Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: Coffee with Your Senator

My family with Senator McCaskill of Missouri
You might be looking at the title of this blog and thinking, "EASY? Coffee with a senator? Are you kidding me?" I kid you not. Some senators actually lay out clever, friendly traps consisting of coffee and piles of Dunkin' Donuts meant to lure friendly constituents to their offices for photo opportunities. Once you overcome the travel hurdle of actually getting to D.C., it's really not hard to attend one. Anybody from their state is welcome! The question is...what are you going to do once you are there? Can you prepare yourself to turn it into an opportunity to advocate? Yes. Yes you can.

How to schedule a coffee
Senate constituent coffees are often held on Wednesdays or Thursdays. (Maybe because it's easier for them to commit to being there midweek Mondays and Fridays when they might be headed to or from their home state?) When planning a D.C. trip, check the websites of your senators or call their D.C. office and ask if she or he hosts one. If yes, there is probably a sign-up form on the senators' official website. Just fill in your info a few weeks ahead of time and you're all set! They might have cute names. Senator Blunt hosts "Missouri Mornings" and Senator McCaskill hosts "Coffee with Claire." Back when I lived in Illinois, Senators Durbin and Kirk honored the long Illinois tradition of hosting a bi-partisan coffee together where they paid for the treats out of their own pockets and took questions at a podium together before doing a double senator photo...which is just about as rare as a double rainbow!

What will happen at the coffee?
The actual format will vary from senator to senator, but it will usually begin with a check in by staff or interns, loading up on snacks and coffee, and milling about with other constituents before the senator arrives. You'll likely be asked to fill out a form with your name and address, the number of people in your party, and a brief description of what you are wearing. The wardrobe question is because you're about to get a professional photo with your senator and they want to make sure they match up the right photo with the right guest. If you're with another family, fill out a form for each one so you each get your own photo and individual time with the senator. Show up early in case there are front row seats or a table where the senator will sit!

For Senator Blunt, we waited in a room in his suite of offices filled with friendly staffers for 15-20 minutes. This is a great chance to find out which one of them actually handles your issue as D.C. aides tend to be specialists. For instance, if you work on U.S. hunger...find out who the agriculture staffer is who works on the farm bill (and, therefore, nutrition programs) and introduce yourself. If you already speak to staffers about your issues regularly on the phone, find them and make sure they know what you look like. Give staffers any hand-outs of statistics or media that support your cause. When it came time to see the senator, only a few people got to speak to him in this setting. It was done one group at a time strictly as a quick photo op. Blunt did not address the group or formally take any questions.

Senator McCaskill's office guided us to a meeting room with a table in the center and many seats around the outside. It quickly became standing room only, so we were happy to be at the table. As people munched on donuts, a staffer led the room in a few rounds of Missouri trivia before handing the podium over to the senator. McCaskill spoke for about 15 minutes on her most pressing issues and then took questions to hear our most pressing issues.

Senators Durbin and Kirk used to have everyone seated in rows in a large room with a microphone and podium. After every question, they would each take a turn answering. It was genuinely heartening to see them answer on issues they both agreed upon and to see them engage in civil, friendly discourse on issues they did not agree on. Not what you see on cable news. Definitely glad we had front row seats for that one!

While you're waiting, you might have time for photo tomfoolery like this panoramic picture my kids took of me waiting in three places at the same time. Does it triple your effectiveness to clone yourself digitally? I guess not, but it was boring in the waiting room after we talked to all the aides we had business with...

How to prepare for your moment with the senator
The best thing you can do is to think of something to thank your senator for and also come up with a VERY BRIEF question for your senator. If you personally really can't stand their politics, you can always thank them for hosting the coffee. After all, they did put a donut in your hand. That's just polite. 
If your senator does a town hall format, this is an opportunity not only to lobby your senator, but to do it publicly in front of all the other constituents. You get to educate a room full of people on your issue and know that your senator's answer will be witnessed by other voters. The best rules of town hall advocacy still apply here...get your hand up first and highest (so you get to speak before time runs out), write your question down on a piece of paper (so you don't ramble nervously), and have a clear "yes or no" question request at the end. Refer to my Advocacy Made Easy: The Town Hall Meeting blog for more details on tips about how to make this work. Both of my daughters got to ask separate questions to McCaskill - one on global education and the other on climate change. 
If there is no Q&A session, you'll either only have a few brief words with the senator as he or she moves through the room or just the time that you will pose for the staff photographer together. Either way, you've gotta be super fast with your request. You probably will only have time for 2 sentences of exchange while you get posed for your photo. For instance, when we saw Senator Blunt just before the vote on the Affordable Health Care repeal, my moment pretty much went like this: "Hi Senator, thanks so much for having us here today and for all your help with global health funding. We spoke with your staff about health care, but I also wanted to tell you in person that I am very concerned about preserving Medicaid. It helps so many people in Missouri, including low-income moms and kids. We'd really like you to vote no on this health care act repeal." Boom. No time for a huge story while lots of other people were in line waiting, but I got out the important stuff and a very clear request. Then, it was up to him to decide how much time to allocate to an answer.

