Monday, November 11, 2019

How Can We Do More for Veterans?

Today, I read a Newsweek article about how almost half of our veterans feel uncomfortable with the convention of people saying, "Thank you for your service." Some cited that they simply felt awkward with the platitude and didn't know what to say back and others would prefer that we civilians try to connect on a more personal level. For instance, we could ask them more about their time in the military. This is all good to think about and made me wonder about the veterans that we are failing. How do struggling veterans feel when we say thanks, but then don't act to help them out of systems that don't give them what they need?

I'm not an expert on veteran affairs, but I do know that 1.5 million veterans live in households that completely rely on SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) to keep themselves and their families fed. 

Additionally, the US Housing & Urban Development reported that about 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Why are so many veterans homeless? In addition to factors that affect all Americans in poverty (shortage of affordable housing and livable income), veterans are a group that disproportionately have to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. Because many have faced dangers to secure our freedoms, they are now at risk for these problems...sometimes without access to health care or family support others might have. 

So, how do we go beyond posting memes and saying "Thank you for your service" on this Veterans' Day? Here are some suggestions from me. I'd love to hear more ideas from you in the comment section! I especially invite comments from those who have served so that the rest of us can learn.
  • Ask a veteran about where and how they served. Then, listen!
  • Urge your members of Congress to fully support SNAP benefits and protect it from the Administration's repeated attempts to cut back
  • Donate to Feed Our Vets, food pantries providing regular, free food to veterans & their families
  • Urge Congress to adopt a Renters Tax Credit to keep veterans and other Americans in their homes. Here's a link to help you call Congress. (It's the last action on the page about Housing)
  • Donate to the Wounded Warrior Project. Among it's valuable programs, it has services for mental wellness, physical wellness, and career and VA benefits counseling.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Girls Need Gender Equity. Period.

UPDATE: Only ONE day after I published this post, a Kenyan school girl committed suicide after being shamed by her teacher for having her period and nothing to prevent her from bleeding on her clothes. In 2017, Kenya passed a law requiring free sanitary towels for schoolgirls. Yet a teacher shamed her by calling her "dirty" and told her to leave the classroom to stand outside. Later that day when she went to fetch water (a backbreaking chore many African girls are expected to do daily), she took her own life. This issue is deadly serious.

Let's talk about something so normal, so commonplace that everything about it should be common knowledge...but isn't. I'm talking about menstruation. Periods. Are you still with me? I hope so. Because if you're a guy who doesn't know that much about it, that puts you in a dangerous position as a voter! Even if you're a woman who has to deal with it every month, there are probably some aspects about it for women and girls in poverty that you might not have considered. Access to menstrual hygiene products are a matter of gender equity and human dignity.

Good on ya', Cameron!
Because I'm a mom of a couple of teenage girls now, I've been thinking lately about how much unnecessary struggle could be eliminated if there weren't such a stigma around discussing periods. Adolescent girls caught unawares wouldn't have to sneak around at school asking to borrow a pad like they're begging for contraband drugs. This embarrassment adds anxiety to all sorts of life situations. Perhaps some folks remember what happened when Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland tried to make their school safer from gun violence by mandating all students use clear backpacks. Many of the girls were mortified that their feminine hygiene products would be on full display, so in a display of strong ally-ship, student Cameron Kasky went viral by putting a box of tampons in HIS backpack to help the girls not feel so singled out.

Don't be uninformed like Ryan.
Read this blog or go to a health class.
In general, we should all be making life for menstruators easier by treating it as the mundane occurrence it is and making sure everyone knows the basics of menstrual health.  For approximately one week, a menstruating person (using the word "person" here to acknowledge that some trans men and non-binary people do have periods) is going to need a change of pad or tampon every couple of hours to absorb involuntary bleeding of the uterus lining through the vagina. (That sentence was put in there just to get everyone up to speed lest we have anyone like poor Ryan Willams who went viral for ignorantly tweeting that a woman should "control ur bladder") It's happening all around us all of the time! 

Now, let's look at three instances where U.S. policy affects women and girls already living in poverty and distress. 

American Women and Girls in Poverty
"Period poverty" is what happens when someone literally cannot afford period products because of lack of income. It's all too common in the U.S. because SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits cannot be used for pads or tampons. A report published by Obstetrics and Gynecology found that of the low-income women surveyed here in St. Louis, sixty-four percent were not able to afford needed period products in the past year. Twenty percent of those women faced that problem every month.  Almost every woman knows what it's like to be caught off guard and have to just use some toilet paper or kleenex or whatever is on hand to not bleed through clothes. Yet not all of us have to face that every single month. Girls at school can go to the nurse, but as the lovely young lady in this video from United for Access explains, sometimes the nurse's office is crowded and she feels very embarrassed to ask. Every month, she has to be embarrassed about her poverty and her body. That takes a serious toll on a young woman developing her identity and self-worth.

