Monday, October 11, 2021

#ThisLittleGirlIsMe : A Campaign for International Day of the Girl

Image: A faded newsprint image of Cynthia 
in grade school selling candy for Camp Fire

This little girl, this Camp Fire Girl, is me. Back then, earning patches and singing songs was just a fun thing to do. I didn’t pay attention to how I was also learning about civic engagement, obligation to community, and care for the environment. I grew up and used my math/science skills to earn engineering degrees. But I didn’t anticipate that a far greater success was in store for me to pass my values down to my children and to write a book helping other moms find their civic power to protect all the things I loved as a child. At almost 50, I’m once again embracing the things that were most important to this little girl and making them a priority in my life.

Why am I sharing my story with you?

Because 70% of girls feel more confident about their futures after hearing from women role models. I’m honored to be part of the #thislittlegirlisme campaign initiated by Inspiring Girls International to mark International Day of the Girl 2021, October 11. 

Friday, October 8, 2021

Get the Word Out: Letters to the Editor for Non-local Newspapers

Image: Cindy shouting into a megaphone

I know there are great media writers reading my blog who already have good relationships with their local newspapers. Fantastic! My local RESULTS St. Louis group got to that point a few years ago. We were very good at getting letters to the editor (LTE’s) published in newspapers around town. But we wondered, “How could we expand our media influence around our state?” In fact, a senate aide tole us they wanted to see us bring in media clips not only from our urban area, but from rural Missouri as well to show our influence in those areas.

I’ll share three tips we learned in case you’re looking to broaden your reach around your state and even into others. Getting published out of state is one of the few ways I can influence members of Congress out of my state. They may not have to represent me, but they definitely care what anyone says about them in the press!

If you’ve never written a letter to the editor before, pop over to my previous blog to check out basic tips for writing LTE’s. For a next step in generating more media, read on…

#1 Find a good headline from Associated Press News and submit several similar LTE’s at once

Editors love letters responding to articles in their own paper. Yet it can take time to look through many papers searching for a good headline “hook” related to your issue. The Associated Press can save you time!

Associated Press is a news service a lot of papers use, so they don’t have to use local resources to cover national news. If you find a headline that could be an excellent hook and the byline says Associated Press or “AP” on it, google that exact headline and it will probably turn up in several newspapers around the country. So, I can write one basic letter, then alter it a bit for each consecutive one until I respond to all of them, changing out the names of the members of Congress for the different publication areas. 

For instance, say you want to find an article about COVID-19 vaccines so you can write an LTE about global access. The AP put out an article called “Sweeping new vaccine mandates for 100 million Americans.” The same article was picked up in Denver, St Louis, Detroit, and Cedar Rapids among others. I can usually submit 6 or 7 letters using this method and maybe even get 2 or 3 of them published! Make sure each one is a slightly different, so they aren’t exact copies of each other.

Image: A headline with the Associated Press byline circled

Newspapers might change the headline a little, but they usually keep the first line of the article the same, so you could google the first line and possibly find even more.

#2 Try out-of-town newspapers in cities where you have a connection

For instance, my hometown newspaper in Fargo, North Dakota had a letter to the editor talking about the separation of church and state. I used that hook to say while the writer’s point was important, I also believe in being actively engaged in politics to live out the moral values I first learned as a child at Gethsemene Cathedral in Fargo. Mentioning my home church established my connection to their local community. I wrote about how people of many faiths support feeding malnourished people around the world and requested a global nutrition action from North Dakota senators.

Image: My Space Camper suited up
for a space walk simulation
For a paper in Oklahoma City, I might mention my mom lives there to reference a connection. I’ve also found newspapers amenable to printing your writing if you mention you travelled to the town for a beloved local attraction. When I took my daughter to Space Camp in Huntsville, AL and mentioned our trip in a piece while I stayed in town for a week, it was published immediately. 

#3 Respond to a colleague in the opinion section

This one works so well for me, it almost feels like cheating. If you know other activists who write LTE’s on the same issue, respond to their letters. I’ve lost track of the number of times my fellow RESULTS partner Willie Dickerson and I have landed published responses to each other’s letters, even though he lives in Washington State and I’m in Missouri. If I notice Willie has a letter in a newspaper far from where he actually lives, I automatically know they accept letters from out of town and that they would publish letters on our issues. So, I just write a letter to the editor saying I agree with him and mention a few more talking points about the same issue. This has the added benefit of going a little deeper into the issue than the original letter, so the members of Congress learn a little more.

