Thursday, June 27, 2013

What Was the Spark?: Moments That Created an Agent for Change

My friend, Jon Warden, recently asked me what the catalyst was that got me started in my anti-poverty work. I gave him a true and well-documented answer about how my faith inspired me to volunteer with my local soup kitchen and how my church introduced me to advocacy at a time when I couldn't do hands-on service while caring for a newborn. 

Yet on a dark, solo cross-country drive, a song shuffled up on my ipod that I hadn't heard in years. It brought back a flood of memories that reminded me that what I told Jon wasn't quite right. I told him about my path to becoming an advocate, but not about what set me on the path. A few weeks later, Holly Pavlika came along and asked me the question a different way: 

"What was the spark that started you on this path for change?"

I knew then what my answer should have been. Jon, this post is for you.

There’s a wordless lullaby I used to listen to while feeding my new baby. I found it on a CD of world music for mothers. Some of the songs on it are in English, others are in languages I don't understand. One special song - which I can't even recall the name of to find it in the mess that is my ipod - has no words, but just a simple melody in a round. It begins with one woman who sounds like a mother humming intimately to a baby. She is joined by other women, like other mothers wrapping the first in a loving blanket of support. More and more people join – men and women – in a round to create a rich tapestry of sound and then it all peels back to the first voice alone and sweet. 

In the deepest hours of the cold winter Chicago nights, I used to breastfeed my baby girl alone in the dark. I was beset with irrational fears about whether I could feed my baby well or care for her adequately. (Likely, some post-partum chemistry was at work here as well as sleep deprivation) I worried about whether she would continue breathing through the night and whether I would be a good mother to her. The song comforted me when I reflected that all mothers have these same worries, but we are not alone. I felt a connection with all mothers across distances and throughout time. In those moments of heightened vulnerability and empathy, I understood in my heart how horrible it is that mothers in extreme poverty cannot meet the basic needs of their children. In those moments, I knew there was a mother feeling exactly what I was feeling - except her fears were her reality. Clean water, food, heat, doctors, medicines, a safe place to sleep free of war and violence...I had all of these things. How was that at all fair when others were lacking so much? Over the course of that winter, I decided I should lift my voice to support mothers who love their children as much as I love mine. 

Nine years later, I found myself meeting moms and babies in rural provinces of Uganda with the UN Foundation's Shot@Life campaign. It was a long journey to that point, but seeing the love of those mothers so similar to my own showed me that I'd managed to turn my own fears into positive actions for a next generation of new mothers. Who knows? Perhaps my activism might even inspire a new generation of parents to be change agents, too.

Monday, June 24, 2013

7 Reasons You Should Take Your Kids to Lobby Congress

Summer's here!...which brings two important events together for parent advocates: congressional recess and summer vacation. Congressional recess is an ideal time to get some quality face-to-face time with your U.S. senator or representative in your local district. District meetings are great because you can talk without them being distracted by all the beltway shenanigans clamoring for attention in D.C. The typical duration of a D.C. visit tends to be about 15-25 minutes. Face-to-face meetings I've attended with members of Congress (MOC) in a home district have lasted close to an hour. That's a lot of personal attention! So, summer is an ideal time to get some face time. But now that school is out, what should you do with your kids while you lobby? My answer: take 'em along.

"That's great," you say, "but my 3 year old can't sit still for 5 seconds and I can't think straight enough to write a grocery list when they are in the room with me, much less put together a coherent argument about foreign aid." I hear you. I've been there. Like all things, you use your judgement about whether your kids are prime-time ready to go to a movie or a restaurant. This is no different. I know this will never work for some kids. Yet if your young charges are at-the-breast, sedate enough to color, or mature enough to write book reports at school, then taking them to lobby can be a very powerful experience for you, them, and your MOC. Here's why:

#1 You may get unexpected face-to-face time and photo ops 

Guess what? In general, to an MOC your kids are cuter and more interesting than you are. There's a reason for the tradition of politicians kissing babies. They like to be around the reflected glory of cuteness. Look at this rare double IL senator sighting with my family at a D.C. constituent breakfast. Everybody got one photo with Senators Durbin and Kirk, but our family got two so there could be one with just the children. Senator Durbin made a beeline to talk to the girls before the townhall and both signed autographs for them afterwards, too. Would I have gotten anywhere near that attention for being a 40 year old activist in DC? Nope. But these girls whipped out about 30 kid-letters and pictures about global vaccines for the senators and had the full attention of two of the most powerful foreign aid appropriators in Washington.

#2 Nobody wants to be on record being rude to a child
If they don't happen to agree with you, it's highly unlikely that anything will get contentious in front of your children. They definitely don't want any tears in the office. What a horrible photo op that would be to go out on Twitter!

#3 You'll make a memorable impression
Good relationships are the key to great advocacy. If your MOC remembers you by name with a positive association, that's the best. If your kids are polite and respectful, they'll be grateful you're breaking up the routine of their day and be more likely to remember you next time. Or, you may have a very human parenting moment that will break the ice. Once, I brought markers for my 4 year old and was puzzled when the corners of my Congresswoman's mouth started twitching as she repeatedly looked just past me. I turned and saw my preschool-age lobby partner had colored her whole palm with red ink and was it was only a matter of time before she put it down to make a palm print...maybe on the paper, maybe not! We all burst out laughing, got a wet paper towel to clean her up, and went on with the meeting. Congresswoman Schakowksy is a grandmother herself and after that day our meetings were punctuated by her kvelling over their artwork and sometimes tickling them mid-conversation.
Congresswoman Jan Schakowksy with ONE volunteers and a small constituent caught "red-handed"

#4 It keeps the conversation at the emotional and moral level
Kids relate best to the moral reasons to help people in need. They have an innate sense of fairness and justice. Sometimes it's hard to get MOC's to stay on track because they'll sidetrack onto other topics or cite policy reasons beyond the reckoning of most voters and 5th graders. Kids can help remind them that can really be as simple as "We should help because we can." or "It's not fair that people are dying."

#5 You're helping kids grow up to be better citizens
I was terrified with nerves the first time I met my Congresswoman face-to-face. Kids, unlike many grownups, are fortunate to see MOC's as people instead of titles. My children know their Congresswoman as someone who laughs with them and even writes them letters sometimes. They know that they have every right to be in the capitol building and expect to be heard. Tearing down the intimidation barriers between MOC's and their constituents is the beginning of great citizen engagement.

#6 You save on babysitting money
Enough said.

#7 The only thing better than saving the world is saving the world...together
Along with making great homemade bread, making the world a better place is definitely a legacy I wish to hand down to my girls. We all learn by doing and doing it together makes it more special.