These are the kinds of things lawmakers (who, let's face it, are mostly still men) should consider when they consider the unfair, but commonplace taxing of menstrual hygiene products. Most states tax them because they are seen as "non-essential items." Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Florida have all outlawed the "tampon tax."

WHAT CAN WE DO? Here in St. Louis, we can donate to St. Louis Alliance for Period Supplies. It's an initiative of the St Louis Area Diaper Bank. See if there is something like that you can support in your own community. Or, you can be like the science teachers in my kids school: For a while there were baskets in the restrooms near the science classrooms filled with period products they bought with their own money with a sign that said "Free. From the Women of Science." Gadzooks, I love those women. Also, if your state still has a tampon tax, you can contact your state senator and representative and ask them to repeal the tax on feminine hygiene products.

Global Girls Education
The affects of period poverty are even more dire in areas of extreme poverty around the world. Thankfully, the academy award winning documentary "Period. End of Sentence." has helped bring awareness to the issue, but that film is only a small part of the solution. When communities of extreme poverty have a cultural bias against sending girls to school (because they are expected to watch younger siblings, fetch water, or get married), it's common for schools not to have appropriate washrooms or sanitary supplies. Girls find it easier to stay home than to face the shame and stigma of people knowing that they are on their period. Some NGO's have focused on these needs, knowing when an average of 8 out of every 30 days in a month have to be missed, girls are likely to drop out of school entirely. Dignity Period is a St. Louis non-profit that helps distribute pads to girls and women in areas of Ethiopia where even talking about menstruation is taboo.

WHAT CAN WE DO? Donations to Dignity Period or other organizations like it are always welcome. You can also contact your U.S. senators to ask them to sign onto the "Keeping Girls in School Act." It does many things to address barriers to education outlined here in this Borgen Project blog post and one of the things specifically mentioned is the "inadequate sanitation facilities and products 23 available at secondary schools."

Women in Detention
It has long been a complaint that women in prison can be subjected to inhumane treatment when they are denied feminine hygiene products. In several states, lawsuits have been brought against states where period products were withheld. At best, prisoners had to re-use pads or wad up toilet paper to use. At worst, as in Alabama, female prisoners were required to trade for tampons and pads with sex acts performed on guards. The abuses in human rights surrounding period products continue to be in the news surrounding our immigration detention centers where some young migrant girls are only allowed one pad or tampon per day. The emotional indignity of wearing smelly, soiled clothes while being denied showers combined with the health dangers of such neglect constitutes circumstances that appalled United Nations Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet.

WHAT CAN WE DO? The state prison situation will vary by state, but the immigration detention centers are a federal issue. Contact your U.S. representative and your senators by phone or letter to tell them that you think the situation is inhumane and that they cannot hold families in such conditions indefinitely.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Why is TB Testing So Difficult in Children?

Have you ever had your child tested for tuberculosis (TB)? It's not required in all American school districts, but in our school it's required of all 8th graders before they head off to service projects in the fall. Chances are you might have had this done if you are in a caregiving profession like daycare or occupational therapy. Whenever I hear Americans surprised that tuberculosis still even exists, it's further evidence to me that my global advocacy work on tuberculosis treatment and prevention is still needed. This bacterial infection is still found in EVERY country in the world and it is the leading infectious cause of death worldwide. TB sickens 10.4 million people a year and kills 1.7 million of them. Since 2015, it has been the leading global infectious disease killer, surpassing even HIV/AIDS! Tuberculosis is a global pandemic that kills one person about every 18 seconds, according to TB Alliance

Happily, TB is treatable and - in almost all cases - curable. Yet at the RESULTS International Conference for the past two years, I've been hearing about how the main problems with the fight against TB have to do with lack of advances in methods of treatment as well as diagnostics. With a highly infectious airborne disease like TB, diagnosis is of critical importance. If you can't find it, you can't fight it. We're failing to deliver quality treatment to 40% of people in the world who are sick with TB. And who is bearing the biggest burden of this failure? Children. 

Dr. Jeffrey Starke, director of Children's Tuberculosis Clinic at Texas Children's Hospital, told Infectious Diseases in Children, "Children are the most neglected group of individuals regarding controlling TB." Today, 90% of children with TB go untreated. Combine that with the fact that children usually respond very well to TB treatment, even for drug-resistant TB, and that tells me that a lot of kids could be saved if we could better diagnose them. 

My question of the day is: "Why is it so hard to accurately test kids with TB?"

