Friday, October 16, 2020

Advocacy and Direct Service: Both are Needed

How can I help the most people? Where am I most needed? What's the best way to use my unique gifts to help others? 

These are questions I continue to ask myself over and over. The answers led me to learn to advocate to my members of Congress, but they also still compel me to keep my hand more directly in service efforts connecting me with people struggling with the policies I discuss on Capitol Hill. There's a difference between these two important, but very different kinds of work. Sometimes, I find it hard to explain when I'm recruiting new advocates. The question will always come up:

What is the difference between advocacy and direct service?

The River Metaphor

Imagine you are having a picnic near the banks of a raging river. You hear a cry for help and see several people—men, women, and children—fighting for their lives in the middle of the current. Mothers try to hold their babies above the water, but they are drowning. Children are being sucked under with exhausted parents. 

You and your fellow picnickers jump into action, tossing ropes and floats into the raging waters to reach as many people as you can, one by one. The survivors are grateful, but they point upriver to show you even more victims swept helplessly along. Maybe you and your shore-side buddies devise a brilliant system of ropes and pulleys to rescue multiple people, but there are far too many to save.


While your party is fishing people out of the raging waters, you turn your eyes upriver and wonder: “Why is this happening? Did a bridge collapse? Is there someone pushing people in the river? Is there some terrible danger up there that makes a perilous plunge the better choice?” 


You hike upstream to find a way to prevent people from falling into the river in the first place. Because you are a change-focused advocate, you decide to find the root cause of the suffering and strategically use your influence to eliminate that cause so that no one has to drown. Once you discover the reason for the suffering and figure out a strategy to save the most people, you will speak up and convince your community to follow your plan.

Direct Service Versus Advocacy

The river scenario illustrates the difference between “direct service” and “advocacy.” Direct service workers give of their energy and talents to help people in their moment of need. Disaster relief volunteers, soup kitchen servers, and polio vaccinators are examples of direct service providers. On-the-ground relief work can be incredibly satisfying as it connects volunteers directly to individuals who need help. Most people think about direct service when they think about volunteering and charity work. 


Change advocates take a wider approach and use their voices to rally even more help for the long term. At its best, advocacy is about seeking out root causes, finding effective solutions, and persuading other people to help implement those solutions. The work can feel far removed from the people you are trying to help, which some find less rewarding than direct service roles. 


Working to change a system requires an ability to delay the natural human desire for instant gratification and personal words of thanks. But when you are successful, when you know that no more people will fall into the metaphorical river or—in the real world—that we are 99% of the way to eradicating polio, then it feels very, very gratifying to know that you saved many more people than you ever could have if you never took the mental leap to leave the river bank.


Serving Millions, not Hundreds

My decision to move upstream in the fight against hunger in America came after my children were born. As a busy mom, I have learned to continually ask myself: “Since I’m just one person, how can I make the most difference with the limited time and energy I have to volunteer?”


When I was childless and single with lots of free time, I started serving dinner regularly in a church soup kitchen. Standing behind folding tables, scooping casserole and welcoming the hundreds of people who streamed into the great hall became a highlight of my month. It warmed my heart to hear their words of thanks and to see children happily munching dessert I put on their plates. I drove home knowing people had full bellies because of those hours I had volunteered with fellow congregants.


A bunch of RESULTS advocates teaming up for a night of
hands-on work as food packers much like I used to
do for the Greater Chicago Food Depository  
Over time, I started to worry about what soup kitchen clients did on days when they couldn’t get hot meals from the church. So, I moved a little farther upstream and began volunteering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to supply food pantries all around the area. Although I felt like my work was making a difference, my personal efforts seemed dwarfed by the immense need in the echoing warehouse. Unfortunately, even those efforts ended after my first baby was born. I had to step away from those hands-on projects as neither were compatible with the hands-on work required for baby care. 


Eventually, I learned from Bread for the World that I didn’t have to give up the battle against hunger even if I could no longer spend hours in a soup kitchen or food pantry. In fact, I learned that the work I had been doing was addressing only a symptom—hunger—without addressing its root cause—poverty. Lack of a living wage, mass incarceration, lack of affordable housing, and even food subsidies in the U.S. Farm Bill all play a part in perpetuating a cycle of poverty resulting in hunger.


