Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Review: "Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk" by Eugene Cho

The cover of "Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk" along with my
trusty highlighter and a paper for notes

"Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk: A Christian's Guide to Engaging Politics" Could there be a more perfect title for a book about being a Christian in political America? With humility and humor, Rev. Eugene Cho brings us a book sorely needed by both Christians who have entrenched themselves with a political party and those who have entirely disengaged from politics altogether. 

We might think it’s a pretty obvious imperative: “Don’t be a jerk.” But Rev. Cho addresses how the anonymity of online interactions and the dehumanizing nature of extreme political views promote jerky behavior..behavior that can be harmful or even deadly when it translates into government policies. So many of us - including me, including Rev. Cho - fall prey to negative human tendencies. It’s easy to get carried away with political fervor when you’re confident your candidate or party is aligned with your religious values. In reality, no party is completely aligned with any religion. To combat this part of our nature, he encourages Christians to center ourselves on Christ. 

Rev. Cho offers insight from his experience as a pastor to help Christians examine their motivations and approach to politics. His writing shows why he was a superb choice to lead Bread for the World, a leading Christian advocacy group. His non-partisan, relational approach to talking about politics is refreshing and needed today.  

I don’t talk about my faith often on this blog, but it is the part of me that led me to advocacy. I was fortunate Bread reached me with the message that I have an obligation to take part in my democracy and ensure that our country feeds hungry people and protects the vulnerable. Cho elaborates on that idea:

“Hear this well: Politics matter. They matter because politics inform policies that ultimately impact people. When I read the Bible, it’s emphatically clear that people matter to God- including and especially people who are marginalized, oppressed, forgotten, and on the fringes of our larger society.”

One of my favorite things about this book is how it explores practical ideas others have tried in order to break down barriers that divide people politically. One was the “Make Dinner Great Again” (MADA) movement. It was a grassroots idea to facilitate potluck dinners between people of different ideological backgrounds. Participants were united in the notion that they were tired of divisive politics and committed to actively listening to the other dinner guests. The stories of past participants and Rev. Cho’s own experience trying it gives me hope for what can happen when diametrically opposed people concentrate on a desire to make things better.  

“Listening” and “relationship” are big themes in this book, which is why it’s so appealing to me. These very simple ideas can be very hard to live out. Connecting them back to the center of my faith raises the importance of seeking commonality, especially when I don’t want to do it at all.

Of course, as an advocate, I love the part of the book when he talks about advocacy and voting as ways to live out our faith. But I was already sold on that part. For me, the most valuable passages are the ones that speak to my own human struggle I face when I feel like someone is being a jerk to ME. So, I’ll leave you with a passage I should probably tape onto the monitor of my computer for a helpful reminder whenever I go out into the wilderness of social media:

“We must learn to be civil with one another, including those we disagree with - even political candidates. This is one of the great challenges in our culture today. We are called to love one another, including those who don’t look like us, feel like us, think like us...or vote like us. 

In voicing and pursuing our convictions, we not only represent ourselves as followers of Christ; we represent Christ. This is not to suggest we can’t have fierce convictions, but there is a distinction between being passionate about our conviction and being mean spirited and jerks. This is worth repeating: be careful not to dehumanize those you disagree with. In our self-righteousness, we can become the very things we criticize in others. 

There is a difference. 

I’m all for contending for convictions, but let’s not be jerks in the process. Be respectful. Be mature. Be wise. The world doesn’t need more jerks for Jesus.” 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Surprise! It's #WorldTBDay

Kate O'Brien, Alexis Cosse, and Cindy Levin share a
zoom screen to meet with Congress on World TB Day

Have you ever almost forgotten to observe a holiday? Like, it comes around every year, but sneaks up on you when you're not paying attention? Those times can leave moms scrambling to reserve a Passover brisket or making a late-night CVS run to fill some last minute Easter baskets. Well, I've got my eye on those two events, but today snuck up on me. Today is World TB Day!

Luckily, my RESULTS colleague Crickett Nicovich asked me to fill in for her World TB Day congressional meetings because she (having NOT forgotten the annual event) was double-booked. No problem! I did not want to forget to take action on this day, which brings attention to one of the most neglected diseases on Earth. Among all the global health issues I cover, tuberculosis is the one I most want to talk about in this moment. Why? Because TB sits at the intersection of great need, great injustice, and great opportunity.

Why does TB have its own day?

