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Strongly Worded Letters is A New Digital Toolkit for Local Civic Engagement

Dec 14, 2020

Strongly Worded Letters is a new digital platform that gives Omaha residents tools to get involved in local politics.
Credit Johnny Redd, Strongly Worded Letters

Strongly Worded Letters is a digital civic engagement toolkit for Omaha residents. Founders and Omaha natives Gab Rima and Johnny Redd use Instagram and other social media platforms to explain local politics and post scripts when getting in touch with representatives. Though Strongly Worded Letters encourages activism of all kinds, Rima says nothing quite captures passion like pen and paper.

KIOS: Why is it that letter writing is still important in a time when so much of the activism we see is very is direct action big and bombastic and headline-grabbing?

Gab Rima: A big thing is that there's room for actions of all sizes. So like, I definitely support protest actions. I support direct action. But on the other end, you know, not everyone can participate in a direct action. We elect leaders for a reason, which is that they should be representing us and our interests. But in order to do that, they have to know what our interests are. They have to know where our opinions lie. And so it is important to contact your representatives. This project isn't meant to be a replacement for any kind of direct action. It's meant to coincide with direct action. 

You started as an in-person club where people would physically gather and write letters. So why did you choose to expand to a digital platform?

The in-person club was a very small group. It didn't have a super big following or anything, and I really enjoyed doing it. And after a while, it just kind of felt like it wasn't working. Like, I loved the work that I did with the small group we had, but I wanted to expand to a larger audience. But especially in the time we're in right now, where you can't really have physical gatherings, it felt like the best time to move it to a digital platform and grow it to a larger audience online.

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What makes a good letter?

Clarity, for sure. Making it personal and making it brief. No one wants to read, like, a five-page letter. So you say, here's who I'm talking to, here's who I am. Make sure that they know that you're their constituent, and then just ask for what you want right away, and then spend the rest of your letter explaining why you want what you want.

The more personal it is, the better.

Yeah, for sure. It's good to include like a mix of personal and facts. So if you have some statistics or some sources that back up your point, it's great to include those. But it's also great to include why this issue is going to impact you on a personal level.

Something I like about Strongly Worded Letters is that first of all, you have a really excellent digital presence. And I know a lot of that is Johnny's work. But when you put out scripts on Instagram, I like that there are options to both, like, do something in person — either go to a city council meeting or call your representative — or write a letter. Strongly Worded Letters isn't just writing letters. Can you talk about some of the other suggestions you make for the civic engagement?

So I started with letters mostly because it was the most accessible form of contact for a lot of people. A lot of people have a lot of anxiety or barriers to access around doing other things. But my goal here is that while keeping the letter component, I want to increase the access people have to other options. So the most impactful way to influence representative is in person. So through in-person testimony at city council meetings. So we've been coaching people through how to do that. We have a program called "office hours" where people can schedule a 30-minute Zoom meeting with me where we talk about the issue and build a statement for their city council testimony from scratch. We just did a phone banking session with Omaha Abolition Research. So definitely just trying to utilize all the tools we can.

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Can I ask what your background is? Because you clearly have a very good handle on local politics and civic engagement. Do you have a background in community organizing?

I have done some kind of political work. I'm employed right now by the Progressive Turnout Project, which is an electoral organization. We try to influence elections and drive voter turnout. But most of my local politics knowledge is self-taught. It's really hard to find information about local politics, and I wanted to make it easier. So I used to literally go to, like, congress.gov or the state legislature website, and you can look at every single active bill, and you can just read through them, and you can see the date it's gonna be voted on. And when I started the club, I used to just, every month, would sit down and compile a list of active bills and then pick out the ones that I thought were important and would just translate the language to something more accessible.

People who are interested in your mission, want to get involved — how can they get involved?

The biggest thing, honestly, is just taking a look at the issues we're gonna be posting about. So every time something major comes up locally, we'll be coming out with scripts and action items on how you can make an impact on that. Just kind of following along and making sure that you actually do the action items in the Instagram post. Not just give it a "like" and walk away.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.