For our double senator meeting in IL back when the girls were tiny, both senators bent down to my kids like they were going to pinch their cheeks or something. The men were very surprised to have the kids thrust a sheaf of papers at them and say those were pictures and letters from their friends back home all asking them to support vaccines to end polio and other disease. Surprise! Little lobbyists! It was fun, funny, and I think it was the best part of everyone's day. 
After the meeting
The senate staff will either let you have your picture also taken on your own camera/phone or will email the picture to you shortly. Either way, you will have a digital copy of your moment. Post the picture on social media letting your followers know what you talked to the senator about and tag the appropriate organizations. Also, specifically tweet your senator thanking them for the opportunity to meet. After all, they are not required to do this at all and plenty of them do not!

The unexpected!
I'm happy to report that we got a fun surprise from Senator McCaskill this year. After she answered my 6th grader's question, she spoke directly to my girl about the importance of encouraging young women to run for office. She invited her to go over to her office and tell the staff there that the senator said it was ok for my girl to go into the private office and have a picture at the senator's desk. She urged her to get a picture "with your feet up on the desk and just get a feel for it." While my very polite 11-year-old declined to do that pose, we had fun seeing the inside of her beautiful, huge, airy, tasteful office and snapping a few photos. Did McCaskill's ploy work? Maybe! At least it convinced her to go big or go home...she said, "If I did want to run for office, I definitely want to be a senator instead of a representative. Their offices are WAY bigger and nicer!" (She's not wrong...)

Have you ever attended a constituent coffee? 
Tell us what it was like in the comment section!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Persistence is the Key to Resistance

Were you at the Women's March with me? Were you one of the millions of women who stood up against the Trump administration to rally for women's rights and health? Did you rally to the Resistance and jam up the phone lines of our members of Congress to demand all the things we were fighting to protect? Well, we're six months away from the beginning of what was a political revolution for many and Women's Health is on the line like never before. So, why are the phone lines open now? Why did 13 male senators feel confident that they could craft our new health care bill without the help of any female colleagues? Why are Republicans comfortable moving ahead with a bill that hurts Medicaid support, which covers 70 million Americans -  including low-income women and babies?

My opinion is that we collectively did exactly what the Trump administration hoped we would. We slacked off after 1/2 a year and accepted a new normal. We were worn down by constant, outrageous CNN alerts and disheartened by a lack of immediate response to our phone calls. We said "I'm utterly burned out" and eased up the pressure. Well, I'm here to say to all of us, with a healthy dose of motherly love...

Suck it up, Buttercup. Get back out there.

There is no Resistance without Persistence
Look, I know this is hard to hear. I've been an advocate taking daily action for people in poverty for over 10 years. I know what it's like to win and I know what it is to lose. What I do know, above all, is that you will never win if you simply stop fighting. There's no other group of millions of American women who are resting in the wings waiting to swoop in like the cavalry when we get tired. It's just us. We can't flame out early. Everyone has to adjust to the new normal of adding advocacy into a regular, routine because changing the government is a marathon, not a sprint. 

Does that sound hard? Does it seem like now is the moment for one of my quippy, but truthful metaphors to help us make a paradigm change in how we think about it, so we can gather ourselves together and fight the good fight? Good. Because I have one... :)

Healthy Bodies and Governments need Regular Care
Think of advocacy like many of the things we women do regularly to stay healthy. Brushing your teeth is easy to do, but it's not as easy to do it every single day of your life. Yet we continue because we want to still have good teeth when we are old! It seems kind of silly as an adult to have to convince someone to brush their teeth every day (much less after every meal), but every mom knows the struggle to convince her children that this is a necessary, daily thing we must do in order to have a healthy mouth. Well, government is kind of like our health, too. If you want a healthy government, you have to take care of it by participating in its care on a regular basis.

