Friday, December 1, 2017

Anti-Poverty Mom's 2017 Gift Picks

Wow. This year has really been something else. It's true I haven't been blogging very much because I've been busy, like many of you, advocating to protect things like Medicaid, Social Security, children's health insurance, global health funding, global education programs, tax credits for Americans in poverty, women's rights, etc, etc, etc that have all been under attack in 2017. At this time of year, I like to suggest gifts that are good for the Earth or help people in poverty. This year, I think it's appropriate to look for those kinds of gifts even more. 

My general guidelines still stand: Buy local, shop small businesses, gift charity donations, think vintage, buy from places that support women who are survivors of trauma and/or poverty. This year, there is a heightened awareness that corporations are playing a bigger part in our politics than many of us previously realized. So, there's even more of a reason to make sure you spend your hard earned money on a responsible gift that helps people and will make your loved one happy, too. Here are my favorite new finds in 2017. For more ideas, search in this blog with the keywords "Gift Picks" to find my suggestions from past years that are likely still out there!

1. Lemon Chef's Soap from Ten Thousand Villages
I love this for host/hostess gifts for holiday dinners or parties. If someone has been cooking for you, this is especially appropriate! Made in India by people of the marginalized Harijan community, this soap has a lemon scent that rids hands of cooking odors. It's crafted from natural vegetable oils by traditional soap makers. The fragrance is unique and derived from herbs, roots, leaves, and flowers. It uses palm oil grown on local plantations. This oil provides work to local farmers and does not contribute to deforestation. 

2. Penzey's Hot Chocolate with a Hint of Mint
Great for kids and chocolate lovers! Penzey's may have headquarters in Wauwatosa, WI, but there is a local store here for me in St. Louis. Penzey's is well known for the owner's open stance against racism and the President's remarks against minority groups. So, if you want to give the give of a relaxing, sweet, delicious beverage that makes you feel good about supporting others willing to take a stand, check out their Hot Chocolate with a Hint of Mint ($10.55 for a 16 ox bag). They do also have a regular flavor and also a wide range of wonderful gift boxes.

3. A Warm Pink Hat for a January Women's March
Ok, I have no link for this. You need to do our own local homework to find a great knitter in your community willing to make you a pink hat. Pay a fair price for materials and labor, then ask if your knitter needs a ride to any of the Women's Marches taking place again on January 20. We didn't mean for this to be an annual thing, but now that sexual assault survivors are starting to be heard, it's fitting for us to keep the momentum going and show harassers and assaulters that we have not forgotten anything or anyone. Here's a list of scheduled marches around the country. Photo credit: Margo Chambers

Made for Freedom products are made by artisans in poverty who are in danger of becoming victims of human trafficking or have been victims already. By paying women a living wage, they remove the source of their vulnerability, and prevent them from turning to sex trafficking, exploitation or sweat shop labor as their only source of viable income. Some of their items are simply fun and pretty styles, but I rather like the "Speak Up" necklace and bracelet with a biblical verse from Proverbs that is a reminder to advocate: Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. 
Okay, I've been testing this one for you all year. The description said, "Meet your new favorite bag!" and for me it was actually true. Noonday artisans are people in developing countries - mostly women - who work in partnership with Noonday to come up with designs together and sell them at a fair value to help artisans work out of poverty and to benefit adoptive families.  This bag is from India. At $178, it's a lot pricier than the other suggestions on my list, but it's a good value compared to similar bags you might buy from a regular retailer. Plus, if you find a local Noonday representative and host a party like I did, you can buy it for much, much less while helping even more people. It's huge size makes it my favorite lobby bag to take to Capitol Hill now because it easily holds standard folder sizes and I can use it as a show-and-tell piece to talk about partnership with entrepreneurs in developing countries in my meetings. Warning: Because of the unique vegetable tanning process used, over time the leather will transition from a light fawn to a rich caramel color...but in my opinion it just looks better and better!

