Activism

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.

-Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart

I believe that a friend of mine had it right when he said that
one of our principal jobs in life is to leave the campsite cleaner
than we found it. Imagine what America would look like if each and
every American were seriously engaged in his or her own act of
cleaning the campsite. Some might take on healing our fragile
environment, and others might take on ending hunger and
homelessness. Still others might focus on transforming our schools,
especially for those who are most often left behind. I really
believe that if every American embraced this idea, there wouldn’t
be enough problems to go around.

So why don’t we? Why does it seem that there are too many
problems to tackle and that one individual can’t make a difference?
Is it that we don’t know much about the problems we face and the
opportunities that exist to solve them?

I grappled with these questions more than 20 years ago when I
first got involved in ending world hunger. It took me on a journey
through the uncharted world of political action. I had lived in
Miami all of my life. I was 31 years old, had studied music, taught
high school, and played percussion instruments in the Miami
Philharmonic for a dozen years. None of these are major credentials
for a budding career as an activist. And to make matters worse, I
felt absolutely hopeless about solving any global problem. So what
were the steps that took me from hopelessness to action?

In 1977, I went to a presentation on the Hunger Project. Up
until that point, I hadn’t thought about world hunger much, but
when I did, I was quite sure that hunger was inevitable, mostly
because there were no solutions. It had to be that way, because if
there were solutions, they certainly would have been implemented.
But at the presentation it became clear that there was no mystery
about growing food, becoming literate, and gaining access to clean
water, better health, and nutrition. When I looked at it honestly,
I discovered that I was not actually hopeless about the perceived
lack of solutions. No, what I felt hopeless about was human nature!
People just couldn’t be counted on to do the things that could be
done to end hunger. I also realized that there was one human nature
that I did have control over-my own.

This was an epiphany for me, and it forced me to confront my
whole relationship with commitment. Up until that point, for me,
commitment had a kind of ‘I will if you will’ ring to it. ‘I’ll
recycle if you will,’ I might think. ‘Oh, you won’t? Then I won’t
either.’ But at that moment, commitment began to shift from an ‘I
will if you will’ to an ‘I will whether you will or not.’

The hopelessness I carried was not unique to me. We all have our
own versions of it. And we must face the sluggish, sticky ugliness
of the hopelessness we carry around if we are to make any headway.
So start with Step 1: Get in touch with your commitment to serve,
your commitment to leave the campsite cleaner than you found it.
You might do this by remembering a time when you were moved by some
simple act of kindness, from one person to another or from one
person to many others. You might think about a time when you were
moved by one person’s courage, perhaps a person of limited means or
limited power having the courage to take a stand.

Then go to Step 2: Face a problem that concerns you, preferably
something about which you could feel passionate-something that
lights you up. If nothing comes up at first, that’s probably an
indication of deep resignation about addressing local, national, or
global problems. Don’t worry, you are exactly where you should be.
Give it some time and thought.

That will immediately lead you to Step 3: Face the hopelessness
you feel about the problem. Maybe you were very active in the past
but have given up in some way. Your inaction or limited action on
the problem is probably a symptom of your hopelessness.

Step 4: Look for solutions. This step requires a little
research. What is the best thinking on the problem? What ideas or
interventions could make a real difference if people got behind
them?

Try this one on. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund,
states that each day, 32,000 children die from largely preventable
malnutrition and disease. Yes, that’s 32,000 children dying every
day and, yes, from largely preventable malnutrition and disease
(such as malnutrition coupled with measles or malnutrition coupled
with pneumonia). Thirty-two thousand children die each day. I know,
it’s very hard to let something like this in. Recently, I had a
glimpse of what it might mean.

A few weeks before beginning this essay, Washington, D.C., the
city where I live, was hit by a snowstorm that was followed days
later by an ice storm. While carrying my 22-month-old son, Micah, I
stepped off the curb and slipped, and both of us fell to the icy
pavement. He was unhurt, but he could have suffered a severe, even
fatal, injury. In the days following that fall, every time that I
let myself consider the worst-case scenario, waves of grief swept
over me. I know that the 32,000 sets of parents who will lose their
children today feel a far deeper grief than I felt at just the
thought of losing my beautiful son.

What would it cost to save most of these lives? Maybe a few
cents’ worth of measles vaccine, maybe a dollar’s worth of
antibiotics. These figures make the following statement by retired
Oregon senator Mark Hatfield even more prophetic. Speaking in 1984,
at the height of the nuclear freeze movement, Senator Hatfield
said, ‘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.’

Think about it. We live in a country in which the will to
develop missiles is much stronger than the will to save millions of
children each year. That’s something worth getting passionate
about. And isn’t that one of the major reasons we are here, to find
and correct profound distortions of humanity’s purpose on
Earth?

This inevitably leads you to Step 5: See the warrior inside of
you, the person of courage that maybe you’ve never really
expressed. You’ll need to connect with your courage because you’ll
face constant pressure from yourself, friends, and the culture to
not get involved or to give up when things get hard.