Think of these advocacy actions in comparison to common things we women have to do to care for our health:
Calling Congress = Brushing teeth once or more daily 
Writing to Congress =  Exercising 2-3 times a week 
Writing a letter to the editor = Dealing with your monthly menstrual cycle 
Visiting a Congressional Office = Visiting the dentist every 6 months 
Voting = Getting a mammogram every couple years
So, there you have it. Think about it, but don't take too long because we need you RIGHT NOW. Congress is poised to end the Medicaid program as we know it, causing 14 million low-income Americans to lose health coverage. These cuts will be used to give the wealthy and powerful another giant tax cut. We must do all we can to protect Americans on Medicaid. Call your two senators and say, "I'm a constituent and my zipcode is ____. I'm calling on behalf of low-income moms and kids on Medicaid and millions of Americans who stand to lose health insurance if the current version of the bill is passed. I urge you to vote no on this or any bill that would reduce the effectiveness of Medicaid by reducing funding or block granting it. Thank you." Feel free to tell your own story or throw in many of the other things that bother you about this bill, like a rise in cost for people with pre-existing conditions. If you want to do more, check out this link for sample text to help engage others in taking action or to write a letter to the editor of your local paper.

Those phone calls take about the same time as brushing your teeth and they could protect the health of millions. Raise your voice and speak out every day. Because persistence is the key to resistance. 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Advocacy Made Easy: On-line Tools

While you will always hear me singing the praises of actions like sitting down with your members of Congress face to face, I recognize that isn't every mother's cup of tea. What is a busy mom to do? Enter the online tools! I'm alternately a fan and a critic of internet tools that help connect people to elected officials with ease. Despite the "Advocacy Made Easy" name of my blog series of "how-to" posts, the truth is that when it comes to activism, easier doesn't necessarily mean better. Senators and representatives tend to be more influenced by actions that take visible effort on the part of their constituents. I love the on-line tools as an entry point for beginning advocates. I just don't want activists to stop there!

The greatest benefits of these tools can be found in these situations:
  • An issue is moving quickly and needs to reach a lot of advocates fast 
  • A person is so intimidated by other advocacy methods or strapped for time that he/she would not take any action at all without online tools
  • An organization wants to build awareness about an issue
  • An organization wants to build up a database of people who care about the issue
In these circumstances, online advocacy tools are a good thing. However, we should be aware of are limits to the impact of these strategies, so that people who are blessed with more availability take the time to learn more effective ways to raise their voices.

Let's take a look at three of the most common ways to advocate online and explore their pro's and con's...

1. Online Petitions
You've probably see petitions on your friends' Facebook pages. Autofill in your address, click one button, and your done! Here's an example of a recent one. 

So easy! Well, not so fast. I truly believe petition organizations actually do send the petitions in, but I think they have become more of a marketing tool. When the ONE Campaign first started doing these, it was pretty new. Back then, offices really sat up to take notice when an online petition had 100,000 signatures. Now, the internet landscape is pretty flooded and offices know how easy it is and are wise to the reality that people can game the system by making up multiple email addresses. I think the main purpose is really to collect your information, so they can put you in the database for more petitions from their client and/or target you for fundraising asks. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good for groups to find likely advocates and then urge them to take a next step by donating or taking a deeper action later!

Pro-tip: If you decide you want to sign online petitions, give them a different email than your main personal address. You know...the one you give to online stores and political candidates, so you won't see all their junk mail? You may well want that future information, but I'd rather have it in a different account to check at my leisure instead of having my personal inbox flooded. 

2. Resistbot
This free tool has been getting a lot of attention this year. With a promise to help you "write Congress in under 2 minutes," this app is engineered to be an easy, daily method for a texting generation to communicate with your U.S. senators. Once you sign up at the Resistbot website, you can use your phone texting function to type "resist" and send it to 50409. A friendly, automated bot will ask for your name and zip code. The zip code is used to determine who your public officials are. Then, just type in your message. The automated system will then fax your message to your U.S. senators. I used Facebook messenger for this exchange to send in a message about Medicaid. 

Cool!! And yet...this is not without it's limitations. Until you stick with the app long enough to unlock functions like mailing a physical letter to Congress, you're stuck with faxing. Offices are quite savvy and know they can defeat the bot by 1) changing their fax number or 2) simply turning off the machine. 
Guess which of my senators is the biggest target for 
Resistbot and chose to unplug!

Then, once you unlock the mailing app, that brings us to the next kind of tool...

