Field Notes: Creating Change in Washington

Earlier this week I went to Washington, D.C. for the international conference of RESULTS, a nonpartisan organization working to end hunger and poverty by empowering individuals to exercise their personal and political power. The goal of RESULTS is captured in this quote by former Oregon Republican Senator Mark Hatfield:

“We stand by as children starve by the millions because we lack the will to eliminate hunger. Yet we have found the will to develop missiles, capable of flying over the polar cap and landing within a few hundred feet of their target. This is not innovation. It is a profound distortion of humanity’s purpose on earth.”

RESULTS activists create this will through lobbying. RESULTS highlights effective ways to end poverty. RESULTS activists learn about microfinancing, education, maternal heath etc., and work together nationwide to bring specific bills or requests to the attention of elected officials of both parties. Indeed, RESULTS seeks bipartisan leadership and support on everything we do, because a bipartisan approach is essential to ending poverty and hunger.

I have always believed in the power of the individual to effect meaningful change, but the work of RESULTS continues to impress and surprise me. At this year's conference we heard from an HIV/AIDS expert about how we could end the epidemic in our lifetime – it's not a question of science, but rather a matter of political will and money. We heard from Marian Wright Edelman from the Children's Defense Fund about the importance of supporting anti-poverty programs, especially for children (“babies in diapers don't have belts to tighten,” she told us). We heard from Senators and Representatives attesting to the power of our work.

The stories have poured in over the years. One RESULTS group got an editorial published decrying one of their Senators for standing in the way of legislation that would save millions of lives, after which that Senator moved out of the way. RESULTS activists brought Tuberculosis (TB) to the attention of their Congressman who previously possessed little knowledge of TB or its treatment, but later became a champion of eradicating it. Or, a personal favorite, RESULTS Japan – all five members – lobbied their government this year to contribute to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), which then made a first time ever pledge of $9 million.

This year we had 140 Hill meetings set up. RESULTS has both domestically focused groups and globally focused groups. I participate in the latter. Top issues this year were protecting funding for global health, persuading members to sign a letter encouraging the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to focus microfinancing programs more on the very poor, and co-sponsoring the Education For All ( EFA) Act which will soon be reintroduced into the House. Most attendees have been learning about and lobbying on these issues in their chapters throughout the year, but at the conference we also had lobbying prep where we reviewed our requests and fine-tuned our approaches to various representatives based on their priorities and past work. We also looked at the most effective ways to communicate with our representatives. RESULTS uses the EPIC model. Engage, state the Problem, Inform of the solution, and Call to action. Combined with arguments tailored to individual elected officials, we were poised for maximum impact.

I'll use an issue I focused on – global education – to illustrate how this works in practice. Education is truly a linchpin issue, connecting everything from health, to womens' empowerment, to national security. But when talking to my more conservative Senator (or rather, his foreign policy legislative aide), I picked the benefits of global education I thought would most resonate with his core values: national security, job creation, and eliminating bureaucratic waste.

First my friend told a story, to Engage. He is from Bangladesh, and spoke about his cousin who was nine years old when she was injured in a suicide bombing at the Bengali New Year celebration. In Bangladesh, my friend explained, many rural areas have no government schools and thus extremists can come and teach whatever they want. Parents, grateful their children have a school, don't question the content of the education. He ends his story by emphasizing the importance of education, and stating that the 9/11 Commission concluded that education was the single best way to prevent future attacks.

Then it was my turn. I handed the aide a letter signed by 77 three- and four-star generals that detailed the importance of foreign economic development to our security. International education assistance is an excellent investment because it promotes economic growth and nearly 50 percent of our exports currently go to developing countries.

I described the EFA Act and the EFA Fast Track Initiative that reduces bureaucracy by streamlining current U.S. support for global education. On top of that, it supports an existing organization that is set up to deliver education assistance in the most cost-effective way, and  promotes transparency and accountability.

Lastly, I had researched the Senator and knew he had sponsored legislation to prevent child trafficking and child marriage. Although the Senate failed to act on these proposals, it was valuable knowing that the Senator cared about these issues and  it informed my approach to the discussion. The EFA Act specifically looks at increasing access to education for marginalized and vulnerable groups, like victims of child trafficking. I explained that the EFA Act is, in many ways, accomplishing the same things in a different form and with a bit more reach than the Senator's proposals

.My point here is this: education breeds efficacy. Empowerment is not just a hackneyed word, but a state of being, attainable through education. This is why I am involved in both RESULTS and NPP. NPP stresses public education and understanding of the budget as the basis for action. And RESULTS takes that foundation and goes to Congress with it. NPP shows how the federal budget is a reflection of our national priorities, and I cannot remember how many times I encountered this sentiment at the conference. As Senator Hatfield said, we just lack the will.

RESULTS actively works to refocus these priorities, and that is why I am a member. I do not buy into the cynicism that individuals cannot change things. Because we can, and we have, and we are.