If I truly wanted to help more people, I could use my voice to change the systems and policies that perpetuate hunger. Plus, I could pursue that work even while caring for my small children. Of course, moving my efforts further up the river meant I would never meet most of the people my work would benefit, and would rarely hear personal expressions of gratitude. But I soon discovered that I'm okay with that because far fewer people can get along without the thank you's and have the patience for congressional work. I feel like it's the best place for my personal gifts.


Both Roles Are Vital

Even if you prefer to work as a direct service provider, you’ll probably find it helpful to take a simple advocacy action now and then, such as writing to Congress or signing an online petition. You could also team up with an advocate who is working on a similar issue. Advocates can set up meetings with elected officials, write newspaper pieces, or arrange for public awareness events that create opportunities for direct service volunteers to tell their stories to the right people at the right time.


Similarly, being an advocate does not mean you can never be involved in direct service. I find that hands-on volunteer work frequently provides inspiration and personal stories to fuel advocacy. You don’t have to choose between one and the other!


Food donations AND better government policies are needed to feed our communities, so we need direct service providers AND advocates to solve the complicated problem of hunger—and many others like it.

I'd love to hear your answer to the question...

How do you like to help?



Thursday, August 27, 2020

When Advocacy & Voting Aren't Enough: Election Campaign Volunteering

I spend most of my time telling people that building relationships with members of Congress is an empowering way to change the world between elections. There are a few weeks of the year when I "get out the vote." But there comes a time when advocacy isn’t enough and an individual vote isn’t enough either to get the change we need. This is that time! If you truly care about the outcome of an election (and everybody should this year more than most), you should be turning your vote into 20, 50, or 100 votes.

In 2020, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that our candidates are going to win because "somebody else" is going to do the work. It's time to get personal. It's up to all of us.

When I speak to people about campaign volunteering - even those who are very vocal about out against the President of the US or the general state of the world - I get this pushback:

  • I just feel so overwhelmed with all this political negativity and COVID

  • I’m super busy and don’t have time

  • I’m not good at talking to strangers and wouldn’t know what to say

If you feel overwhelmed, I get it. I hear you. Yet consider that we may feel even more overwhelmed in December if gun sense candidates lose, reproductive rights are reduced, and we have four more years of a president inspiring racist acts of murder as happened in Kenosha recently. Helping get new people in office and ousting people not living up to their jobs can ease anxious feelings. It may not seem like it, but campaign volunteering can sometimes be self care.

If you are busy, I get that, too. But most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have an hour here or there.

As far as talking to strangers, I’ve got splendid news for you! Read on about ways to volunteer that either give you help in talking about candidates or don’t require you to talk to anyone AT ALL!

Making sure like-minded friends/family have a voting plan 

Usually, we’d be doing this kind of work 2-3 weeks before an election, but in the context of COVID-19 people need to request mail-in or absentee ballots early. In Missouri, that means explaining to people the difference between mail-in and absentee ballots and ensuring people make solid plans to do one of those options very early or vote in person. 

Here’s an infographic about Missouri, but make sure you find up-to-date info about your own state. Voting rules differ from state to state!

No-Contact Canvassing 

Canvassing doesn't mean knocking on doors to talk to voters anymore. COVID-19 has brought on the "No Contact Literature Drop." You get a map and a stack of door hangers with campaign info on it. You walk around a neighborhood wearing a mask and hang the info on doorknobs. That's it!

The closest I ever got to anyone while doing literature drops for Helena Webb (running for Missouri State Rep for District 100) was calling out to people doing yardwork from a distance to ask them, "May I hang this on your door?" They always just gave me a thumbs up or waved me toward their door.

Phone Banking 

Phone banking used to happen at campaign offices with stale coffee & donuts. But like everything else in 2020, it’s now done from home. Because of COVID-19, this is now the ONLY way many campaigns can have interactive conversations with voters.