Image: Willie Dickerson with my youngest daughter
Lastly, I’ll point out that some papers do not accept out-of-town letters at all. If you want a surefire list of papers around the country accepting of out-of-towners, I have a list of my published letters to the editor on my website. Any paper not in St. Louis is out-of-town for me, so they are fair game!

Let me know in the comment if any of these tips work for you or if you have some to add. Good luck!

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Coping with Advocacy Stress

Advocacy is empowering, exciting, and inspiring! And yet, our world of divided politics also makes it frustrating and downright maddening. This is especially true for those who are not only advocates, but organizers shepherding the efforts of volunteers. “How do you cope!?” comes up again and again among activists in private conversations and public forums.

Legislative losses, internet trolls, misinformation, party politics, members of Congress who won’t listen, volunteer group members who don't respond to their group leaders…all of those are normal stressors for grassroots organizers. But throw in a dose of pandemic isolation and anxiety, and you have a solid recipe for activist burnout.

Despite how many well-meaning people like to call us “tireless activists,” that’s just not a true descriptor for most dedicated mom advocates. Tiredness is a frequent visitor. And Tiredness likes to bring along best buddy Overwhelm.

So, what are we to do?

Take Care of Ourselves

Photo: My walking path
For me, getting out to exercise in nature is a big part of restorative self-care. Getting away from humans for a while is important when particular humans are disappointing us in spectacular ways. Sandi Schwartz, the mom behind the Ecohappiness Project, always has suggestions on how parents and children can tap into the healing power of nature. She wrote a post about cow cuddling to reduce stress and now I want to go find a cow, but her usual tips are a bit more accessible to those of use who don't live on farms!

Photo: Cindy trying to decompress 
with a book at the nail salon 
After I check to see if I'm treating my body right with basic needs, pampering myself is another way I lift my spirits. I ventured back to the salon after 18 months of isolation, I found that actual human contact at a salon is rather anxiety-producing for me as the COVID-19 Delta variant races through Missouri. Luckily, Eva Milano has tips for an at-home scalp massage we can use to de-stress by ourselves.

Listen to the Experts

Those were a couple of my personal go-to suggestions, but a conversation at the virtual RESULTS International Conference revealed wisdom from some experienced activists who know a lot about advocacy burnout. Let’s learn from what they said when they reflected together on how to restore our powerful spirits.

"I look at the beauty around me and how grateful I am to be safe and I listen to audiobooks while knitting...preferably outside, weather permitting ."

Leslye Heilig

“I lean on my fellow advocates who are in a place of strength when I am not.” 

Cecilia van Wijk

“When advocacy is overwhelming for me I think of where I started with three little faces depending on me to ensure that they were provided with the best education and that they weren’t placed in a category and just left there. Now, I think of those faces and how much they have grown and how poverty has shaped each one of them. That helps me keep going. I don’t want them to ever have to experience poverty in their lifetime. I show them everyday that they have a voice and they can speak up. But when it’s overwhelming for them, I pick it up and run with it for them. My kids are my primary driver. Looking at how I grew up, I never wanted them to grow up the same way. So, I do what I can to ensure that they have better opportunities and that they don’t settle.”

Yolanda Gordon

“My kids help me stay motivated. I want to create a future where they never have to worry about being in poverty, and I think about all the moms out there struggling to care for their kids. As far as doing something to give myself a break, I like to have a dance party with my kids or belt out a song in my car or at karaoke (back when we could do that!)”

Lisa Peters

Photo: MLK Memorial in Washington DC

"When coping and self-care are key, I try to remember to rest, hydrate, and spend time with family, especially children. They bring hope and joy. Also, there is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that brings me up whenever I feel discouraged: 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.' Change will come even when we feel like we don't see it yet."

