The agenda
As the meeting pressed on, I sat by and listened silently until the agenda grew thin with topics. Nearly an hour into the meeting, I weighed the proposals and ideas discussed earlier and offered a few points of perspective based on my experience. My sudden entrance into the conversation after a prolonged period of silence caught some members of the group off guard, but they openly listened to my thoughts and actively offered points and counterpoints to my ideas on marketing, financing, and the idea of influencing campaigns. Eventually, this discussion dragged us beyond the scheduled meeting end time, which the meeting organizer acknowledged before encouraging final thoughts from the group. With some final remarks, the meeting ultimately drew to a close, which directed me to give some thanks before heading for the door.

In my final moments talking to some Madison NORML group members I took stock of the issues discussed and the strategic planning points the group covered during their meeting. As my first experience with a special interest group meeting, I was in awe of the quality of conversation and the intelligent approach used in the planning process. Heading into the meeting I knew the experience would give me a lot of perspective on the actions of special interest groups, but I never expected to walk away outright impressed at the caliber of people that lobby on behalf of the Madison NORML group. To say the experience was surprising would be a huge understatement.

Stated plainly, this experience was more than I ever expected, and while it isn’t likely I will sign up to be a part of the Madison NORML group anytime soon, it was great to interact with such knowledgeable and intelligent people for a few hours tonight. As I thought about that fact, I realized that my expectations were likely lowered by my preconceived notions on the type of people I expected to encounter at a special interest group meeting. It’s not that I assumed I would find uninformed or unintelligent people at such an event, but a part of me did expect to find people driven by bias and emotion at the center of such a gathering. That simply wasn’t that case, and from that I can take away an important lesson. Even though I see myself as an open person, it is clear my perspective can be tainted by undue preconceptions about a person or group. That fact means I have some work to do, and that unexpected realization means tonight’s “I have never...” experience was definitely one worth having.

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