First, let's be clear about two kinds of TB since each requires a different test. There is TB infection, which is when someone has inhaled the bacteria and the body contains the infection in the lungs. At that stage it is serious and requires a course of preventive antibiotics, but it is NOT ACTIVE and it is NOT CONTAGIOUS. Then, there is the active form when the relatively dormant infection becomes TB disease. Active TB, usually found in the lungs, is life-threatening and must be treated with antibiotics. When occurring in the lungs, it can be spread through coughing, though once a patient is on effective treatment they quickly become non-infectious. 

In the US, 9105 people developed the disease in 2017 and another 13 million have the infection according to the CDC. According to an estimate published in the Lancet in 2019, more than 30,000 people in the US have a form of TB infection that is multi-drug resistant. 

Clinical Exams
Let's start with the simple clinical examinations. Most people associate tuberculosis with a persistent cough, but for kids a cough is not a prominent way TB presents. Adults can describe other symptoms like night sweats, and weight loss, but tiny kids might not be as verbal about such things. If an x-ray machine is available, the disease will show up there for adults. But children don't usually get cavities in their lungs that would indicate the presence of TB. That makes it harder, but not impossible, to make an accurate diagnosis.

Good news! No bump.
My daughter doesn't have TB!
PPD Injection Test
Now let's look at the injection test that my child just had. In the U.S., we have a standard purified protein derivative (PPD) test that is given to both kids and adults. A small shot of PPD is administered just under the top layer of skin, which will cause a small bump to form. After 2 days, a medical professional needs to check to see that the bump disappeared to indicate the patient doesn't have TB. There are a few problems with this.
  1. The test takes 2 days for a result, so that is obviously inconvenient.
  2. Many kids in developing countries get a BCG vaccine, which helps prevent some forms of childhood tuberculosis and would test positive. That would be a false positive, however, since it would not indicate TB infection. 

Hold up right there. A TB vaccine? Why doesn't everyone use that? Because the BCG vaccine isn't a reliable way to prevent kids from being infected with TB or developing TB disease. It does protect younger children against certain complicated and lethal forms of TB, but the efficacy varies and it does not protect against TB disease in the lungs, which is the most common form. So, it's better than nothing in countries with a high TB burden, but it screws up PPD test results.

Ok, so that PPD test doesn't work for a lot of situations. What's next?

IGRA Blood Test
The best alternative to the PPD skin test is a blood test for infection called IGRA. This is a rapid test and will not be affected by BCG, but it is more expensive than PPD and so it is not available everywhere.

Sputum Test
The usual method for diagnosing active TB disease is to test sputum, a mixture of saliva and mucus coughed up from the respiratory tract. One problem with this method is that is that it's hard for little kids to cough up the sputum. But you can get a sample from the stomach because children often swallow the sputum. You can also find TB germs sometimes in spinal fluid or lymph nodes, but those samples aren't super easy to collect. A low-tech way to test the sputum is to look at it under a microscope, but those tricky kids tend to have fewer bacteria and the TB might not be detectable that way. Only 1 in 3 children with TB test actually positive with a sputum test.

If a community is lucky, they can test using a GeneXpert system that can rapidly detect TB and whether it's a drug-resistant strain in under two hours. Wow! No wonder this was heralded as a breakthrough tool. It's still a relatively new tool as it was launched in 2010. It takes a while for something like GeneXpert to get to underfunded medical facilities in communities of extreme poverty. The commonly used system costs about US$17,000, not to mention a widely varying installation cost of US$2600-7000. So, "wow" indeed. I can see why everyone doesn't have one yet. 

So, now you and I both know a bit more about TB testing. Probably the main reason testing is so difficult for both the infection and the disease is that very little money has been put into the research and development of new tests, particularly ones that are work for kids. TB is vast problem and this is one of the many reasons why we need a spirit of global cooperation among governments to tackle this disease the way we fight HIV/AIDS and polio. The best thing that you and I can do about TB right now is to call our senators right now and ask them:

"Would you support U.S. efforts to control and treat TB and drug-resistant TB? I'd like to senator to sign onto the Stop TB Now Act, which has the number S. 2438.  It updates old and, in some cases, obsolete instructions to USAID about how to end TB. It imposes new requirements, including a full program evaluation and better coordination."

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Soap Brings Health and Dignity

