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. Except...as 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."

Camille


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 positive...my 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 govtrack.us 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
"SAVE LIVES"

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
logo
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.” 





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 somewhere...it'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 "Wow...technology 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.