3. Web Generated Emails
The upside is that you can comfortably type away at your keyboard. You can copy and paste your talking points from a different website. You don't even have to use postage! I recommend this to my elderly advocates who find it physically painful to actually handwrite many letters. Here's an example of one from the CARE website.
A customized, personal email is pretty good way to get to your member of Congress quickly. The problem comes up if you don't change the language and it reads exactly like all the other emails that were automatically generated. Offices know that this kind of action is pretty easy to do AND that it is easy for them to automatically sort them and send you an automatically generated response. Your opinion does get tallied with others, but it's kind of like robots talking to each other. You will have more impact if you re-write the sample e-mail in your own voice, hit print, and then mail your messages to the local district office of your member of Congress. (Don't send it to Washington D.C. where it will get held up for weeks as it's screened for Anthrax) Then, an actual human will have to open your letter, read it, and forward it to another human who has to respond to it. The more human power they have to put into it, the more they take notice of it because it takes staff away from other priorities. 

Also, it may sound odd in this era of keyboarding and poor handwriting, but it really is even better if you can handwrite your letter and mail it. Staffers report that members are more moved by a handwritten letter because they know you cared enough to take the time to write each word instead of cutting and pasting. It's a connection to the human on the other side. Sometimes, my young grade-school advocates (and one highly creative adult!) will even use markers and pretty pens to make their letters stand out. I think that's all kinds of awesome!

4. Online "Letter to the Editor" Tools 
This is my FAVORITE kind of online action! Letters to the editor in your local paper are great advocacy tools because it shows the member of Congress that your community is talking about your issue publicly. Your letter goes out to thousands of people at once via local media! In addition, you can have friends and neighbors print out the letter and mail it to your member of Congress saying that they read it and agree with you. However, most people don't take this action because it's pretty daunting to come up with a succinct description of your issue in less than 200 words. A tool like this gives you a nice template that you can customize and send in to your paper directly from the website. How cool is that! 

Here's an example from www.RESULTS.org about U.S. health care...

Just be sure to rephrase things in your own voice and don't just copy it word for word. If more than a few people submit a letter an editor can recognized as copied, you run the risk of not being published and having a bad reputation at your paper.

Are these on-line tools better than nothing? Yes! But remember, Congressional offices are run by smart people and they are understand about easy shortcuts. The more effort you put into an advocacy action, the more they can see you care and the more impact it will have on your member of Congress. Here's a handy chart of responses from Congressional staffers and members of Congress about which actions have more influence on them if the member has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue. As you can see, an in-person visit from constituents is the gold standard. It's the hardest to do and has the most influence!

NOTHING takes the place of a human to human interaction. If they hear your voice or look at your handwritten words, staffers know that you took the time to do it yourself. You are not an online "bot." They have to take the time to listen or read. By all means, use easy online tools, but don't just pat yourself on the back thinking your work is done for the day. 

I firmly believe that some offices rely on constituents who oppose them just getting bored of calling or writing every day. Don't let them be right. 

So, make the online tools an "and," not an "or." Look into your children's eyes, remember what it is you're fighting for, and recommit yourself to making a phone call or writing a real letter every day. You wouldn't trust their care-taking to a bot, would you? So, don't trust their future to one either.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What Does "Next Year in Jerusalem" Mean for Me?

Every year, it is my honor to help my husband prepare and host a Passover Seder at our home. We invite my in-laws to observe the traditions of his family that have been kept for generations long before us. We come together to re-tell the Passover - the exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt - to pass down the story of deliverance from generation to generation. The Seder is both a feast celebration and a solemn worship service laden with rich symbolism. The setting in a Jewish home instead of a public house of worship is particularly appealing to me as I see how much it means to my in-laws to gather in a familiar context that slightly changes every year as children grow, new recipes are discovered, and roles swap hands. 

I must admit, as a Christian who has married into this tradition, there is one part of the Seder script that has always left me wondering what meaning I can find in it for myself. At the end of the worship service, all join in saying "Next year in Jerusalem!" This puzzled me because, frankly, nobody at our table is planning to literally pack up this whole family show and cook a big meal in Jerusalem next year. I was never really sure what this phrase might mean for me...someone with a biological ancestry tracing back through many countries, but not through Isreal. Christians do share a love for the Holy Land, but not many of us are buying tickets to go there.