As the school year begins, moms are running around trying to make sure that everyone has everything they need to start the school year off right. Teachers need kleenex and Clorox wipes for the classroom, high schoolers need whatever the heck binder types the teacher asked for, the Starbucks donation box needs some more backpacks for kids who don't have one. But another mundane, yet oh-so-necessary item is on my mind: Soap.
Soap is one of those things you don't think about much until you don't have it. Soap protects us all from getting sick and spreading illness to others, so everyone can keep going to school and work. It keeps our skin clear (or clearer anyway). It keeps us from being smelly so other people don't shy away from us because of our body odor. When you add those all up, soap gives us dignity.
Soap is also one of the very necessary items that you cannot buy with food stamps along with toilet paper, laundry detergent, shampoo, deodorant, feminine hygiene products and diapers. If you're having trouble imagining what it feels like to live without those things check out Pamela Covington's book "A Day at the Fare" that I reviewed this summer. 
Everyone needs to be clean and on my mind especially are the kids sitting alone in schools across America with so many problems that a lack of soap might not even make the top five. There are lots of reasons why kids might be ostracized by peers, but one very real and very fixable reason can be body odor. Now, I KNOW I'm not alone in the world of moms in having had to find ways to try to convince adolescent kids that they stink when they don't shower. It's so common among pre-teens to genuinely not know why people don't want to sit near them when they're fouling the air around them. It's painful to consider that a simple lack of soap is adding to the social isolation of kids in poverty. 
Thank goodness that in St Louis, we have Circle of Concern. The text on their website reads: "Feeding families is just the beginning." Their food pantry provides fresh, nutritious food for over 600 families each month that reside in the Parkway, Rockwood and Valley Park school districts of Greater St Louis. Circle of Concern has a limited supply of personal care items and is currently in need of soap.
Wherever you are when you're reading this, please consider making a donation of soap and care products to a facility like Circle of Concern. It's not only a gift of health, but a gift of dignity.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Add Acts to your Thought and Prayers

I used to have a lot of time to think when I had only one baby and no job. I used to pray a lot about the things that really worried or scared me the most. I still pray. I still think. But now I also act.

This morning, I read an op-ed from Dana Milbank of the Washington Post called "Republicans' thoughts and prayers have become cruel joke." He's talking about the roll call of empty tweets from lawmakers professing to care a lot about the victims of gun violence in the midst of their inaction. It's easy for me to also cast an accusing finger at members of Congress for their neglect and inaction. But instead, I'm going to extend an olive branch and say, "Hey...that was once me, too."

Look, I don't talk a lot about my faith on this particular blog. But today, I will. Because I think there are a lot of people - members of Congress and regular constituents alike - who need to hear this about the "Thoughts and Prayers" phrase that gets bandied about so casually. 

I, too, was someone who looked to G-d to solve all kinds of problems that I thought were too big for me to handle. Famine. AIDS. Malaria. My awareness of children suffering in Haiti was keeping me up at night. I read newspapers and magazines about it. I learned and I thought. I prayed with my congregation and on my knees at night. But it took some special activists in my life to introduce me to advocacy and show me that it was G-d acting through humans that was making steady progress in ridding the world of such suffering. And things might go a heck of a lot faster if I would become one of those humans! One Lenten season, I decided that in addition to praying every day about children dying for 40 days, I would also take an action every day. It could be an email, a phone call, or submitting a letter to the editor, but I would speak out in some way every day for forty days. In that discipline, I began to see bits of progress that were so much more impactful than my years of empty prayers without adding the conviction of sacrificing some time, giving some energy, and maybe even risking some public reputation.

I'm no biblical scholar, but as an average, run-of-the-mill Christian, I favor the words of James who declared, "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone ways he has faith, but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, it it does not have works, is dead." (NIV James 2:14-17) And here, I'll share that my personal understanding of this interprets "faith" to be "sincere thoughts and prayers" and "works" to be "personal acts to bring about change."

He didn't say to stop having faith. He was saying we need to have both. I'm not willing to say prayers are useless. Actions make prayers more full and robust. They bring intention into being. I believe they bring us closer to G-d as we act together in concert to bring about a better world. I think when we pray to do G-d's will and then do something about it, G-d blesses our actions and is the wind in our sails. Thoughts and prayers combined with actions can be immensely powerful. They can bolster our own strength and conviction and help us choose the wise and morally right actions. I mean, we don't want anyone acting without thinking, right? 

So, I'm urging everyone to pair their thoughts and prayers with actions. Act in positive ways that will push back against the indolence that allows not only children to be gunned down in classrooms, but also allows babies to die of malnutrition and AIDS and TB to take parents from their children forever. If a member of Congress reads, do we need you NOW to align your public thoughts and your actions! As I write this, gunsense legislation needs a push to be brought to the Senate AND the White House is looking to work around Congress and cut poverty-focused foreign aid. But even if you are a reader who doesn't hold office, we need you, too. Join a group or call a senate office. Don't just go to worship and then shake your head helplessly. Pray about it and then do something.


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Media Tips: What Will Be Our Next Moonshot?