The UN SDG logo with 
"End TB" in the center

Even though most Americans think the world got rid of TB long ago, it is a leading infectious disease killer. Only in November 2020 did COVID-19 surpass tuberculosis. Nonetheless, TB is still reigns supreme in low and middle-income countries. In 2019, an estimated 10 million people were sickened by this bacteria-driven illness and 1.5 million were killed by it. Now? Well, the data isn't all in yet, but modeling suggests disruptions in diagnoses and care during the pandemic have caused an increase that will cause an additional 6.3 million to contract active cases and an additional 1.4 million to die in 2021.

Like COVID-19, tuberculosis is an airborne disease. Unlike COVID-19, there is no effective vaccine for adults yet. The most common vaccine used for it is most effective for children, but that means TB hits people ages 15-45 (young adults, parents, and breadwinners) particularly hard. 

So, why doesn't anyone talk about TB the way we focused on COVID-19? Because it is a disease of poverty. Even though it is present in wealthy countries, it doesn't affect their citizens very much at all. This is the "injustice" part. It runs rampant in low-income countries and has hot-spots in impoverished areas of middle-income countries. When a disease no longer affects wealthy countries, our governments tend to ignore problems that greatly affect the global South, Black and Brown populations, and impoverished nations. 

It is both a major consequence and a driver of poverty. The reason RESULTS got involved at all with tuberculosis years ago is because the organization was working on microcredit loans for women in extreme poverty. The biggest reason women couldn't pay back loans was because TB sickened them and they couldn't work. If we can stop TB, we can remove a major barrier keeping millions of people trapped in poverty and allow them to rise out of poverty with dignity.

TB in the United States

My meetings today were a crash course in tuberculosis education from a patient perspective. Kate O'Brien and Alexis Cosse were my partners. Kate suffered through TB as a pregnant mother in New Jersey in 2014 with an active case that ultimately cost her a lung.  Alexis' daughter was adopted from Ukraine after surviving Multi-Drug Resistant TB as a six-month old baby. She required extensive care during her recovery involving months of pills and in-home visits. Both women described their surprise back when they first learned that TB was such a problem worldwide and realized that it is in every state in the U.S., too.

Kate, Alexis, and Cindy in Zoom windows
talking to Senator Josh Hawley's aide
The majority of TB cases in the U.S. are "latent" and can exist without causing a body any problems. But a life change can cause the disease to activate and become highly contagious. There are about 9,000 active cases reported annually in the U.S. In a meeting with Senator Josh Hawley's aide, Kate said, "When my immunity changed because of my pregnancy, my latent TB changed to active. At least 13 million Americans have latent TB and there are a lot of things that can cause it to 'wake up.' Medication for diabetes, rheumatiod arthritis, Crohn's disease, Lupus...anything that lowers your immunity can trigger an active case. Aging can do it, too, which is why we see it in elder care facilities.

Alexis helped her daughter recover from TB in the United States, but the international adoption opened her eyes to the vast problem worldwide. She told Senator Roy Blunt's aide, "To think that we have this highly infection disease sitting as an isolated pocket's just a fools folly. Any disease is a global disease. But this can be a beatable disease and a conquerable situation."

Why push on TB now?

While COVID-19 has set back progress on TB, it is also the reason this moment is so promising. The world has woken up to the reality of pandemics. We all know firsthand what sacrifices we pay as individuals and nations when we are isolated and unable to function. If we can turn that empathy into political will, we can move mountains. 

But emotional empathy isn't even the biggest reason to invest more now. Technical advances are available that we had only dreamt of before. We now know how quickly the world can move to develop safe, effective vaccines when we focus attention and resources on it. Plus, we have exciting possibilities to make progress on TB and COVID-19 simultaneously.  The highly communicable, airborne nature of TB made all of our previous investments applicable to fighting COVID-19. TB programs have been the backbone of the COVID-19 response because they placed needed, trained personnel and equipment in strategic locations around the world. As we continue to build back, we can fight both of these diseases together. For instance, India is starting to scale up a procedure that will test for both TB and COVID-19.  

What can YOU do to end TB?