6. Solar Powered Charger from Little Sun
Something techie that will help people in poverty AND be good for the earth! This solar power bank can harass the sun to fuel your phone, camera, or any USB-powered device. OR it can provide up to 150 hours of light. It is weather and UV-resistant for camping and other outdoor activities. Plus, for every charger sold (just like the Little Sun  lights I reviewed in 2014), the same exact product you buy is offered at a fair, locally-affordable price to someone in an underserved area. Pretty good deal for $99. On sale for $84.15 at

Friday, October 13, 2017

What Can We Do BEFORE Disasters Strike?

Hurricanes. Wild fires. Terrorist shootings. The United States has multiple disasters happening one on top of the other right now. A massive earthquake recently ravaged Mexico City and flooding has uprooted many people across Southeast Asia. For those of us who are far away from the scenes and have no special training, it's easy to be caught up in helpless emotions. We want to help, but don't know how. We write checks. We send our thoughts. We pray. But once the media fades away from the crisis of the day, isn't there more we could be doing? I certainly don't have all the answers, but I hope we can start a conversation about it. I made a list of four things that I do that make me feel just a little bit better when I hear about a terrible emergency because was able to help before the disaster even strikes. Telling my children about them helps the kids feel better, too, and sets the example of doing good all year round. Please share your ideas in the comments. We can all learn more!

1. Be a regular blood donor
When tragedy hits in America - whether it's a natural disaster or a mass murder by gun violence - good hearted people line up to give blood from their own veins to help victims. Sometimes we see pictures  in the newspapers of long lines of blood donors. This is awesome. It is admirable. We should do this. Folks should know, however, that the blood collected right after a tragedy will likely not be used for recovery from that event. It takes several weeks to test and process the blood for distribution to patients. So, it's great to be able to refill the supply right after a big demand...AND we should also consider donating at other times, so we always have blood there when we need it. 

That's not blood, it's iodine :)
Did you know that the Red Cross makes it super easy to schedule to donate at any time that is convenient for you? The website lets me know that are three regular donation sites within 10 miles of my house and usually a couple of blood drives going on in public spaces. "Rapid Pass" lets me answer the long list of health questions online, so I don't have to hang out there reading forms. You can be notified by email or phone to be reminded when you can next give (every 8 weeks). They even email me weeks later after my blood has been processed to tell me exactly which hospital was lucky enough to get a special delivery of my personal batch of O-positive.

2. Call or write your members of Congress every week about anti-poverty programs
Letter-writing is even more effective
when you do it with friends!
It's a sad fact of life that whenever disaster strikes, it's always people living in poverty that get hurt the most. They have far fewer resources to get out of the path of a hurricane or bounce back financially when they are physically hurt or lose a home. Anti-poverty advocacy groups like RESULTS and Bread for the World can keep you updated on how to take action on programs and policies that help people out of poverty in the U.S. and around the world. 

Sometimes helping communities in poverty can even have benefits in averting future catastrophes. For instance, because of continued global support of immunizations and medical facilities, Nigeria was able to contain an Ebola outbreak in 2014 very quickly. The U.S. was a large donor for this effort. They had used funds to increase the number of aid workers for other diseases, but this had the effect of having more trained personnel on the ground who could identify and isolate patients with Ebola. Also, more medical care facilities and equipment stemmed the spread of the disease early, which was critical to avoid widespread suffering and death. 

Making few calls or writing a letter only takes about 5 minutes each week, but contact from constituents is an important way that your members of Congress decide what is important from day to day. 

3. Proactively give to organizations that provide first responders
I know it's a natural thing to hear about a hurricane and then want to give to an organization that will make sure that 100% of your money will go to recovery efforts of that particular hurricane. The Red Cross got so much criticism after Hurricane Katrina about whether funds were going to New Orleans specifically, that they added a drop down selection list online so that you can choose which disaster you wish to address. 