I want to share this op-ed of mine published in the Huntsville Times in Alabama for two reasons. Of course, I'd like everyone to rally around the cause of ending AIDS within a generation. But on top of that, I wanted to share that this piece of media was submitted to a paper in a town where I don't live and was picked up and published right away. I was gazing out my hotel window overlooking Space Camp at the US Space and Rocket Center, where my child was having a week of super-geeky summer camp and being just a tad jealous of her. Then, I thought about an op-ed I wrote during the week of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon walk that none of my local papers wanted to publish.
Encouragement from fellow RESULTS volunteer Willie Dickerson, media writer extraordinaire, over the years has helped me shed my reservations about submitting writing to newspapers in communities far from home. I thought, "What if the folks here in "Rocket City, USA" would like to hear another spin on moon stuff that also reminded them that tourist parents visiting their fair city were spending money locally and thinking about their achievements?"
Well, it worked like a charm and I can offer you these tips of encouragement for fellow activists:
  1. Go ahead and submit media in an area where you don't live. If your "hook" to a local connection is strong, it won't matter
  2. Don't get totally discouraged if papers turn down your writing. Maybe you just haven't yet found the right audience for it
  3. Be creative in your media hooks. If I can connect AIDS advocacy to the moonshot, I bet you can find something, too!
Enjoy the read!

What will be our next moonshot?

As one of the out-of-town Space Camp parents who drop our kids off for days of fun and science, this year I decided to stay in Huntsville for the week.
Working at a hotel window that looked out on the towering Saturn V rocket, I thought about how the United States – embodied by President Kennedy – dared the world to think we could reach such a mind-boggling goal as a trip to the moon. Fifty years later, we are still wondering what our next moonshot will be. What will be the next scientific accomplishment to capture the imagination of the world as we wrestle dream into reality?
In many ways, the end of AIDS has the makings to be our generation’s moonshot achievement. Nations of the world have already come together in a bold commitment made without knowing precisely how it would be achieved. The path to ending AIDS emerged in 2001 when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria as a mechanism to galvanize and distribute badly-needed resources for countries burdened by diseases of poverty.
Since then, the Global Fund achieved what was once considered impossible. Annual AIDS-related deaths and new infections have been cut in half. Of the 37.9 million people living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 2017, the Global Fund-supported programs provided antiretroviral drugs (ARV’s) to 17.5 million of those cases, slowing the rampant growth of HIV that leads to AIDS and saving millions of lives.
But after more than 15 years of incredible progress, we have now entered a new phase in the struggle against AIDS. We know more than ever before about the spread of HIV. We have reliable drugs to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission during pregnancy. We have strong partnerships between governments, the private sector, technical agencies, and people affected by diseases. In short, we now have the tools and it’s time to finish the fight.
The world is fast approaching another decision point about AIDS. This October, international representatives will gather in Lyon, France for the sixth Global Fund replenishment conference. Each country will stand up to make a three-year pledge to fund their share of the $14 billion needed to save 16 million lives by 2022 and put us on a the final leg of the journey to finally end this disease. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both made the U.S. a leader at every prior conference by providing one-third of the total funding. This sustained commitment inspired other countries to step up and provide the rest. Will President Trump do the same this fall? After all, he did declare a bold goal in this year’s State of the Union address to eliminate the H.I.V. epidemic in the United States and beyond.
Far-fetched goal? Check. Technological advances? Check. Call to action from the American President? Check. The only thing missing from the AIDS challenge to make it a moonshot is a groundswell of public support. And that is up to all of us.
Engaged citizens must light the fire of political will to tackle the problem with renewed fervor. For instance, we can add our voices to American activists currently urging President Trump and Congress to make good on president’s State of the Union goal. To follow through on such a lofty goal, the White House must pledge $4.68 billion from the U.S. over 3 years to the Global Fund and Congress must allocate those funds every year in our budgeting process. Congressmen Mo Brooks (AL-5) and Robert Aderholt (AL-4) and their colleagues in the House of Representatives have already proclaimed their support by calling for $1.56 billion for the Global Fund in their 2020 funding bill proposal along with specific language supporting one-third of the total worldwide funding. All of them can strengthen that position by co-sponsoring House Resolution 517, which details the accomplishments of the Global Fund and supports a robust pledge from the U.S. at the 6th replenishment conference.
As we nostalgically remember our grand achievement in space from 50 years ago, let us also take an active role in the marvels we can achieve on Earth together. With persistent public pressure reminding elected officials to take bold steps with the Global Fund, we can unite with the rest of the world to achieve what once was thought to be impossible: the end of AIDS.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Book Recommendation: "A Day at the Fare"

I'm really excited about an author talk on our agenda at the RESULTS International Conference this year. Pamela Covington, author of "A Day at the Fare: One Woman's Welfare Passage" told an incredibly compelling story from her book. Her book was on my summer reading list, and I just completed it a few weeks ago. I truly appreciated it and highly recommend this easy-to-read, relatable narrative. It perfectly illustrates two things a lot of Americans struggle to understand: why it's so difficult for a woman with children to leave a loving relationship that has turned dangerous, and how difficult it is to navigate (and leave!) the U.S. system of financial assistance for women who need help NOW.