Most campaigns invite you to a zoom call to receive training on how to use an on-line tool. The tool provides a script to read from a screen with info about the candidate. Sometimes, it even gives you the voters' polling places to help voters make a voting plan. Some especially cool campaigns (like Sunrise Movement) use an online dialer. A dialer automatically calls voters for you while concealing your own phone number. Those are helpful because it reduces the number of times you get an answering machine.

Cori Bush speaks to phonebook volunteers via ZoomYou’re always encouraged to customize the script with your own reasons you support a candidate, but you can just stick to the script if you prefer! Heck, you can even use a fake first name if you’re that worried about exposing yourself.

Is this effective? You bet. Your experience will contain a lot of hang-ups and people who won’t want to talk to you. But when you get someone who is undecided, those conversations are golden! When I was calling for Cori Bush’s primary, I got a voter who went from a very skeptical “I heard she started a fake church” to an enthusiastic “I’m going to get my whole family to vote for her. There are five of us here and we’re all going together. We’re all voting for Cori Bush!” It shocked me that a phone call from me, a stranger, had that much impact on that woman. I don’t even live in her district, but my voting power soared from zero votes to five in that one conversation. That night, when Cori won by a VERY narrow margin, I was glad I made the effort.

For more detailed info on phone banking with the Sunrise Movement, here is my daughter’s blog about it at “Thrill Seeking for Nerds (who want to change the world)”

Text banking

Text banking is similar to phone banking except it uses only texting. The concept is the same in that you’ll probably be asked to download an app to help you text voters. You won’t see their contact info and they won’t see yours. I don’t have a lot of experience with this except as a text banking recipient. I’ll admit that my failing eyesight doesn’t make me a fan of texting, but my 14-year-old likes this method. Maybe you will, too!


Postcards are one of my favorite ways to help because I don’t interact with anyone and I can do it while I’m watching Dr. Who or Umbrella Academy and still feel like I’m helping our democracy! You get a stack of postcards along with a list of voter addresses and a short sample message to write. Fill them out, put your own postcard stamps on them, and drop them in the mailbox. Easy! I like to use colored sharpies to make them pretty. My kids sometimes draw little pictures on them. Anything that makes them more eye-catching and personal is great!

Recruiting Friends to Volunteer

Did you read through those options and still can’t bring yourself to do any of them? Try making a handful of calls to ask friends if they would do volunteer for a campaign. You probably know someone of your own political mindset who has some time. Recruitment of even two active volunteers still multiplies your own influence!

What are your favorite ways to volunteer for campaigns?


Monday, June 29, 2020

Advocacy Made Easy: Protests

2017 March for Science in Washington D.C.
When a big moment comes around, protests can be a powerful way for a local community to weigh in together or for individuals to congregate in a high-profile destination like Washington D.C. I’ll be the first to admit that protests are not the form of advocacy I have the most experience doing. Most people know that my focus is on relationship-building lobby meetings on the opposite side of the spectrum from shouting in the streets. There are times, however, when many voices need to be heard all at once.

As parents, we need to decide when it is appropriate to involve our children in protest activities. We must recognize that these experiences are not set up to be learning exercises for our children. Large crowds, uncomfortable temperatures, and heightened emotions provide challenging situations for both adults and children. Yet depending upon the issue, it can be just too important for us to stay away. Jennifer Burden of New Jersey shared this sentiment with about her decision to attend a Black Lives Matter protest with her husband and two daughters:
“The movement to end racism is a social justice issue that my family finds important and wants to be a part of. The Black Lives Matter rally, here, in our town of Holmdel, was a great conduit to further our conversations with our kids on the topic of race, and it provided an opportunity, as parents, to model the positive behavior for them on standing up for those who need it most.”
I want to make a clear statement that protesting is not the same as rioting. The right to protest is a protected right and a patriotic tradition in the United States. While it's true that some protest activities can lead to violence and property damage, rioting is not what I’m talking about.