Unfortunately, first responders can't wait around for you to hear about a disaster on the news and type in your credit card numbers when you get a chance. They have to respond, like, NOW. So, consider making a donation sometime when hurricane and wildfire seasons are over and selecting the "Where It's Needed Most" option. I also like to donate to Samaritan's Purse and the International Red Cross because I simply cannot predict where the next disaster will be. Neither can they, but they can make a really good educated guess about it based on their years of experience. Plus, Samaritan's Purse has great flexibility to respond to medical disasters like the Ebola outbreak. After hearing the harrowing story of a doctor who worked on the ground with them in the early days of the epidemic, I became a donor because I want these people to be mobilized in an instant before I even find out about a disaster on NPR's Morning Edition! Don't wait for me, guys...just GO!

3. Become a monthly donor
Most people have a tendency to think: "Oh, that's just what rich people can do." I used to think that before I actually worked on a non-profit fundraising team. It turns out that most organizations would be thrilled to have a monthly donation from you for even as little as $5 a month, which amounts to $60 a year. That's a lot for some people, but if you are a person that spends that much on coffee every day, it's easily within your reach. Monthly donors often say that they like donating this way because it helps them to budget well. Organizations love it because they can be more effective in their yearly planning. So many of us wait until December to see what we can afford to give at the end of the year. That's good for us, but it's hard for a non-profit to know if they'll have enough money to hire new people or pay the rent if they have to wait until the 4th financial quarter to find out how much they have. It also feels good to me to get periodic reminders from the bank about the good work my money is doing even if I'm too busy to be actively working on a problem. 

What do you do to help before disasters strike? Please leave a comment and share!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: The Handwritten Letter

The first question I usually get when I teach new advocates – young or old – to handwrite letters to Congress is, “Do we really have to write them by hand?” Despite the fact that our digital world sensibilities leave us ill prepared to write with a pen (or pencil) and paper, my answer is: YES. Unless you have a medical condition that makes it difficult for you to write, you should really handwrite your letter to Congress for two reasons. First, it sets your message apart from the masses of spam emails and tweets hurled at them every hour. Handwriting letters is becoming a bit of a lost art. Like handwritten thank you notes, hardly anyone ever does it anymore. 

The second reason is just practical. Handwriting proves you didn’t digitally copy and paste someone else’s message. Even if you hand copy a letter of mine word for word, the handwritten nature of your letter means that you actually took time to look at each word and write it out with some level of purposeful intention. You didn’t blindly cut and paste something into an email that you didn’t even read. So, hooray for handwriting! You can even use pretty purple pens like this lovely grade school girl did. (I tend to think that actually may draw more attention!)

Here are my suggestions for writing an effective letter to Congress…

Letters should be short, personal, and have a clear request
The most effective letters share something personal from a constituent. Talking about your experience and why you care is always a good idea. Feel like you haven’t personally experienced a hardship worth describing? That’s okay. You can write about a news story you heard and how you felt about it. That even helps illustrate that your issue is important enough to be in the media!

Keep the length to a page at most. Staying brief will help keep you focused and to the point, so that they don’t miss your request.

Speaking of requests, make it crystal clear what you want your member of Congress to do. It’s best if you have a bill number and the official name of the bill you are concerned about. If you don’t have that information, still try to be so clear that you can put your request in the form of a “yes or no” question. “Will you help kids in poverty globally who need access to education by signing H. Res. 466 to support the Global Partnership for Education?” “Will you help save the lives of moms and kids around the world by signing the Reach Every Mother and Child Act?” I often even underline or use a bright highlighter on my request line, so that they can’t possibly miss it.

EPIC format can help you stay focused
I know it's hard to put all our complicated human feelings down in one page. Some days, you may have a sample letter about an issue that you can work from. Many organizations circulate pre-written text that they hope you’ll personalize with your own voice. Whether I am starting from scratch or tweaking a template, I like to use the tried and true "EPIC" format (taught to me by RESULTS) to create a clear, effective, one-page handwritten letter. It helps me get my scattered mommy-brain thoughts in order. This is what EPIC stands for:

Engage: Engage the reader's attention with a question or a startling statement. You could use a surprising statistic or a question. Or, you can even thank your member of Congress or tell them that you appreciate that they have a difficult job. That can be rare and attention-grabbing! Do not start off with a personal attack. That would be a “Dis-Engage” statement that causes a reader to mentally stop paying attention right away.

