Home > Uncategorized > Taking Part, Taking a Stand and Taking Action in Washington

Taking Part, Taking a Stand and Taking Action in Washington

My four-year-old daughter is a lobbyist. A bonafide Washington lobbyist. And, I could not be prouder of her.

In her first visit to “the hill,” Vivienne joined over 400 people from 39 states in Washington, D.C. for the national conference of CARE — a leading global humanitarian organization — to discuss poverty, hunger and the climate crisis with members of Congress.

In this election year, lobbying carries a heavy stigma. The candidates are systematically purging their campaigns of anyone who even peripherally lobbied in their lifetimes. Lobbying conjures up images of unctuous tobacco, gun and insurance agents in surreptitious, back-slapping meetings over scotch-rocks with members of Congress, as they carve out more for the powerful at the expense of the marginalized.

But, when it comes to lobbying, it’s not the what that matters; it’s the who and why. As Bill Clinton said in defense of Hillary’s reception of lobbyist money: “What gives the lobbyists influence is the people who hire them to work for them. It’s all the people they represent.” Lobbying is merely the act of meeting with our elected officials to ask them to support something in which we believe.

Vivienne believes in Disneyland princesses, the violin and lemon sorbet. She also believes in feeding the hungry, keeping girls safe and protecting our planet.

Vivienne is only four years old, but she does not like that 850 million people are chronically hungry in the world — and that many of those people are children. She does not like that violence against women and girls is on the rise. And, she does not like that our planet is heating up and that that is hurting poor people the most.

So, Vivienne proudly took her place in history alongside hundreds of thousands of intrepid, compassionate souls who, over a span of six decades, have forged CARE into a global superpower for change — defending dignity and fighting poverty.

CARE was founded in 1945 and helped rebuild an embattled Europe by rushing over 100 million “care packages” to the survivors of World War II. Today, CARE gives special focus to working alongside poor women because CARE has found that when women are equipped with the proper resources, they have special power to lift whole families and entire communities out of poverty. CARE allocates 91% of the money it receives directly to people in need on the ground. This is one of the highest percentages in the industry.

To do my part to support CARE, I collaborated with them in creating the I am Powerful Workout, a campaign to empower Americans with better health as they empower women and girls worldwide. For every hour people exercise, and record on http://www.care.org/workout, I donate $5 to CARE. I believe that when we have an emotional reason to exercise, we will do it more — and we will get more out of it. And, I believe that when we empower ourselves with better health, we have more power to change our world – and we have a greater inclination to do so.

The people who work with CARE are precisely the role models I want my daughter to be around. They embody Mahatma Gandhi‘s idea to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

So, Vivienne joined us and CARE in Washington, as its youngest participant, to discuss three urgent issues with members of Congress:

The Global Hunger Crisis

A new hunger crisis is upon us. According to the World Food Program, food prices have increased 55 percent since June 2007. And, the situation is likely to worsen in the coming months. When food riots occur — as they have in Haiti, Africa, Asia and parts of Europe — it means people have reached a breaking point.

There are many reasons for the increase in food prices. Among them: rising oil prices, increased demand for food and a record number of food crops being converted for use as biofuel.

“Food crises are not isolated events that happen unexpectedly,” says Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE. “People are plunged into crisis due to a number of interrelated factors, including poverty, poor access to markets, insufficient agricultural production, and social marginalization. A disaster only makes a systematic problem worse. Unless we address the reasons why people are vulnerable to hunger in the first place, we will not succeed in overcoming widespread food insecurity over the long term.”

Most Americans can cope with fluctuations in food prices; we have adequate buffers. But, imagine for a moment that you are one of the billion people on Earth who live on one dollar a day. How would you budget for rising food prices? What would you tell your children?

We conveyed to members of Congress that traditional food aid does not work the way it should. The strategy thus far has been to ship huge amounts of food overseas to be given to needy people or sold in open markers. This is emblematic of American goodwill, but it does not prevent hunger and its underlying causes.

The key is to provide short-term emergency food aid in such places as Myanmar, as we help communities build better systems to protect themselves against food insecurity over the long-term.

So, we asked members of Congress to support provisions in the FY08-09 Supplemental Appropriations Bill to provide increased funding for emergency food programs and to bring reform to the U.S. approach to hunger by supporting a regional and local purchase program.