Her journey is a living nightmare for many women this very instant and an unspoken lurking nightmare for any unemployed mother who relies on the salary of a partner. Ms. Covington herself fell into that second category as she was raising two kids in a committed relationship with a comfortable, dual-income, suburban lifestyle. I encourage anyone to read it, especially if you are a cis-gender man who will likely never be in her situation or a woman who thinks she won't be. It's an important read for creating understanding and empathy.

Here are a few things that jumped out at me about her journey in poverty...

Pamela Covington telling stories
Small Decisions Can Have Devastating Impact
In the beginning of the book, Covington relates the harrowing time when she had to flee her home for the safety of her boy, her baby, and herself with only $900 in her pocket. She had to pack and prepare for her departure in secret, then try to leave quickly. In her haste to depart before her partner came home, she packed all her clothes and those of the kids first, so they ended up in the very bottom of a packed-to-the-gills car. Certainly, she wasn't thinking at the time that it would take days to find a safe place for them to land long enough to even unload to the point of finding clean clothes! Small mistakes balloon in size when you don't have money.

Common Mom Problems Can Escalate to Crises
In another instance, she related a story about how she simply forgot to take her diaper bag with her on a winter day. This is where it got super-relatable to me as I remember feeling helpless one afternoon far from home in downtown, wintery Chicago when I had a baby with me for my first outing alone with her...and I forgot to bring the diaper bag. I totally see how this unfortunate thing can happen. How did I get out of it? I scrounged around in the car to find one stray diaper and just sucked up the cost to buy what I needed for the afternoon. But for a mom no spare money in her pocket and using public transportation on an important errand to access more financial resources for the whole family...there's no backup plan. Her story of feeling desperate at the bus stop while her baby's full diaper came loose and fell right out of his pants hit me right in the heart. Especially when NO ONE at the stop offered to help her in any way.

Attitudes of Aid Providers Make a Huge Difference
Throughout her story, Covington encounters many people whose job it is to help her through the system of assistance. An Urban League employee helping her find her first apartment, a YMCA staffer, welfare case workers...they all have parts to play in the maze of assistance, but how they relate to people they serve can uplift a person with dignity or eat away at a person's precious self-confidence. The descriptions of how Covington felt as she interacted with each person showed me a new perspective on the power of kindness offered in the right place at the right time. I have recommended this book to several clergy leaders. It can help congregations think about meaningful ways to provide a quiet intervention of kindness when it's most needed by someone in a tough situation.

The Rent Eats First
Covington herself doesn't use the phrase "The rent eats first" in the book, but her story certainly contains a real-life illustration of what the phrase means. It is so vitally important to have a safe place to rest, clean up, store valuables, and care for children, that rent must come before any other considerations...even food. Unfortunately, that means that unless you qualify for housing assistance (which can take months to receive after application), a huge percentage of any money you are able to get goes straight to the rent. Today, low-income American renters pay an average of 70% of their income to housing, leaving a small piece of the pie for all food, heat, electricity, diapers, sanitary supplies...things many Americans can't even imagine going without for more than a week.

What Can We Do??
This last matter of rent is becoming more and more of a crisis for the United States. According to Harvard researchers, rents have risen by 61% since 1960, but renters' median earnings have gone up only 5%. This week, RESULTS volunteers will go to Capitol Hill with housing on their minds. We'll be asking for members of Congress to consider a "Renter's Tax Credit" for low- and moderate-income renters. A renters' credit would limit rent for low-income families to 30% of their income and provide a tax credit for the balance above that to local fair market value.

If YOU would like to help us take action on the American Housing crisis, call your members of Congress on Tuesday, July 16 and leave them your version of this message: "We subsidize housing via our tax code, but by subsidizing wealthier homeowners rather than renters. Will you support renters' credit proposals to help low-income Americans?"


Thursday, July 4, 2019

Reaching out to Congress is Patriotic

Photo: Cynthia Levin

UPDATE: This blog now contains links and references to a newly released report by the US Inspector General.

Happy Fourth of July! Today, while we celebrate our freedoms with parades and fireworks, let's not forget that one of our greatest privileges as Americans is the ability to contact our elected officials (emphasis on elected, right?) and tell them our best ideas about how to govern our country and communities.

This year, more than any other in my adult lifetime, is incredibly important for us to speak out as we have so many suffering people at our southern border struggling with the double whammy of poverty and U.S. immigration policies. I offer two advocacy actions so that we, as Americans, don't sit idly by in celebration while others are in crisis.

Please call and write your members of Congress with one or both of these actions and urge them to do the following: 

1) Stand up to the White House and find a way to stop the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers at our borders.