Karyne Bury

“I cope by thinking back and taking a trip down memory lane! I remember the times my family and I needed help. Back then, there wasn’t much help for a single black man with five children. I think back on the seven years of having to stay in a tent. I think about those times not being able to take a decent bath. I think about that and how I wish somebody had been there to fight and advocate for my family. We deserved a voice like mine ready for whatever when it comes to letting congressional leadership know about families like mine. It's so important for poverty to come to an end! This isn’t a job. This is a lifestyle! Me and poverty have a personal type of relationship, and I don’t want nobody in this world to have to live like we did! So I don’t see myself ever getting tired because I know one day I’ll look back and smile and be proud that I didn’t get tired of fighting for what every family deserves: a home and a strong foundation to grow and learn and live a poverty free life!”

La’Shon Marshall

"When I’m overwhelmed, I take a step back. I remind myself that I need to take care of my mind and body in order to be my best self. We must respect and love ourselves enough to take breaks when we need them. The work will be there when we are ready to return."

Keisha Perkins

"In my own volunteer commitments, I find it helpful to communicate my boundaries with the person in charge so I don’t get overwhelmed. For example, if I led on a big project one month, they know I expect to take a back seat for the next month or two, and they plan accordingly. That way I can give it my all without getting chronically overwhelmed."


What are YOUR tips for avoiding advocacy burnout?

Leave 'em in the comments!

Photo: RESULTS advocates in a Zoom lobby meeting

Thursday, June 10, 2021

7 Tips for Networking at a Virtual Conference


A picture of my at-home workstation during
a virtual conference in a pandemic.

Virtual conferences have been a standard part of organizational life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accessibility for folks who can't travel was such a positive outcome for advocacy groups that I predict we’ll see them continue to offer virtual components to conferences even when we can gather again. So many new activists were able to participate! On the other hand, it’s been difficult to recreate networking opportunities through our computer screens.

My first virtual conference felt rather unsatisfying. Sure, I learned new information by watching speakers, but I longed for the relationship-building part of an in-person conference. I didn’t feel like I met many new people and resolved to do better with each successive conference.

Since then, I’ve learned a few ways to make the most of networking during a virtual conference. Every conference is different depending on which platforms they choose and how they choose to use them. But they usually contain some common features - like zoom meetups, pre-conference chat discussions, and Q&A opportunities - that can raise your visibility and help you get to know people. 

RESULTS uses the Whova platform to host the conference event, info,
and community discussions. This is a screen capture of the agenda window.

My main piece of advice is: get in there and participate! But how? Here are my seven tips for making the most of a virtual conference:

1. Be Positive

Humans gravitate to people who are positive and encouraging. I believe this is especially true in when virtually interacting with a group of strangers. You might possess a razor-sharp, wry wit in face-to-face encounters yet that never seems to come through well in typed comments. I’ve seen things go awry when someone takes it upon themselves to criticize someone else’s answer to a getting-to-know-you ice breaker question. I mean…what the heck? If their preference isn’t racist or hurtful, don’t “yuck their yum” (as the head of my kids’ school would say).

I have another reason for staying kids attend RESULTS conferences with me online. As a mom, I wouldn't want to write anything out on those apps that I'd be embarrassed for my kids to read! So, assume the best intentions of people, lay off the all-caps key, and remember that it’s even easier to walk away from an irritating situation on a computer than it is in real life.

2. Ask Insightful Questions

A picture of me raising my hand.

I’ve been in conferences where participants were shy to ask the first question. It made for many awkward pauses in Q&A sections. Now, I try to come up with at least one question before the session even starts. A thoughtful question can help get the ball rolling (great for everyone) and make a good impression on others (great for your networking).

To inspire ideas for questions, read session descriptions beforehand and maybe even google the speakers. Keep your question concise and on topic. Pay attention during the session to make sure you won’t ask about something that was already covered. Most of the time, virtual conferences just have folks write questions in a chat box, but if you get to turn your microphone or camera, be sure to say your name and your city before your question.

3. Be Helpful

A friendly, helpful attitude is a way to attract positive attention from attendees and organizers alike. For instance, I attended a writing conference where everyone first joined a main room while all session content was in several breakout rooms with different names. People could step out and interact in the main room anytime, but there were often clueless participants in there trying to find their way around, too. I was one of the clueless people at first! To help others costs nothing and creates a lot of goodwill.

4. Expand Your Social Media Network

Logos of Facebook, Twitter,
and LinkedIn
We can’t hand anyone a physical business card, but virtual conferences have the advantage of displaying names of participants. Some use large zoom rooms where you can see names underneath pictures. Some conferences use apps that list all the participants with profiles, so you can see if you share similar professional or social interests. Take advantage of the ability to see names by connecting with them on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. That way you can continue your conversations well after the conference is over.