Khalid Alibaih, an artist from Doha, drew sketches
of Allan Kurdi and Omran Daqneesh and posted them
on Twitter
This year, however, with desperate news coming out of Syria and the largest number of refugees in existence since World War II, we began to think more carefully about the Passover story and what it meant for a whole people to leave Egypt and oppression all at once. What does a celebration for the deliverance of the Hebrew people mean in the context of a world where the American president is trying to ban refugees of a certain religion from entering our borders? What should we be thinking of during this feast day of plenty when thousands starve aboard uncertain little boats, trying to flee chemical gas attacks? 
"What should we be thinking of during this feast day of plenty when thousands starve aboard uncertain little boats, trying to flee chemical gas attacks?"
With heavy hearts yearning for meaning and inspiration, we added a section to our family's haggadah (service script) to include excerpts from an addition that can be found in a post called Next Year in Jerusalem at Haggadot.com If you host next year (in Jerusalem or otherwise), please consider adding something similar. If not, please reflect on the words and consider how you might commit yourself to refugees living without safety or basic needs. 

"At the beginning of our Passover Seder, we are commanded to consider ourselves as though we, too, had gone out from Egypt. At the end of the seder, we say the words, "Next year in Jerusalem" to recognize that, just as redemption came for our ancestors, so, too, will redemption come for us in this generation. For those of us fortunate enough to have a roof over our heads, we may understand these words to mean that the parts of us that feel adrift will find steady footing. However, for the world's 65 million displaced people and refugees, these words can be a literal message of hope that they will be able to rebuild their lives in a safe place.

Tonight, we honor the strength and resilience of refugees across the globe. We commit ourselves to ensuring that out country remains open to them, to supporting them as they rebuild their lives, and to championing their right for protection. Just as our own people now eat the bread of liberation, we pray that today's refugees will fulfill their dreams of rebuilding their lives in safety and freedom in the year to come.

Blessed are all those who yearn to be free.

Blessed are we who commit ourselves to their freedom.

Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, source of strength and liberation."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Strategic Acts of Kindness

Last week was “Random Acts of Kindness Week,” a time to encourage people to make life more pleasant for everyone. Organizers at randomactsofkindness.org encouraged actions like leaving positive notes around town and feeding meters for strangers. I would never argue with that notion. The world needs more kindness! But now that the week for random acts is over, I think it’s time to also embrace “strategic acts of kindness.”

Random acts of hatred have risen dramatically in the United States. Our country has seen repeated damage to Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats to Jewish community centers. The highest office of the U.S. has issued unconstitutional travel bans targeting Muslims. People of all kinds of skin tones other than the old Crayola crayon "flesh" color are shouted at to "Go home!" when they've lived in the U.S. their whole lives. Racism, sexism, and xenophobia are becoming increasingly normalized in political discussions and in everyday conversations. 

In the face of such a disturbing reality, we must take powerful actions to protect those who suffer disproportionately in this world because of religion, race, gender, or any number of factors. People of every political stripe are waking up and wanting to have a voice in the direction our country is heading. However, many regular folks don’t have the first idea about how to reach our nation’s decision makers.

That’s where strategic acts of kindness come in. In my former career as an engineer, I found random actions led to random results. Intentional strategy is needed to combat random acts of hatred or – even worse – systematic acts of oppression in our country and around the world.

Bread for the World volunteers handwrite letters to Congress
at church after a Sunday worship service.
What could this sort of organized love look like? Setting aside time each day to call members of Congress to voice your opinion. Holding a meeting with friends to write letters to elected officials. Submitting a letter to the editor. Sitting down with a senator or representative face to face to voice your opinion with respect. In fact, these are the very actions that U.S. representatives and senators consistently report as the most influential ways a constituent can sway their opinion.

If you don’t know how to do these things right now, that’s not a problem. Before I learned how to raise my voice, I was a stay-at-home mom who didn’t even know the names of my senators. I only knew that my community and my world allowed babies in poverty to suffer from poor health and I wanted to help. By getting involved with reputable advocacy organizations like RESULTS, I was able to receive training, support, and inspiration to become a skilled advocate. In time, I learned to effectively advise policy makers, guiding them towards decisions that improve access to education, health, and economic opportunity.

Richard Smiley and I meet with Senator Durbin about
microfinance to help the poorest families of the world.
What could we accomplish together if we could channel outrage and dissent into deliberate actions to change the future in positive ways? The possibilities are endless. Look at the massive problem of global poverty, widely regarded as unsolvable. Years of coordinated volunteer advocacy have pressured the U.S. to partner with other countries on global health, nutrition, and education programs. Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has been cut by more than half! With enough engaged citizens creating the political will to stand up for ourselves and people in need, there is no limit to the good we could do.