A pre-coronavirus picture on the way to the
Women's March in January of 2020.
That being said, we must consider safety concerns because feelings can run hot at protests. Some issues have more potential for violence. Protests against gun violence sometimes draw out armed counter-protesters. Marches against police violence have higher tensions between police and protestors. Unlike other advocacy actions, protesting has a possibility for tear gas, gun violence, or other physical harm. Your choice of which protest to attend is paramount when considering the safety of children. Types of protest events can range from rallies and vigils that stay in one place or marches on the move. Is it better for your family to be in a march where you can duck easily out of the route or at a rally where small kids can sit on a blanket far from the center of action? You decide what is best for your particular family! I recommend choosing an environment that allows you to be the most present to your children and provide the best likely chances for peaceful gatherings.

Before a protest:
·      Look for a protest during daylight hours for better visibility, greater probability of peaceful action, and less grumpy children;
·      Choose a protest location allowing you to leave early without trouble if your child is tired or needs to use a bathroom;
·      Talk to children about the event days ahead of time to help them understand the issue and have time to ask questions;
·      Help kids make their own signs. (Thinking about what they want on their signs and how they want to express it can be part of their learning experience);
·      Discuss the tone of the march. (The March for Science had a serious message about climate change and other science-based issues, but a light-hearted attitude. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have an urgent air of life-and-death, and older kids should behave knowing they're standing in solidarity with survivors of traumatic experiences.);

Here are some tips for taking kids to protest events compiled from my experiences and suggestions from my friends who are more experienced parent-protesters.

For everyone:
·      Pack water and snacks;
·      Prepare for the weather. (Hats and sunscreen in the summer, ponchos for rain, or warm gloves and other outerwear for early spring and winter);
·      Wear good, comfortable shoes;
·      Stay close to each other;
·      Bring a bandana for each person (Useful for wiping a sweaty face with cool water or protecting from tear gas);

For young children:
·      Dress kids in clothes with pockets and make sure important info is in the pockets. (Very important info like allergies and phone numbers could even be written on arms or on a key chain safety-pinned to kid’s clothes);
·      Bring a light-weight sign for every 2-3 marchers to take turns when little ones tire of carrying it;
·      Attend with another family with your kids’ friends for fewer complaints of boredom;
·      Snacks, snacks, snacks;

For older kids:
·      Agree to rules before you arrive. (For instance, “don’t go into the thick of the crowd.” Or, “be respectful and positive.”);
·      Charge all cell phones & conserve battery for communication with each other;
·      Carry ID;
·      Wear glasses instead of contacts in case of tear gas;
·      Have a designated meeting space a few blocks from the protest in case you get separated;
·      Choose a spot where you can hear the speeches, if possible, so your kids can learn;
·      Discuss how to behave if yelled at, harassed, threatened, or arrested OR if you see it happen to someone else;
·      For sensitive human rights issues like Black Lives Matter, discuss what it means to be a good ally. (For instance, counsel white kids to follow Black leadership and not start chants on their own. Also, taking and posting smiling selfies at next to people in pain is in poor taste no matter how many people are doing it around you.);
·      For sensitive issues, do not post pictures of local organizers & other protesters on social media which might lead them to be targeted by extremists. (This happens here in St. Louis, sometimes with fatal consequences);

If the last three points are alarming, that is exactly why we have to give serious consideration to safety. Not all marches are simply a walk in the park. I'll say it again: We must recognize that these experiences are not set up to be learning exercises for our children.

My teens and I practiced safe mask-wearing and social
distancing at a Black Lives Matter protest during
the COVID-19 pandemic
COVID-19 Safety
·      Wear face masks at all times. Consider not taking children under two years of age because the CDC does not recommend masks for toddlers under that age;
·      Maintain a distance of at least six feet from everyone not in your family even if it means you can’t hear the speeches as well;
·      Bring hand sanitizer and use it liberally;
·      If people aren't using masks...leave;
·      Isolate for two weeks after to ensure you don't spread the virus if you do contract it;

Note: When COVID-19 safety protocol is followed, protests are being shown to be low-risk activities. Note that low-risk isn't NO risk. Stay home if you or your children are at high-risk for the virus.

What other suggestions can you share in the comment section?