5. Stay On Topic

When overzealous participants fill the conference apps with off topic links or comments, it can be super annoying. It can also push relevant posts so far down that others can’t find information they want. If the conference app lets you share articles, make sure you share links to pieces related to the focus of the conference. Some people try to connect with others by sharing different interests, but sharing too many unrelated posts and articles can have the opposite effect by irritating fellow participants.

6. Try Out New Technology

My teens love to tease me about how I don’t like to download new apps to my phone or computer. I’m turning into an old curmudgeonly lady who doesn’t like to learn how to use new-fangled things. But if you don’t commit to learning to use each conference platform to the fullest, you’re excluding yourself from networking opportunities!

CARE held a virtual 75th Anniversary event with that used “proximity voice chat” to create a cocktail party experience. (Anyone who plays Among Us is familiar with that tech) We uploaded pictures of ourselves, so we could move our avatars around the screen. If you moved closer to another group of avatars, you could converse with them. If you moved farther away, you couldn’t hear them anymore, much like an actual party. There was also a screen in the virtual room that had some content playing. I could have just parked myself by the movie screen and simply watched the recorded content since I was clumsy at using the unfamiliar platform. Instead, I made myself use it and connected with old and new friends in a way that was really engaging!

7. Make Space for Others

Yes, networking requires you to be visible and active, but take care not to dominate the conversation. For instance, if you share so many articles and links in the conference app that it pushes other people's suggestions right off of the visible list, you've essentially cut them out of the conversation even if you mean well. (I've made that mistake before) 

You can participate in a way that helps others be comfortable in sharing their thoughts. I believe the best kinds of interactions are ones where you create room for others to shine, too! Pre-conference chats are not quiz shows where you need to be first with the best answer.

By the way, this is especially important advice for white folks. Virtual conferences have not removed the habits of white privilege. I try to promote myself in a way that demonstrates an ability to be kind, humble, and sensitive to others.

What are YOUR tips for networking at virtual conferences?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

DIY Civics in the Summer

My daughter and I leaping in front of the U.S. Capitol building

In the summer after a normal year, social media would be bursting with creative ideas to prevent kids from losing academic ground over the long break from school. These discussions are especially important in 2021 to protect the fragile gains our children made during virtual learning. But after all COVID-19 put us through, parents who had to share workspace with kids on Zoom class are probably not into reading posts about making math fun or enticing kids into doing a grammar worksheet.

I fall into that category for sure! Truth be told, we’re exhausted. I won’t require a lot from my offspring over the summer. But the past year has taught us that there is a subject none of us can afford to ignore: civics.

Citizen engagement doesn’t get a ton of attention in school. Reading, writing, and arithmetic get top billing and STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are super fashionable. Yet even in regular “American Government” social studies curriculum, students rarely learn how to engage with members of Congress beyond voting. That’s a shame, since the past year demonstrated all kinds of ways that government policy shapes our lives…for better or for worse.

COVID-19 hit people living in poverty and communities of color harder than the rest of America. It exposed all kids of problems in our nutrition safety net, housing policies, and health systems. Government policies for vaccine rollout and mask-wearing affected everyone. Voting rights and systemic racism came under the microscope, too. Citizen engagement is critical for a functioning democracy. This is a lesson our kids need to learn well before they graduate from high school.

I've never come across a camp focused saving the world using personal political power, so I’ve always taken a Do-It-Yourself route to teach my kids about democracy. Now, I have teens who are influencing policy all on their own! Here’s my five-step plan for introducing kids of all ages to impactful actions.

  1. Pick an issue your kids can understand

    There’s no shortage of causes that need help. Start with something they can already understand for their age. Even the littlest littles understand people shouldn’t go hungry. Grade schoolers can understand the importance of school (even if they didn’t enjoy virtual learning). Older kids may already have concerns about our climate crisis and gun violence.