It is critical that we empower ourselves with the skills needed to speak out to the presidential administration and our members of Congress. Compassionate civic engagement is what our situation demands of us today. Together, we can navigate the combative ugliness of our time by rising above it. It’s time to move beyond the random. We can shape the future by committing to strategic acts of kindness.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Gaining Inspiration from #Malala

Today, I'm honored to post the writing of a guest blogger, Shruti, a good friend of my daughter. She wrote the following piece about Malala Yousafzai for her 7th grade class. I was moved by her last paragraph about how she has been inspired by Malala to help girls around the world to access education. She told me about her family trip to India, where she got to visit a school for girls who had previously been denied education by their families. Even though their families did not put value on education for girls, their community came together to create the school and put pressure on the their parents to let them come.

Shruti and the members of RESULTS St Louis visiting
the aide of U.S. Representative Ann Wagner
Shruti got a chance hear firsthand about how the students felt about their new opportunities. One student still cries every morning when she arrives because she is so grateful to be getting the education she thought was out of her reach. Another girl used to actually dream at night about how it would feel to hold a pencil in her hand...she never thought she would have that chance in real life! I was so moved by these stories that I asked her to tell these stories to an aide in the office of our U.S. representative. I'm so happy she came with our RESULTS group to speak out. She bravely told her story with sincerity and passion, helping us make the case for why we want our U.S. representative to fund the Global Partnership for Education at a level of $125 Million for fiscal year 2018.

To learn more about the value of educating girls and the life of Malala, please enjoy Shruti's essay...

A Girl With Knowledge : A Girl with Power

by Shruti, 7th grade
With every extra year of quality education, a girl earns 20% more as an adult. There are millions of girls around the world who don’t get to learn to read or write because they are forced to work around the house and get married early. Many others simply can’t afford school because of war or poverty in their countries. A few years ago, a young girl named Malala Yousafzai began working towards providing girls around the world with quality education..

Speaking Out

In 2009, Malala had started writing a blog for the BBC Urdu service under a pseudonym. Most of her blog posts were about Malala’s opinion of the Taliban banning girls from going to school and destroying school buildings. A few months afterwards, she was featured in a New York Times documentary, and was revealed as the author of the BBC blog.


Malala, and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, began receiving death threats from the Taliban. Two years later, in 2011, Malala received Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. Seeing her progress and recognizing the fact that Malala was gaining popularity, the Taliban  leaders  decided  to  kill her.  


On October 9, 2012, young education activist Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for speaking out about girls’ right to education, while she rode her bus back home from school.
When Malala was shot, people all around the world rose to her defense, and began rallying for girls’ education with more enthusiasm than had ever been witnessed for this cause.

Sticking With Her Dream

Flash forward to early 2013 — Malala gave her first speech after recovery at the UN. Even after being shot, and going through a long recovery, Malala said that “Education is the only solution. Education First.”  Recently, on her eighteenth birthday, Malala opened a school in Lebanon for Syrian refugee girls.

How Many Girls Don’t Receive The Education They Need?

As stated on the Malala Fund website, 32 million girls eligible for elementary through middle school are still out of school around the world. School enrollment rates for girls have improved over the past ten years, yet more than 30 million girls between ages 9 and 15 are still out of school today. Most of them will never enter a classroom.
Another 98 million girls are missing out on secondary education. Millions more are missing out on the final years of secondary schooling but are not being counted. Girls are often under pressure to drop out of school, even if they have completed basic education.

The Benefits of A Quality Education

According to “Girls' education: A lifeline to development” found on UNICEF’s website, studies from a number of countries suggest that an additional year of schooling would increase a woman's future salary by about 15 %, compared with 11 % for a man.
Educated girls are more likely to avoid getting married as a child, and usually have fewer children than girls who don’t have access to education.

How Many Have We Actually Helped?

According to Dr. Geeta Rao Gupta, former president of the International Centre for Research on Women, the education target has made an important difference in the lives of girls and women.
“Action and investments of dollars into women’s constraints and needs has increased. And that has resulted in some progress.” said Dr. Rao Gupta.invest-in-girls-info-5232014.png
“The girls who are left behind are the ones who are most in need – and these are poor girls, those who belong to minority populations within their countries and those who live in rural areas,” Dr. Rao Gupta added. “Unfortunately, they are the ones who still have not received the benefits of the various investments made in most countries around the world.”