Violence Against Women and Girls Worldwide

Violence against women and girls is at epidemic proportions in many of the world’s poorest countries. According to CARE, at least one out of three women globally will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, with rates reaching 70 percent in some countries.

Reading that is one thing. Bringing it home is another. For me, it’s a thing of beauty to watch my wife and daughter delight in one another’s company in a safe, enriching environment full of love. I cannot imagine these two women being abused and held back from thriving. Repressing the majestic and beautiful power of a woman is a crime against humanity.

It also cripples humanity. Violence against women is inextricably linked to poverty, because a woman who has been the victim of abuse is limited in her ability to work and provide for her family. It also reduces women’s educational opportunities, and it tears at the very fabric of society — because women play a central role in strengthening communities everywhere in the world.

Fortunately, like any societal scourge, violence against women can be prevented — if enough people care.

There is landmark legislation in the works to do just that.

On October 31, 2007, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) introduced The International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) in the U.S. Senate.

We asked members of Congress for their support on IVAWA. If passed, it would mark the first time in U.S. history that ending violence against women would be a diplomatic priority. That means the U.S. government would be required to respond to outbreaks of gender-based violence in armed conflicts — such as the mass rapes now occurring in the Democratic Republic of Congo — within six months. (It is befuddling and ludicrous to me that we don’t already do that).

Women are the biggest catalyst for change in communities around the world. We cannot possibly move forward as a civilization until women and girls are protected. This is a non-negotiable point. And, we can’t go part of the way on it. This is an all-the-way issue.

We found solid support for IVAWA, particularly among Senators Boxer and Feinstein. At the conclusion of our meetings, Vivienne gave their staffers big, warm hugs and heartfelt “thank you’s.” It was the perfect close.

Climate Change

We have heard so much about climate change that we have grown slightly desensitized to it. But, we had better get re-sensitized to it. And, quick.

Just last week, James Hansen, a top NASA scientist – known as “the godfather of global warming science” — told a U.S. congressional panel that the world would be “toast” if we didn’t take drastic action on global warming. Hansen said the world has long passed the “dangerous level” for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

This is no longer an “environmental issue”; it’s a people issue. As the planet grows hotter, people in the poorest countries suffer the most, because farmers there are already operating at razor-thin margins. A little less rainfall can transform a life-sustaining harvest into loss of life.

And, if left unchecked, global warming will affect us all — in ways that we can hardly imagine. The parable of the frog in hot water applies: it is said that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but the frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough. The lesson is that whether it comes to our personal health or our planet’s health, we must wake up to gradual change or we may suffer catastrophic loss.

We asked members of Congress to support initiatives to reduce poor people’s vulnerability, to give them the resources and tools to adapt to a warmer climate – and to support a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions, as voluntary measures do not go nearly far enough.

We pressed hard on this issue as the time for talk has long passed. The time for action is now.

Lessons Learned

Four things struck me about this illuminating foray into the world of political advocacy:

First, I went to the hill with absurdly low expectations. Over the course of the current Administration, I have become fatalistic. I presumed, like many, that these politicians would be cynical, partisan robots who would nod approvingly, but not hear a word we said.

In fact, the opposite was true. For the most part, these are good people intent on doing the right things. They merely differ on how to do it. If you are willing to take the time to meet with them, they will take the time to listen. The system may be slow and ceremonial, but the system works.

Next, the “one person/one vote/one voice can’t make a difference” excuse is not remotely valid. If a four-year-old with zero political experience can travel to Washington, D.C. and make a difference, then each of us can make a difference in our own way. Put aside your excuses, doubts and suspicions about politics and take part, take a stand and take action. One person can tip the balance and make all the difference.

Third, CARE has clout. Striding into these offices wearing CARE badges commanded respect among members of Congress. CARE is a serious organization with a serious history, led by serious people who produce serious results. And, members of Congress knew it.

Finally, I was moved that over 400 CARE volunteer advocates traveled to Washington D.C. on their own dime to push for issues that do not directly affect them. These people were not lobbying Congress to bring down the price of gasoline or to lower the cost of their health insurance. They were putting in 14-hour days on behalf of people a world away.

At the conclusion of our hill visits, a worn-out Vivienne said: “Papa, did I do a good job as a loppyist? I’m tired. Can we be done now?”

I said, “Yes, honey, you helped people who you will never meet — and who cannot help you back. That is the best kind of help to give. I could not be prouder of you. Now, let’s get some lemon sorbet.”

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