Monday, April 9, 2018

Advocacy in the US and Kenya

My guest blogger today is Sarah Borgstede, a fellow mom and RESULTS activist living in the greater St. Louis area. She hasn't been an advocate for even two years, but her passion for learning and her empathetic, active listening style have helped her rocket into a leadership position. This year, RESULTS asked her to join a training program for leaders of groups doing deep advocacy. It happened to be in Nairobi. What an opportunity! I've asked her to share one of her many stories with us today to help us understand the similarities we share with mom-advocates in Kenya as well as how our actions impact lives of moms and kids all the way across the globe. Thank you, Sarah!


Advocacy in the US and Kenya
By Sarah Borgstede, RESULTS Greater St. Louis and Southern Illinois Group Co-leader

Sometimes when I try to explain what I do as a volunteer with RESULTS, I see people’s eyes glaze over. Advocacy can be really abstract. It’s hard to see how calling a Member of Congress does anything. But it really does! I just got back from Nairobi, Kenya, where I got to see just how real this work is, once you connect the dots.

Sarah Borgstede (left) learns from Irene Njoka (center) how
Kenyan mothers advocate in their own communities.
I was traveling with a group of advocates to visit other advocacy groups in villages in Kenya. In one village, a grassroots group took a break from Sunday morning church to come talk with us in the village center. The group there reminded me a lot of my group back home in St. Louis: both groups are made up of regular people, including a lot of moms and their kids. I didn’t notice the kids at first-- Kenyan toddlers, safely wrapped up in their mom’s arms and baby slings, are apparently quite a bit quieter than my three-year-old is at our advocacy meetings back home!

The water tank in the village. Women and girls used to spend all day every Monday walking to
the tap at the main road. The tap only runs every Monday because water is rationed.
Now the water runs to the tap in the village, right across the street from
this tank. Photo credit: Mikhail Zukhairi Chishti
The Kenyan women of the group told us about one of their success stories: they wrote letters to their elected officials to get water piped to the village. They said, “You promised us this water. Without it, our girls are missing school and our women are missing work to carry it. We will dig the trench: you lay the pipes.” It worked! They got water in the village, freeing many women of backbreaking, day-long trips to get water from a distant source. That’s amazing! 

The grassroots members also showed us letters they wrote to get their hospital’s maternity ward completed. They explained that women were having to go 15-20 kilometers to the next hospital to give birth. Being from the US, I was thinking “That’s not far, I drove a lot farther than that when I was in labor. Our U.S. hospitals are often farther apart than that.” Then, I realized that these women were talking about walking there, through hilly country on often unpaved roads. I checked google maps when I got home: at the least, in good road conditions (during the dry season), it’s a minimum of eight miles with a seven hundred foot elevation increase between the village and the nearest hospital. Can you imagine doing an eight-mile uphill hike while in labor?

This trip really made me think about what advocacy looks like in Kenya and here in the US. Our St. Louis RESULTS group is working on Senate “Dear Colleague” letters to support funding for global maternal and child health programs right now. It feels abstract: it doesn’t impact my life directly. Our work deeply impacts my heart and my sense of morality, but not whether or not I can get to a hospital. Compare that to the grassroots group in Kenya, for whom the stakes are much higher. They are seeing children born on the road on the way to the hospital. They know what needs to happen to prevent that and exactly who needs to be doing it. Now, I can connect the dots all the way from advocacy in St. Louis to mothers in Kenya. In the U.S., we lobby for funding to support global health through specific programs. Then, resources go from the U.S. and other countries into partnerships all over the world. In this example, a Kenyan partner organization uses some of that money to support their expertise in advocacy training and to provide basic supplies--I’m talking pens and paper here-- for grassroots groups. Then, the grassroots groups can pressure their local government to get what is needed. The Kenyan government is held accountable for delivering on their promises. In this example, they are held accountable for delivering babies.

You see? The abstract request we make here, “Senator, please sign this ‘Dear Colleague’ letter to support robust funding” comes all the way down to “let’s spare the cost of office supplies to prevent needless deaths of moms and babies.” Of course, this is only one example of the way that the programs we support work. When I think about how these efforts are multiplied in different communities and environments around the world, it makes my head spin with the complexity of it all. It also makes me feel motivated. I know that my few minutes of volunteering time, though small, can support mothers just like me who are fighting for better opportunities and access to life-saving medical care in their communities.

If YOU want to join in this effort, it’s easier than you think! Call both YOUR senators and urge them to sign onto this letter before April 20!

Images by Sarah Borgstede, Micha Chishti, and Deborah Lash (RESULTS)