What Can We Do To Help?

Even a small contribution would help us reach the point where every girl has access to good education. Hosting small fundraisers, donating towards the cause, or even rallying for it are ways that would be beneficial. Many non-profit organizations write letters to the governments of multiple developed countries, asking them to step in and try to improve the accessibility to education for girls around the world. Together, we can achieve our goal of providing every girl with a quality education.
                 We are so fortunate to receive education and get a chance to make our own future. Many children around the world never get that chance. I think about all those times I have complained about homework assignments. I think of all those times I have whined about studying for a test. And I realize what an important opportunity I have — I can work towards going to my dream college and I have a job I have always thought about having. After writing this article and reading about girls all around the world who dream of holding a pencil and a notebook, I know for sure that I will never forget to appreciate my education and will try my best to contribute towards girls’ education.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Anti-Poverty Mom Reads "Whoever You Are"

This is what the book would look like if you were
little and sitting on my lap.
The book "Whoever You Are" by Mem Fox has been on my mind lately and I want everyone to know about it. I don't have any pre-schoolers anymore, but this was always my Go-To book when I was asked to talk to tiny children about global poverty. It paints a universal picture of childhood while acknowledging the differences in the lives we live all over the world.

I believe that before we can tell them about how they are different from kids who don't have the basic resources they need to grow and thrive, we should tell them how we are the same. That is the way we will build empathy and caring in our youngest readers.

Mem Fox knows this well. She is a 70-year-old Australian writer of children's books and the author of some of our favorites in this house. "Time for Bed" was a staple for us. It was THE book that could get my babies to sleep on planes! A particularly popular one of hers (and one of Austrailia's official gifts to Prince George) is "Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes." She is a literacy specialist and has said about literacy: "Literacy has become the great focus of my life - it's my passion, my battle and my mission and my exhaustion." 

Fox was in the news recently because of an unfortunate recent incident in the in immigration line at the Los Angeles airport. She was detained and interrogated along with several other women. They shared the same room and were shouted at in a de-humanizing fashion for over an hour. The irony of the author of "Whoever You Are" having to endure this is almost too much for me to bear.

With all of this on my mind, I decided to record the first of what might become a series of readings. I want to spread the word about great books we can read to small ones to build big hearts. I want to model how parents should read to children: slowly, with loving expressions, showing the pictures, asking questions, with eye contact, with emotion and humor, etc.  Maybe I just miss reading to kids now? Or maybe I'm leaving a record of a memory for my own kids for when I'm not with them or they feel little enough for a story, but too big to ask for one.

So, here I am reading "Whoever You Are" by Mem Fox...

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Never Turn Down A Meeting With An Aide

My last meeting with an aide I with whom I had
lobbied for about 5 years. Then, I moved
and he changed jobs. Miss you, Dave!
There has been a lot of fuss lately over the inability of constituents to get face time with federal members of Congress (let's call them MOC's for short) and irritation at being passed off to talk to aides. As a long-time activist, I understand this frustration. When We the People have something to say about abuses of justice and rights, we want to see the person in charge...and we want to see him or her RIGHT NOW. We're Americans. It's what we do. 

At the same time, I sigh inwardly when novice activists demand our outrage because they walked into the local office (unannounced) and couldn't see their U.S. representative (who wasn't on the premises). In politics, there are lots of things to be outraged about, but if you want to increase your chances of changing an MOC's mind and gaining them as an ally, it's important to know what's realistic to expect from a congressional office.

When volunteer advocates first start out, we can get fired up with entitlement knowing Congress works for us and is paid by us. This is true. But it's also true that they have many demands on their time. Even with the most constituent-friendly representatives who like your issue, you probably won't get to meet with them more than twice a year, it generally takes several months to line up an in-person meeting, and it's easier to get a face-to-face meeting with them in Washington D.C...although it will usually only be about 15-20 minutes long. Senators are even harder to see.

I'd like share some basic truths I've seen about lobbying and life:
  • Like when you seek out your professor, your member of Congress is not sitting at her desk simply waiting to talk to you without an appointment.
  • Like when you take your kid to the orthodontist, if you show up 15 late to an appointment, you probably missed it entirely. 
  • Like when you take preschoolers to visit the firemen, your meeting might have to be delayed because of sudden, serious matters that you really do want him to attend and you may never get to know what that reason was.
  • Like when you need to talk to the PTO mom you snubbed at the potluck, your request for a meeting is not going to be top of her list if you've shown her public disrespect.
So, if there are understandable, human reasons that your member of Congress can't see you quickly, how can we still have our voices heard?

