No matter where you live, you’re never too far away to call the people representing you in Congress. That’s the philosophy of a politically engaged group of Americans based in Zurich.
The group has been urging American expats around the world to get in touch with their members of Congress – and to post photos of themselves doing so on social media. As part of the six-day #nottoofarawaytocall campaign in September, 60 Americans posted photos from 25 countries, including Switzerland, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Colombia, Haiti, Guatemala, Canada, Russia, Israel, and many others in Europe.
“What we were trying to do was to normalize political behavior, but we didn’t tell people what to call about,” explains Sara Petchey, a Texan PhD student in teacher education at the University of Zurich. She herself had never phoned a senator or a representative before this campaign – launched by Action Together: Zurich, CHexternal link, a volunteer organization of Americans, Swiss, and others trying to preserve American and Swiss values that they believe are threatened by the current US administration.
“So I called Republican Senator Ted Cruz. I tried to be diplomatic, thanking him for his efforts to support the people of my hometown, Houston. I also asked him to ‘support the dreamers’,” says Petchey, referring to the movement to protect immigrants, especially those who came to the US as children and are now at risk of deportation. She believes that calling from abroad is especially effective because it catches people’s attention.
Tory Finn, a Californian living in Zurich, agrees. “When I say I am calling from Switzerland I always get very strong responses, such as ‘Oh wow, what time is it there? We are so impressed you are calling from so far away, thank you for taking the time even though you are overseas.’” She notes that she always gets a warm response and has even received letters from Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
Yet Petchey acknowledges that it’s not always easy for constituents to work up the courage to dial the phone, especially if their views don’t align with those of their members of Congress.
“Calling is the most difficult because someone might actually pick up, and you’ll have to be prepared. But it IS effective,” Petchey insists. Anne Jorstad – who says she’s “not a telephone person” – has now gotten into the habit of calling her Congress people regularly.
“I actually find it easier to call from abroad. Because with the time difference, I can call when I’m done with everything for the day, at around 11pm, and since I’m calling Washington state on the West Coast, it’s still the middle of their workday,” says Jorstad, who works as data visualization scientist at the Swiss National Science Foundation in Bern.
“I call my three Congress people (all Democrats) every week, and I almost always speak to real people who are always very cordial. This has not been the experience whenever I try to call Republican committee heads, whose staffers are sometimes quite defensive,” says Jorstad.
All the more reason to speak up, finds Petchey, who co-founded Action Together: Zurich earlier this year along with Alexandra Dufresne. “There are about nine million Americans living abroad, and we count, too.”
She also thinks that Americans can learn something from the Swiss when it comes to civic engagement. “We’re always so inspired by Swiss members of our group because of the enormous level of participation here.”
What they’ll do with the pictures besides posting them on Facebook is up for debate. “We’re a bit hesitant to make much of a fuss in the US because of the connotation of a ‘luxurious’ expat lifestyle. But to us, Paris could be Wichita,” Petchey says. The group’s next idea is a video series on quirky things that American and Swiss people do related to voting.