Here's a sample of what you might say:
"The U.S. Inspector General released a report detailing the deplorable conditions in our Rio Grande Valley detention facilities. I urge you to get involved to oppose these practices by our government. Support solutions for people seeking asylum at our borders that does not involve separating families and keeping men, women, and children in inhumane conditions."
Photo: Office of the Inspector General,
Department of Homeland Security
The Office of the Inspector General is not a partisan group. It's not an NGO watchdog group. This is a branch of our own government reporting on conditions that violate human rights in a breach of our own rules. The report spoke of 826 children (31%) being kept over the 72 hour maximum period permitted by the 1997 Flores Agreement without access to changes of clothes. It included photos of human beings being kept in over-crowded cages. It said the prolonged detention of migrants without proper food, hygiene or laundry facilities (sometimes for over a month) requires "immediate attention and action."
Photo: Office of the Inspector General, 
Department of Homeland Security

If you are interested in actions after making your call or writing your letter, look for info from Lights for Liberty is organizing a national day of action with local events to protest conditions faced by refugees on July 12th. 

2) Support poverty programs for impoverished people in developing nations. 

Here's an example of what you might say: 
"I'm asking you to support robust funding for poverty-focused foreign aid, especially those that empower women and promote nutrition. Helping families live dignified lives in safety and security allows them to stay at home instead of leaving in desperation."
I don't know everything about the complex problem of the wave of immigration from Central American countries, but I do know that mothers don't leave everything they have to risk the lives of their children or - worse - send their children north unaccompanied unless they are fleeing much worse things behind them. CARE, knowing this, took three Republican congresswomen on a learning trip to Guatemala to find out firsthand why people are leaving and to see the impact of successful aid programs that are helping families stay in their native countries. Indeed, after the trip, my congresswoman Representative Ann Wagner co-authored an article in USA Today in support of such aid. In describing the assistance provided to local nonprofit partners by the U.S. Agency for International Development, she noted, “Our programs empower moms, save lives, and stabilize the region. U.S. aid tackles the migration crisis by giving poor families the tools they need to stay at home and thrive.”

So, by all means, do go out and have a happy 4th of July and honor our veterans when you see them out an about today. But let's also honor our patriotism and their sacrifices by exercising our rights to speak up for those who need the help of our great nation and those who suffer under our nation's policies today.

Photo: Cynthia Levin

Monday, June 10, 2019

Relationships Are Why I Keep Going

An old advocacy question is popping up everywhere in my life with new urgency. "How do we keep doing our work without getting overwhelmed?" It was alarming to me when two women that I admire very much reached out to me about the same time from different parts of the country asking me how I managed to stay positive and inspired. Alarming because these two women are people admire and hold in my mind when things get rocky for me! Yesterday, as the CARE Action grassroots staff took the stage at the CARE Action Conference in Washington D.C., it was their very first question from an audience full of dedicated activists.

As I've wrestled with this question, I found it helpful that Maxine Thomas, friend and board member at RESULTS, had broken down that larger question into smaller questions. I found them easier to think about. I answered her questions for myself and noticed that my answers centered around a theme of "relationship":

What is your motivation? My relationship to my daughters and my desire to build a better world for them. My relationship to friends facing economic hurdles, loss of freedoms, and intolerance while I fear for their futures.
What slows you down? Being around people who are angry and negative in a non-productive way. As my fellow CARE advocate Megan Mayle shared today, "Anger is emotionally expensive." It takes a lot out energy out of me to hear people repeatedly complain without any intention of offering, searching for, or working toward solutions. I could be using that energy to take positive actions to create positive change.
What do you do to manage the things that plague you? Spend time with great people so we can deepen relationships and inspire each other. I organize opportunities at my home where I invite activists I look up to and create positive things for us to do together. Last week, I hosted a "Renew, Connect, and Act" event where everyone could do two acts of gratitude (writing thank you's for staff of area non-profits for women's health and LGBTQIA issues), two acts of advocacy (writing to Congress about gender-based violence and women's health), and two acts of volunteerism (bringing potluck dinners to refugee families or serving in St. Louis communities hard hit by gun violence). I'm also always on the prowl for chances to meet new advocates I can learn from!

In fact, it is that last sentence that leads me to be at the CARE conference now.  I know that I'm making a lot of new connections that will hopefully grow into new friendships to inspire me throughout the year. Meeting new people who are taking a stand against human trafficking and child marriage is a real boost for me right now. As a bonus, I expect to see a few familiar faces of other change agents I admire on Capitol Hill tomorrow as Bread for the World and the United Nations Foundation volunteers are going to be there, too, sharing many of the same messages around protecting our poverty-focused foreign aid budget.