Problem: State the problem that you want the reader to address.

Inform (or Illustrate): Inform the reader of the solution or illustrate how the solution can help.

Call to Action: CLEARLY state what you want the reader to do. It's best if you can do it in the form of a question that should be answered with a "yes" or a "no."

Just one or two sentences in each section will do the trick!

Sign the letter with your name, title, and address
If you have an illegible signature like me, it’s really important to print your name along with your address. Your address lets the office know that you do, indeed, live in their district. Write your address both on the return address area of your outside envelope AND on the inside letter itself. Busy office staffers move quickly and your envelope may get separated from your letter. At best, that means you wouldn’t get a letter back responding to your request. At worst, your letter might get thrown away without proof that you’re a constituent and potential voter.

Using a title is optional, but feel free to use one. As silly as it might seem to stay-at-home moms like me who always feel like an unpaid mash-up of “Chef/Maid/Private Math Tutor/Psychologist/Head Zookeeper,” a title can signal to your member that you have a place in your community and that there are likely others like you who probably vote in his or her district. Titles aren’t as hard to come by as you might think even if you don’t have a professional position. Do you sit on any volunteer committees? Are you a member of a religious community? Are you a scout leader or a coach of youth sports? Even if you are just using talking points about hunger that came off of the Bread for the World website, guess what? You’re doing unpaid work for them and that makes you a genuine Bread for the World volunteer. Heck, even "Stay at Home Mom" is a title I can be proud of! Flaunt that title, baby. J

Don't overthink it!
A letter to Congress should not take you more than 5 minutes to write. I've coached new folks who agonized over a letter for over a 1/2 hour, eventually taking it home for more tweaking. I often wondered if they ever sent the letter at all? Here's the truth: Perfection isn't necessary. A hastily written message with poor handwriting is more effective than a masterpiece that never gets mailed. Think like a child. In fact, check out the letter my 3 year old wrote about global health that simply says, "Please help kids in the world be healthy." Her letter got a response just like mine did and helped us pass global child health legislation!

Letters mailed to local district offices arrive MUCH faster than ones mailed to Washington D.C.
If you mail your letter all the way to a congressional office in D.C., it will take more time to travel PLUS it will take another couple of weeks to get to the office because of anthrax bacteria screening. Younger readers may not recall the anthrax bioterrorism attacks of 2001, which involved media outlets, U.S. Senate offices, and the State Department. Sadly, five people died and many people – including 31 Capitol Hill staffers! – tested positive for anthrax. But, local offices still receive mail without screening. Local aides will immediately log your opinion and then forward your letter onto DC by fax, scanning, or hand carrying. I once had a Congresswoman who hand-carried her own constituent letters back weekly to DC with her in her own briefcase.

Letter writing at First United Methodist Church
for Bread for the World
Repeat often and ask others to join you

It usually takes many letters to inspire a member of Congress to take an action. Hopefully, letter writing is combined with other forms of advocacy and frequent letters will always help bolster the case of those going in to lobby on the issue. 

Neighbors, spouses, children, scouting troops, social justice committees, book clubs, and anyone you know who is sympathetic to your cause are fair game to ask to write letters with you. When I was a Bread for the World organizer for my church, I would deliver hundreds of letters at once to offices from my congregation. That kind of citizen advocacy really makes senators and representatives sit up and take notice!

I hope this helps you take the leap to write your own letter and help others to write as well. Most of the time you'll simply get a form letter in response, but occasionally my children have received personal hand-written letters in return. Please leave a comment and tell us how you felt writing it and if you got a response from your member of Congress!