Where are you from, and why there?
I was born and raised in Miami, Florida. I didn’t see falling snow until I was 25 years old. In the middle of winter in 1920 my grandfather traveled from New York to visit two of his brothers in Key West, Florida. He was smitten by the weather and wired my grandmother saying “Sophie, get ready to pack, we’re moving to Key West.” My mother was two at the time and still lives in South Florida, having turned 100 in June of 2018.
Which issue(s) do you work on/care about, and why?
I don’t look at it as my working on this issue or that issue. My focus is people’s sense of powerlessness, how that powerlessness keeps them from being effective on any issue, and what can be done about it. Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig said, “We did a poll and found that 96% of Americans believe it important to reduce the influence of money in politics. But 91% don’t think it’s possible.“ That’s the politics of resignation. But the politics of resignation gives you a perfect strategy for winning: How do we thaw that resignation? Because once we do, then we have a real chance of winning. My focus is on helping non-profits create structures of support that are powerful enough to thaw the resignation.
How did you get involved?
I have degrees in music and played percussion instruments in the Miami Philharmonic for 12 years. But the death of a high school friend in 1964, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, got me to start asking the questions of purpose. Why am I here? What am I here to do? What is my purpose? Nine years later I was invited to a presentation on ending world hunger put on by The Hunger Project. I went to it thinking, “There are no solutions because, if there were solutions, somebody would have done something by now.” (What did I know? I was a musician.) But it became obvious at that presentation that there was no mystery to growing food, clean water or basic health. I wasn’t hopeless about the perceived lack of solutions. I was hopeless about human nature — people would just never get around to doing the things that could be done.
But there was one human’s nature I had control over — my own — with the power to decide what I’m here to do. So, I got involved in a big way. In 1978 and 1979 I spoke to 7,000 high school students on ending world hunger. I spoke to one classroom at a time. Before going into the first classroom, I read quotes from experts calling for the “political will” to end hunger. I asked all those high school students to name their members of Congress. Fewer than three percent could answer correctly — over 97% couldn’t. I founded the anti-poverty lobby group RESULTS to bridge the chasm between the calls for political will to end hunger and the lack of basic knowledge about who held political power in Washington.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
The biggest challenge I encounter to empowering citizens is the disinterest and fear among non-profits when it comes to enabling their members. One organizer for a very large non-profit told me, “We can’t have our volunteers write letters to the editor or op-eds because they’ll get it wrong and misrepresent the organization.” So much for empowering your volunteers and thawing their resignation.
I coached Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) in its first seven years. In 2017 their volunteers had 4,288 letters to the editor, op-eds, and editorials published. Instead of fretting that “they’ll get it wrong and misrepresent the organization,” CCL is asking, “What do we have to do to make sure our volunteers get it right?” As a result, they got thousands of media pieces published last year alone.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
My most frequent allies are non-profits that come to me and say, “We know our members are capable of doing much more as advocates to forward our mission, but we don’t know how to empower them.” Groups like the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which has started more than 90 chapters since 2015; and American Promise, which realizes that it’s insufficient to have 165 members of Congress co-sponsor bills overturning Citizens United when only one of the co-sponsors is a Republican.
What drives you?
The brilliance of empowered volunteers. When CCL volunteers get 45 Republicans and 45 Democrats to join the House Climate Solutions Caucus, that inspires me and keeps me going. When RESULTS volunteers get 162 Republicans and Democrats in the House to sign a letter to the top appropriators urging them to reject President Trump’s proposed 31% cut to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and the Appropriations Committee provides full funding, that fires me up and drives me.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
Apollo Astronaut Rusty Schweickart said, “We aren’t passengers on spaceship earth. We’re the crew. We aren’t residents on this planet. We’re citizens. The difference in both cases is responsibility.” I want my career to stand for successfully encouraging citizens to get up out of their passenger seats and make their way to the cockpit and take their rightful place as crew in our democracy.