I'm especially buoyed by meeting advocates more toward the beginning of their journeys who are full of the same sort of energy and enthusiasm I had when I came to D.C. for the first time in 2007. Sharing laughs and long conversations with my Missouri lobby partner, Ally Melvin, amidst our serious legislative preparations has helped bring me back to a mindset before I started to feel burned out from a decade of working on the same problems. It helps me to remember that the problems are getting better. The budget requests we're working on are much higher than they used to be and making important progress. Since 2011, in countries where the US works with local and women farmers...
  • 23.4 million people have been lifted out of poverty
  • 5.2 million families no longer suffer from hunger
  • 3.4 million kids are free of stunting

Looking at the evidence of the impact of our work and helping someone else get on the path of activism has me feeling optimistic about the world. True, not everything is rosy and we have a lot of work to do. But as the Dr. Seuss' Lorax says:

UNLESS someone CAREs a whole awful lot
Nothing is going to get better. It's not!
So tell me...What keeps YOU going?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Raising Harry, Katniss, and Tris

I've written before on World Moms Network about the activism of the teens who started March for Our Lives to take on gun violence, but I didn't address it on this blog because of the poverty focus of this particular site. However, as their youth movement grows even beyond the issue of gun violence and into areas like climate change, I have a few things to say since the topics of advocacy and motherhood are firmly within the scope of my musings here.

I continue to hear comments of surprise from my fellow parents about how "Kids Today" are getting so involved in activism. In general, we're seeing an uptick of kids being more aware of government, advocacy, and social justice. I pick up on this general feeling of "Where is this all coming from?" As usual when kid behavior is involved, the question can be answered: From us. From the situations our generation created. From the things we left undone. And...from the things we parents ourselves embrace in movies and book/movie franchises like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Divergent

How could anyone be all that surprised when thousands of kids raised on a steady diet of ethical rebellion began standing up for their generation and our world? We reap what we sow. I, for one, have sown these seeds intentionally and delightfully. I saw what J.K. Rowling was telling us about taking a stand against racism and fascism. I imagined what it would be like to raise the three fingers of my left hand in salute to Katniss Everdeen of the the Hunger Games in her fight against a system keeping a population distracted and locked in it's economic disparity. I cheered for Tris from Divergent, who broke away from her family to be true to herself and eventually lead a rebellion for those trapped in a social experiment in post-apocalyptic, future Chicago.

I suppose there were many parents who saw only stories of magic and adventure. Famously, there were still others who missed the point and boycotted the Potter franchise because they thought it was anti-religious and promoted witchcraft. But I've long been a fan of fantasy and sci-fi fiction. I love it's power to both take us away from a world of problems while simultaneously holding up a mirror to our society and asking, "Who do YOU want to be in your story?" The stories never show us a literal roadmap for history. Rather, they are inspirational for the spirit.
"Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed." 
-- G.K. Chesterton

The Parkland students who founded the March for Our Lives movement against gun violence have been open about their view of themselves as Dumbledore's Army. And if that is the role my children and their generation cast for themselves, then I cast myself as Order of the Phoenix member Molly Weasley who feeds them, tends to their hurts, worries about them, and also plays backup in case a LaStrange shows up. I am NOT here to take the baton (or wand) away from anyone. We adults had our chance alone. The body count from school gun violence continues to mount. The Order led and fought, but did not finish the job. Now, we must walk beside Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger, Ron Weasley, Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky as their partners - not their betters.

Look what happened when a group of these kids were suddenly thrust into a battleground at their school as deadly as the Battle of Hogwarts. Instead of being consumed by their victimhood, they were inspired by the Boy Who Lived to see themselves as the Ones Who Lived and could become Dumbledore's Army. They started building a diverse and inclusive movement by organizing with other kids across the country who had also experienced gun violence. They grew in fame as they took the battle to their own larger than life Voldemort - the NRA - and became household names even as they craved the time to heal. In Emma Gonzalez's own words in her New York Times Op-ed, "All of us know what it feels like to be Harry Potter now." And now a public tide is turning as more adults are following their lead to reach out to Congress. State by state and even in the U.S. House of Representatives, gun violence bills are starting to gain support.

Not all the authors in our bookshelves promoting change gave us heroes and heroines rising up in rebellion. I knew Rick Riordon was masterfully spreading tolerance and acceptance by giving us a sweet love story between male demigods Nico di Angelo and Will Solace several books into the Percy Jackson series once we were all invested in the residents of Camp Half Blood. I knew Riordan was educating ME about gender fluidity in the Magnus Chase series as he grew the relationship between Magnus and Alex Fierro just as I knew how important it was to give Magnus a history of homelessness and a best friend who was deaf. Riordan continued to spread a message of tolerance in "The Ship of the Dead" by giving Magnus' character the ability to defeat his enemy with love and positivity, not force and negativity. 

Now...with all that said. I will have to eat a little bit of crow if one of my kids turns out to be a criminal mastermind like Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl, but as my kids and I read the series to the end, I think we - and Artemis - are all gonna be okay. If you're not sure what I mean by that...well...your adventure awaits :)