Enter the person with a reasonable compromise: The Congressional Aide.

I'm only including this meeting pic with Senator Blunt's aide
because President Truman's old office is so pretty and
my daughter's photo bomb is so funny!
NEVER turn down a meeting with an aide. Even though you might have the impression that they are just an "assistant," they can actually have more sway over your issues than most people think. I've now met more aides than I can count or even remember names for. Some have been joys to work with...others, less so. But I have found all of them - Republicans and Democrats - to be respectful, professional, and courteous when we offered them respect, professionalism, and courtesy ourselves.

An aide's job is to represent the senator or representative and hear your concerns when the boss is not available (which is most of the time). The role they play in your meeting will depend on their own years of experience in the office, their job description, and how much their boss trusts them. 
Pro tip: Yams on the table make a welcome addition to any
meeting about nutrition. 

What roles can aides play in your meeting?

They can be messengers: This is pretty much always the case. If they are taking a scheduled meeting with you, their job is to listen to your concerns and pass them on to the MOC with their recommendations. 

They can be issue experts: Most aides - especially in DC offices - have a particular job responsibility and therefore know more about issues that fall in that scope. I've known aides that have covered education issues their whole career and those that specialize in foreign affairs. Aides in the local district offices tend to be more "jacks of all trades" because the local offices are smaller, but I even know one local aide who is the point person for all her boss' activities in opposing sex trafficking within U.S. borders...that's pretty specific! Anyway, you want to make sure that you request to talk to the correct aide for your issue and be aware you might be talking to someone with deep knowledge of your topic.

They can be gatekeepers: They have quite a bit of influence with the scheduler in deciding who gets face time with the MOC or not. Sometimes this depends on your issue, but I really do think it has a lot to do with whether you present yourself as a rational human being or not. If you show up yelling curse words or wearing a chicken costume or something else meant to shame the office, you probably just blew your chance to have a productive back and forth conversation with your senator.
Building a relationship with Senator Durbin's aide (right) got
Richard Smiley and I tickets to a Congressional Gold Medal
ceremony for Muhammad Yunus because he knew our names
& that we supported microcredit lending.

They can be your champion: Here's a secret....aides don't always agree with their bosses on everything! I once worked for two years talking to a polite, but disinterested aide trying to get a certain Congressman to do anything at all on global poverty. Then, one day, that aide wasn't available and we ended up talking to his press secretary. I could've chosen to be offended and turn down the meeting, but I went in with my group and pitched our bill anyway. Turns out this aide was a young woman from a family who had adopted a family from Somalia. She showed us pictures of her Somalian siblings standing up at her wedding. She knew better than we did what the devastating affects of extreme poverty were to individuals. So, even though she wasn't the official issue expert, she presented our message to her boss and convinced him not only to sign the bill, but to publish an opinion piece in our local newspaper about it...one that I have no doubt that she wrote for him. And next time we asked for a face-to-face meeting? We got it.

Not only does this Chief of Staff have the authority
make decisions in the Congresswoman's absence, she
was willing to give my volunteers a tour of her super-full 
in-box & email to show why it's important we 
keep in touch with staffers regularly. 

They can be decision makers: Three times I have been surprised that I was sitting with aides who were actually empowered to grant my request WITHOUT consulting the member of Congress first. Holy cow. That's enough to make me treat everyone that way just in case! Aides who can do this are usually 1) Issue experts who know the MOC's position so well that they can anticipate which bills their boss will want to sign 2) Chiefs of Staff who take your meeting because they are interested in your issue or happen to be filling in for more junior aides for whatever reason.

They are ALWAYS human: They are always human beings worthy of your respect. Yes, they are paid by our taxes, but they're still people just doing their jobs. It is always worth taking the time to ask her what brought her to this line of work or ask how his day is going. They are often also constituents or former residents of your state, so it rarely takes very much small talk to find something you have in common. They are never deserving of unsolicited curse words and personal attacks. They don't have to be your best friend, but cultivating a friendly relationship with an aide might be the best thing you can do for your cause.

So, to recap...
What an aide can be: 
Messenger, Issue expert, Gatekeeper, Your Champion, Decision Maker, Human

What an aide isn't: 
Your Punching Bag

Do you have a story about how working with an aide created a positive outcome with you member of Congress?