  2. Find a reputable organization to give you basic talking points

    Advocacy groups have websites with great info, so you don’t have to start from scratch with your kids. Most of them have pre-written sample letters, too, so you can see what specific action you can request from members of Congress at this moment. Here are a few links with sample letters on various issues:

    Global Education (from RESULTS)

    Air Pollution (from the Moms Clean Air Force)

    Low-Income Housing Assistance (from RESULTS)

    Hunger (from Bread for the World)

    Gun Violence (from Everytown)

  3. Look up your members of Congress

    Use to find your two U.S. senators and your U.S. representative. I recommend doing this step with your child for a couple of reasons. First, sometimes you need the “zip code plus four” if your congressional district is a little tricky. They might need help to find the zip code lookup. Second, you can learn about your members together by clicking around the information on govtrack.

  4. Write a letter to Congress

    This 7 year old was well able to compose
    a handwritten letter to a U.S. senator
    If your kids are skilled enough to write note to Santa or Grandma, they can write to their members of Congress as well! Help them to write their own letters to members of Congress. Here's my blog with tips on exactly how to do this with kids using a simple format.

    Discuss the topic with them before they write and help them think about their own reasons for supporting the issue. Absolutely let them know how you feel, but be prepared to listen. You might learn from them!

    Encourage them to personalize their letter and deviate from the script if they wish. Kid-pictures are always welcome. They sometimes end up being passed on directly to a senator or end up being tacked up on an aide’s desk because they are cute and unusual.

    When my daughter was in 2nd grade, she noticed as we looked up our Congresswoman’s name and address online that it was Jan Schakowky’s birthday. She added “Happy Birthday” to her letter. I was so surprised that when we got a response, Rep. Schakowksy wrote a personal note thanking her for the birthday greeting and responding to the individual details of the letter. My grownup mind would have never thought of adding that personal touch, but my daughter made a thoughtful connection.

  5. Celebrate!

    My kids met Rep. Jan Schakowsky
    at a 4th of July parade
    If you feel comfortable with gatherings this summer, top off your lessons with a field trip to a 4th of July parade. Most members of Congress travel back to their states and districts to march or ride in Independence Day parades. A little detective work can turn up which ones they will attend, so you can take your kids to see the target of their advocacy.

    Also, be sure and celebrate when you get responses even if your senators or representatives don’t agree with you. Your kids still took an important step to tell Congress how they feel. With enough pressure from more letters from more people, they just might change their minds. Brainstorm about how to get more letters. Ask the entire family to write? Invite friends to write? Write with a scouting group?

First grade Girl Scout Daisies make a colorful banner for their
senator about empowering girls through education.
If your child takes a liking to your letter-writing exercise, there are more ways they can take action. If they are old enough to have an email account, you can help them take an online action to contact Congress or the President. Or, they might like to actually call a congressional office on the phone or make a video showing other people how to call-in to Congress

Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to find an issue that will make the world a better place and help your children feel they are a part of the democracy we live in!

Friday, May 14, 2021

To Mask or Not to Mask?

Cindy wearing a CARE mask that says

Here we are at last. The CDC announced that vaccinated folk don’t have to wear our masks anymore, outdoors or indoors. Yay! Kind of…

This announcement doesn’t mean the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but it shows we’re firmly moving into a next phase of the pandemic. This phase might be less frightening in the US, but it’s still terrifying for those living in countries like India and Nepal where COVID-19 runs rampant with cities running out of oxygen and funeral pyres burn in the streets. It’s still frustrating for low-income countries like Ghana and Trinidad & Tobago lacking vaccines for a significant portion of their population.

So, now that vaccinated Americans have a new freedom we can exercise, what now? We’re not at 100% vaccination coverage…heck we don’t even have the 70-80% required for herd immunity. We can’t tell by looking at people whether they had the vaccine. How should we think about it?

Kindness Still Matters.

One of my mommy-mantras that I say to my kids is: “Just because you CAN do a thing, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do a thing.” While I look forward to putting my mask aside in some situations, I think my mantra can help us consider when and wear to keep our masks on.

Last year, I wrote that staying home to “Flatten the Curve" was an act of kindness. Now, I’m saying that wearing a mask-even when you’re not required to-can be an act of kindness as well. Here are some ways wearing your mask in public can spread kindness and empathy.

Help others around you feel comfortable.

My 15-year-old just got her first dose yesterday. However, as she watched older kids and adults get vaccinated all around her in the last few months, she felt uncomfortable in situations where they would take off their masks and urge her to do the same. I know of another teen who has had such anxiety in the past year that she wears a mask even alone in her room just because it helps her feel comfortable and safe. 

