Last weekend, I took part in a political campaigning event that was powerful enough to not only give me a truly different perspective on politics and advocacy, but one that actually almost cured my cynicism on the subject. And if you know me at all, cynicism and I go together like PB&J, so you can imagine how miraculous this really was.
I’ve been interning with the ONE Campaign since September 2015 and if you’re wondering why you’ve suddenly started thinking of Bono, it’s because he helped found ONE in 2005 (yeah, I work with Bono, like, all the time. We’re super close. nbd*). ONE, a non-partisan NGO, is a global campaign and advocacy organization of more than 7 million people worldwide working to end extreme global poverty and preventable diseases, particularly in Africa. ONE raises public awareness and pressures political leaders to combat these issues as well as to increase investment in agriculture and nutrition and work toward greater transparency in poverty fighting programs.
ONE held its annual Power Summit, a 4-day conference that brings together over 200 of the organization’s volunteers and members from across the nation (this year, we had at least one member from all 50 states!) to train, advocate and lobby for ONE’s missions. It all culminated in Lobby Day, in which the members met with about 200 Congressional offices to advocate for this year’s asks: maintaining or increasing funding for the Gavi Alliance, nutrition programs and the Global Fund.
The Power Summit equips members and volunteers with knowledge and skills on how to advocate, organize and lobby for the issues they care about. And while it’s very important for people to voice their concerns and meet with the representatives of their government, I’ve always had trouble really seeing (and thus, believing) that people could truly make an impact in this way. Until last week.
Working in the non-profit industry, it’s easy to become jaded about how much of an impact you can truly make. It’s easy to get discouraged by the lack of funding, how long it takes for things to happen, and by how little people seem to care sometimes. But when you take part in something as big as the Power Summit, when you see 200 people running around Capitol Hill in their ONE T-shirts, giving elevator pitches about ONE, meeting with members of Congress to talk about these issues, and hearing back nothing but encouragement and positivity, it then becomes difficult to believe that this doesn’t work.
Because it does.
Two years ago, ONE introduced the Electrify Africa Act into Congress, and it finally was signed into law by President Obama a few weeks ago. And it truly couldn’t have been possible without ONE’s volunteers and members signing petitions, meeting with representatives, spreading awareness in their local communities and being relentless in their efforts to make a change, we were finally able to see the fruits of our labor. To be able to get something so amazing passed in a Congressional session with so much gridlock is truly remarkable.
Leading a group consisting of young students (two of whom were high schoolers!) and seeing how enthusiastic and dedicated everyone was, I was truly able to understand that the little people can indeed be the agents of social change. Too often, millennials become apathetic with the political system because more often than not, important initiatives fail to pass Congress because of differences in the two-party system, leading to standstill and gridlocks. The dangerous influence of powerful PACs and Super PACs funneling money into the political system, combined with this gridlock, has led to an increasingly frustrated and jaded millennial population. But seeing firsthand how powerful the lobbying efforts of individual people are, restored the hope I so desperately needed both in our political system and the nonprofit industry.
It was so encouraging to see how many people truly wanted to hear about ONE and all the strides we’d made to fight extreme global poverty and disease. Our ONE T-shirts sparked a conversation with almost every group of people we met, but it especially caught the interest of two women who stopped us to tell us that they were with Oxfam and were very appreciative of us lobbying for ONE’s efforts and missions. Those two women were C. Cyvette Gibson and Mary Broh, the mayors of Paynesville and Monrovia in Liberia, respectively. They talked to us of how much they loved what we were doing and how much ONE and other similar organizations were helping their citizens back home in Liberia.
We also had the support of a couple of celebrities that day, Danai Gurira and Katie Holmes, who met with Congressional members and helped push our actions. Again, I hang out with celebrities all day, every day. nbd.*
And to make this day even better, all of this happened on International Women’s Day. In our meetings, we pushed ONE’s latest campaign, Poverty is Sexist, which highlights the fact that girls and women are hit the hardest by poverty in every way. When we lobby for more appropriate funding for health and nutrition for women, we reach those women hit hardest by poverty more quickly. And by empowering women worldwide, we come that much closer to completely eradicating extreme poverty on a global scale. Nowhere on earth do women have as many opportunities as men. Nowhere. And by empowering women, we empower the world.
Seeing how dedicated our volunteers were and how much they cared gave me the hope I needed to see that we truly are the agents of social change. And while powerful lobbying groups hold a lot of power in our political system, we can still fight their influence by using our voice to change the world. I heard countless volunteers at the Summit saying how grateful and inspired they were by ONE. But I think they are the ones that inspired us.
Sidenote: My group and I also got to briefly dogsit a puppy named Ted Kennedy. Because even dogs can’t escape the politics of DC.
* Just kidding, this is a complete lie.