You can help our dream team of TB advocates by contacting your members of Congress. After all, we can't be everywhere at once! Tell your U.S. representatives and your two senators that we need a bold, increased commitment to fill the gaps from 2020 and continue our progress. In all of our meetings today, we asked our elected officials to commit to $1 billion for bilateral USAID TB programs and $225 million for the CDC's TB program. This will help us live up to the promises made by the U.S. and other nations of the UN to treat 40 million people with TB, including 1.5 million with drug resistant TB, and provide preventative treatment for 30 million people. Ultimately, hitting all those goals will bring us closer to a future day when no one has to worry about missing out on advocacy for World TB Day because it will only be a celebration of the day we ended tuberculosis!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Advocacy Made Easy: Zoom Lobby Meetings

A Shot@Life virtual lobby meeting with Kansas Congresswoman
Sharice Davids
(pictured lower center)

In 2021, we've finally moved past the point where every virtual meeting has to start with a tedious and obligatory " is hard, am-I-right?" statement by the host. It took some congressional offices a few months into the pandemic to admit that they just had to figure out a way to meet virtually with constituents. (Hats off to former Congressman Lacy Clay who figured out how to do this years before COVID-19!) It took even longer for some activists to get comfortable with it. But now, we've reached a point where Zoom is standard technology.

And yet...even though you may know how to turn your mic on before speaking, a lobby meeting is a little different than a Zoom with friends. Here are a few of the tips I've learned from lobbying with multiple organizations in 2020. Every group taught me a new idea as everyone learned together. I've compiled some of my favorites here:

Before the Meeting

Cindy's hands typing on a laptop amidst the
clutter of lobby materials, an extra monitor,
 and a tea tray.
  • Email the aide all the "leave behind" documents the day before. Since you can no longer hand over a folder including copies of letters to sign or cool infographics to discuss, make sure you send everything ahead of time via email, so they can follow along as you explain your requests. Some aides only open up the file when prompted during the meeting, but I am pleasantly surprised how many will read them in advance to prepare.
  • Make a phone group text with your lobby team. It's useful if something unexpected happens (aide postpones meeting or someone gets stuck in the waiting room), so you can reach each other immediately.
  • Decide on an order to introduce yourselves at the beginning. It avoids awkward "Who talks next? Do I go?" pauses during what would normally be quick introductions around a physical table.
  • Require Zoom host to admit participants manually. That way the aide won't arrive while you're joking around with your team or threatening/cajoling/bribing your children to stay quiet and off camera.
  • Adjust your screen height for best "eye contact." We all know we're looking into cameras and not into each other's eyes, but it's irritating to talk to someone constantly looking in a different direction. Make sure your camera captures your entire face and that your line of sight is roughly where your camera is located. You might need to scoot back from your computer or put your laptop up on some books to make sure you don't treat people to an uncomfortable view up your nose. 

At the Meeting

  • Arrive in the Zoom 5-10 minutes early. It will help you appear unhurried when you admit the aide from the waiting room.
  • Speak to the person, don't just read text. You are relationship-building! When someone obviously reads to me, it gives me that "This meeting could have been an email" feeling. A benefit of Zoom is that you CAN have your talking points in front of you, but practice them a few times. A familiarity with your material will help you sound more natural and convincing. 
  • Pause for questions. Too many advocates treat Zoom meetings like class presentations. Your goal should be to have a productive back-and-forth conversation building your relationship. Give them conversation cues, like "Do you have any questions about what Amanda just said?" or "Do you you think your boss would support a funding increase?" or "With your insight, what do you think the mood is on the Hill about this bill?"
  • Ask permission to take a picture at the end. Give everyone a countdown to the picture click. Random pics of zoom meetings look highly unflattering!
A general tip to remember is that members of Congress and their aides are going through a lot right now, too. In our prep meetings for the Shot@Life Advocacy Day in February, a trainer advised us to remember that everyone up there is "drinking from a fire hose," which is an apt metaphor. They get Zoom fatigue with back-to-back meetings. Some of them have kids at home taking virtual classes and experiencing pandemic stressors no one ever had to go through before. Some of them were afraid for their lives working on Capitol Hill during the January 6 insurrectionist riots in D.CSome aides at home are lonely and isolated, working in apartments by themselves. 

A CARE virutal lobby meeting with participants in 
St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Washington D.C.
In my CARE lobby meeting yesterday, I complimented an aide on the lovely sunbeam coming into her workspace. I asked if she was in the office or at home because I couldn't tell. She was at home. She gave us a little resigned smile and said it was a nice sunbeam, but this is the time of day just before it would blast her in the face and blind her if she doesn't move soon. She mused that she might move up to the roof because she might feel better with some fresh air and sunshine. Her response was so human and relatable. I wanted to reach through the screen and hold her hand for a moment. 

As you go about your lobbying business, I encourage everyone to remember that the people on your Zoom meetings are all going through challenges that don't show up on the screen. I always think strength and persistence are important for activists, but don't forget that grace and patience are always excellent traits that can help you make a human connection during a virtual meeting.