We will still have a lot of tweens and teens unvaccinated for the next few months since the federal approval just happened this week. Plus, ALL children under 12 are still unvaccinated. Even though the risk is lower is lower these days, there are a lot of feelings still on high-alert. We can extend grace to those who feel anxious.

Protect the vulnerable among us.

 Tweet from Upgrade Accessibility warning that the 
CDC announcement is dangerous for
disabled/chronically ill people.
A norm of mask wearing helps keep our disabled, immunocompromised, and chronically ill friends safe. There are some among them unable to get the vaccine. Some of them are fully vaccinated, but suffer from poor immunity, so they just can’t gamble. If a vaccine is 94% effective against COVID-19, chances of contracting are small, but would be disastrous. Breakthrough cases are not common, but definitely expected. 

Tweet from vaccinated & immunocompromised 
individual asking for understanding for his
continued mask wearing.
You can’t tell who these folks are by looking at them. So, again, if someone asks you to put on a mask, don’t ask why. Just think about these reasons and be gracious as you mask up.

Set a good example.

You can help normalize wearing a mask for those that are afraid to get the vaccine, but still need to wear a mask. The CDC tells us that 65% of the US population is still unvaccinated today. That tells me that over half of Americans should still mask up indoors, including children from ages 2-12. Every parent knows kids are more likely to exhibit good behavior if parents are set a good example to follow. If I had kids under 12, I would surely mask up in solidarity, so they know it's important and don't get grumbly about it.

People’s reasons for not yet getting the COVID-19 are varied. It’s not that all of them just don’t care. I know there are people afraid of needles, afraid of the vaccine, afraid their immigration status will impact their vaccine access, afraid to take time off work to get vaccinated, afraid they can’t afford the vaccine (not true, it’s free!), etc, etc. We’ve got a lot of hurdles to overcome. While we overcome them, I don’t want any of those people to feel peer-pressured by ME to take their masks off! Because if they do, we’re all going to live with COVID-19 restrictions for a longer time.

Protect everyone from COVID-19 variants.

Cindy with her favorite Sustainable
Development Goal:
#3 Good Health & Well-Being
As a global health advocate, I can’t stress how important it is to continue to think globally. The global situation for COVID-19 variants is still very unstable, even for people who are fully vaccinated. We don’t yet have aggressive testing in place to track dangerous variants, so we won’t know about them until they are a serious problem.

We’ve gotten very lucky so far that none of the variants have yet eluded the current vaccines. Mask wearing both protects a population from variant outbreaks and provides fewer opportunities for dangerous variants to form during a pandemic phase (like right now) where the disease is still unchecked in a large part of the world.

In what situations will you still wear a mask? 

Will you put one on if someone asks you to do so?

Monday, May 10, 2021

Going the Extra Mile with Advocacy

Logo for
"The Extra Mile" podcast
I recently started listening to the Extra Mile podcast hosted by Charity Miles founder Gene Gurkoff. He interviews people going the extra mile for health and to make an impact. It made me reminisce about how I started using Charity Miles (a walking/running app that donates money according to your distance to causes you select) to “go the extra mile” for global immunization and hunger causes. I already gave money to organizations working on those issues, and Charity Miles became another way to contribute. But the biggest way I know how to go an extra mile for global health is to advocate.

Most people don’t really know what a volunteer advocate does, how it’s different from service volunteering, or how impactful the work can be. That’s why I started telling people the story of the river metaphor that I first heard at a Bread for the World conference. Here, I’ll tell it to you…

The River Metaphor

Image: A rocky river with a sharp 
dropoff ahead
Imagine you are having a picnic near the banks of a river. You hear a cry for help and see people 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 friends toss ropes into the raging waters to reach as many people as you can, one by one. The survivors are grateful, but they point upriver where even more victims are swept helplessly along. Maybe your 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 prevent people from falling into the river in the first place. Because you are a change-focused advocate, you hike that extra mile 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 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 illustrates the difference between “direct service” and “advocacy.” Direct service workers give of their energy and talents to help people in crisis. Disaster relief workers, 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 go the extra mile. They look for preventative solutions. They 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.

I admit, 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 desires for instant gratification and personal thanks. But when you know that no more people will fall into the metaphorical river or—in the real world—that children in your community are no longer need to go to a food bank for meals, it feels good knowing that you saved many more people than you ever could have if you never took the mental leap to leave the riverbank.

