Where are you from, and why there?
I was born outside of Detroit but really grew up in Iowa from an early age. I consider myself a Midwesterner with Midwest values of working hard, being friendly, and being honest.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
I work to ensure that people living in the poorest places in the world have access to health, education, and economic opportunity. I do this by training and supporting everyday people to advocate with their elected officials to shape programs, policy, and funding focused on poverty. I care about these issues because I’ve seen firsthand how the lack of basic health, education, and economic opportunity can devastate families, communities, and nations. It became particularly evident during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer and program manager. We squander so much human potential and so many lives because we fail to invest adequately in them.
How did you get involved?
Somewhat by accident. After spending nearly eight years in West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, trainer, consultant, and program manager, I came back to the US knowing that I had left people in Niger still struggling to meet their basic needs. I knew there was was no way I could turn away from the stark contrast between our lives of plenty in the US and their lives on the edge of existence. For me, there was no reason, in a world full of so many riches, that children in one part of the world should die of easily preventable sickness or never learn to read or write. The struggle for me in the US was knowing what to do about these problems when I was so far away from the people experiencing poverty.
After several years of searching for ways to address poverty overseas and donating money to international organizations, someone from RESULTS approached me about doing a presentation for students at Sarah Lawrence College, where I was working part-time in 2001. When the RESULTS volunteer told us that we could have a huge impact on issues of poverty by using our voices advocating with our elected officials, it made sense to me, though I had no idea how to do it. But what a revelation—our elected officials make decisions every day that affect our lives. So, if I could use my voice to influence elected offices to fund and improve programs affecting the people back in Niger, perhaps I could fill the hole in my life I’d been trying to fill. But I would have to learn brand new skills and do things I’d never done before. I decided it was worth the risk.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
A lot of people are numb to the absurdity we live with every day—that all of the solutions to poverty already exist, yet billions of people struggle to eat and access basic medical and educational services most of us take for granted. We try to nickel and dime programs and proven solutions instead of deciding to end the ridiculousness. I think much of the population carries around a certain amount of guilt as we look at the poverty around us and in the world. I think it would be a huge weight off all of our shoulders if we knew that we were truly working to end the extreme poverty affecting nearly half the planet.
I think the other big challenge for many issues is that people are cynical about government and cannot imagine themselves educating their elected officials and advising them on actions they could take to create a better world. Supporting people to take a chance on using their voices is challenging in the face of powerlessness and cynicism.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
People who care about other people and are in touch with the absurdities in the world. They are everyday people, international development organizations, retired people looking to make a difference, young people wanting a better world, foundations seeking to contribute.
Some people might be most surprised that members of Congress from both parties are often our allies in these efforts. They listen, they travel to see the problems and solutions firsthand, they draft legislation, form caucuses, persuade their colleagues, and join hands to fight together. This was evident over the past two years as the president’s budget cut the State Department and international development programs by 30%. A Republican-led House and Senate, working with Democrats, rejected these cuts. Part of the reason they did is because RESULTS volunteers and others spent years educating them and calling them to action.
What drives you?
Being aware of unfairness in the world. I sometimes ask myself, what if I had been born some place in Niger, where no amount of personal effort would have changed my lot in life? Would I want someone fighting for me?
Other things that drive me are progress and the incredible goodness of the people I work with—both volunteer and staff. Even in the worst times I’ve seen our work protect or advance efforts to end extreme poverty. I think about where we were on AIDS or child survival when I first started advocating, compared to where we are today. We’ve gone from collective, global hand-wringing on AIDS to knowing that we can end the pandemic. We’ve made steady, annual progress on reducing preventable maternal and child deaths, and now we know we can level the playing field around the globe by 2030 or 2035. And part of why we are making so much progress is because volunteers, off the corners of their busy lives, develop relationships with their members of Congress and get them to take action. It’s absolutely thrilling.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
To know that I did everything I could to end AIDS and other diseases of poverty, end preventable maternal and child deaths, and ensure that every child has a quality education. I also hope that I will have imbued a lot of people with the undeniable knowledge that if they want to change something, they can do it.