Serving Millions, Not Hundreds

As a busy mom, I have learned to ask myself: “Since I’m just one person, what’s the best use of my volunteer time to help the most people?”

When I was childless and single with lots of free time, I served dinner in a church soup kitchen. Standing behind serving tables, scooping casserole and welcoming hundreds of people became a highlight of my month. It warmed my heart to hear their words of thanks and to see children happily munching.

Over time, I worried 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. Unfortunately, even those efforts ended after my first baby was born. I stepped away from hands-on projects they weren't compatible with the hands-on work required for baby care.

Bread for the World
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 wanted to help more people, I could use my voice to change the systems that perpetuate poverty. Plus, I could do that even while caring for my children. Of course, moving my efforts further up the river meant that I would never meet most of the people my work would benefit. But I soon discovered that I am okay with that because I know not everyone has patience for the congressional work that I do.  

Both Roles Are Vital

Even if you prefer to work as a direct service provider, you’ll probably find it satisfying 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.

RESULTS advocates taking a turn at direct service 
by packing food to be shipped to people in need
with St. Louis World Food Day
Similarly, being an advocate does not mean you can never be involved in direct service. Hands-on 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.

What kinds of direct service do YOU like to do? 

Can you combine it with advocacy, too?

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Snow Days for Advocates?

Snow covering a lantern and a tree with pink blossoms.

Yesterday afternoon, my activist daughter and I talked about the triple-guilty verdict in the Minneapolis trial of Derek Chauvin yesterday. I was in a mental place of expressing relief for a verdict my cynical heart had predicted to go the other way. She was in a place of continuing the fight for justice. She asked me (this is my paraphrasing of her question), “What difference does this verdict make in our actions? There is still so much to do.”

She’s right. We still live in a broken system overshadowed by oppression and white supremacy. But I tried to describe how on-the-edge this has felt for mom-friends with Black children. It’s hard for me to explain it when I can’t experience the depth of their anxiety myself. But I do know a thing or two about the draining long-term effects of activism.

Snow Days for Advocates

Snow upon pink spring blossoms.

It hurts to advocate for years and years on a thing that never really seems to change whether you're working on climate, tuberculosis, or gun violence. It’s even worse for my friends who feel real and active fear when their Black children are quickly growing into Black teens. I tried to make a comparison that a major trial verdict like this is like a Snow Day for advocates. Remember that feeling when you have a ton of schoolwork, but then you wake up one morning to heavy snow blanketing the ground? When you hear that school cancellation announcement, you KNOW you’re still responsible for all the work. But for a few hours, you can lay aside your burden and not fight that particular fight.

Snow on a blossoming tree against a
pine tree in the background.

A Killing Frost

As I said those words, a rare St. Louis April snow fell amidst our spring blossoms. The Snow Day seemed like a suitable metaphor. Then, tweets started coming in from Ohio about the police shooting of 15-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. They reminded me we weren’t even a week away from the killing of Daunte Wright by a police officer at a traffic stop in Minneapolis. It changed the way I looked at the snow on the flowers. Suddenly, it seemed more like a killing chill threatening the beauty of progress in the season.

I sat watching the quiet, falling flakes. The hopeful thought entered my mind that the snow might indeed kill those blossoms, but it won’t kill the trees. Their roots, like the grass on the lawn, run deep. There’s a reason we call activism from regular folks “grassroots advocacy.” You can mow the grass down or you can freeze the blades. But if the roots are deep and healthy, grass will come back again and again. Some movements are young and fragile, like the young pea shoots in my backyard garden. We must nurture and protect them, so they can later withstand the coming heat of summer. (I covered the peas up with tarps in the morning before the snow)

We’re Both Right

Today, I’m more of my daughter’s mindset. I think of end of the Thurgood Marshall biopic, “Marshall,” where he didn’t even stick around in town to hear the verdict of the big case because he was already in another town with another trial. We must keep moving ahead as a country. Yesterday, however, I needed to lean into the relief I felt. Especially as we get older and see more wins and losses, we need to learn to stop and take a pause when we see accountability or progress. It strengthens us in our long journey toward justice.

Snow on purple flowers.

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 America Dinner 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.”