Here is another way to look at the kind of courage I’m talking
about. For the last few years, I have been director of the
Microcredit Summit Campaign. It is an effort to reach, by the year
2005, 100 million of the world’s poorest families, especially the
women of those families, with credit for self-employment and other
financial and business services. I have a small, young staff.
Whenever I do an interview with a prospective staff member, I let
them know what I am looking for in an employee. The first thing I
say is that I am looking for someone who is committed to expressing
his or her greatness. ‘What does that mean to you,’ I ask, ‘and
when have you expressed your greatness?’ It is fascinating to see
how people react to that question and hear how they respond.

For me, expressing your greatness is doing something that you
can’t see yourself doing. It’s going beyond your perceived limits.
There is an anonymous quote that begins to touch the place about
which I’m talking. ‘Be outrageous. It’s the only place that isn’t
crowded.’

So you’ve 1) gotten in touch with your commitment to serve, 2)
faced a problem that concerns you, 3) faced the hopelessness you
feel about the problem, 4) looked for solutions, and 5) connected
with your courage. That logically leads you to Step 6: Find others
to work with, both locally and, if it’s a national or international
problem, with an institution and people that are working at that
level. In other words, don’t do it alone. If you try to do it
alone, you’ll never make it.

I moved through these 6 steps and started a journey that I could
never have predicted. In 1978, I began speaking to high school
classes about world hunger. Between 1978 and 1979, I spoke to 7,000
high school students. In preparation for my first presentation, I
read statements from Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Hunger and from
the National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Study calling
for the ‘political will’ to end hunger. At that point, I wasn’t
sure what political will was, but I knew it might start with a
basic awareness of who represented us in Washington. So I asked
that first high school class to tell me the name of their
representative in Congress. I was shocked to learn that only 4 out
of 28 knew the answer. So I asked the next class, and none of the
students knew. Do you have any idea how many of the 7,000 students
knew their U.S. representative’s name? Two hundred.

I started RESULTS, a citizens’ lobbying organization dedicated
to creating the political will to end hunger, as a result of this
gap between the studies calling for the political will to end
hunger and my experience with these 7,000 students. When things got
difficult, the experience with these 7,000 students served as part
of my foundation, part of my grounding. It gave me a direct sense
of what needed to be done. We had to find a way to generate
political will. We had to teach the skills of democracy and
acquaint people with their government, starting at the most basic
level.

That was in 1980. Due largely to RESULTS’ leadership, U.S.
government funding for UNICEF and the Child Survival Fund (a
foreign-assistance program focused on basic health measures like
child vaccinations) has grown from $42 million per year in 1984 to
about $455 million a year in 2000. Child death rates have declined
from 41,000 a day in 1986 to 32,000 today, saving some three
million young lives each year. This is real progress, but the child
death rates are still scandalously high.

Michael Rubinstein, a RESULTS volunteer leader in Maryland,
tells of his first RESULTS International Conference in 1986 and
provides a glimpse into how this shift in priority and funding
occurred. He describes a Congressional staff panel on increasing
the Child Survival Fund from $25 million to $75 million.

‘The Hill staffers told us we shouldn’t ask for more money,’
Michael remembered. ‘We were lucky, they told us, if we got a
slight increase. If we asked for the full $50 million increase, we
would just alienate members of Congress.

‘The message that the Hill staffers shared with us had no impact
whatsoever,’ Michael continued. ‘The 300 RESULTS partners in the
room listened carefully, asked questions, were polite and
respectful-even enthusiastic. But they were completely unmoved by
the discouragement. Nothing was going to stand in the way of our
vision. Children were dying and they needed vaccines. The politics
were irrelevant. I have seen too many starry-eyed, pie-in-the-sky
dreamers. But this was different. Behind the vision was a
hard-nosed practicality. . ‘

Michael saw the hard-nosed practicality when one of the RESULTS
staff asked him to call the local television affiliates to try to
get a viewer commentary. ‘I said, ‘Gulp,” Michael recalled. ‘I was
familiar with the idea. I remembered an episode of ‘All in the
Family’in which Archie did a viewer commentary opposing gun
control. It had never occurred to me that I could do such a thing.
The idea terrified me. It took me about 3 days to screw up the
courage before I called the three stations. Amazingly, the NBC
affiliate accepted my script.’

Michael faced his next challenge, looking presentable. ‘At the
time,’ Michael recalled, ‘I was never much into looking good. I was
young and never took myself very seriously. I looked into my closet
and found a navy blue blazer that had been lent to me by an
acquaintance in college. He had never come back to pick it up. I
noticed that I had a pair of blue pants that matched the color
perfectly. I now had a suit. I had just gotten a haircut for the
occasion, cutting my ‘Jewish Afro’ really short. I put on a
necktie, a very rare occurrence for me, and made myself look as
good as I could.

‘I went to the station at the appropriate time,’ Michael
continued, ‘sat down in the chair, my throat dry, looked into the
camera, and said, with all the passion I could muster, that the
deaths of 3.5 million children each year due to vaccine-preventable
diseases is a holocaust of staggering proportions. .

‘Then they flashed my completed viewer editorial up on the
television monitor. I saw my name and my town on the screen, below
a face I didn’t recognize. There was this respectable young man, a
community spokesman, up there on the screen, speaking in strong
terms about an important issue of the day. I had never seen myself
in that light before, and I have never been the same since.’

As Michael’s television editorial was airing, the last of 90
newspaper editorials in support of increasing the Child Survival
Fund was published. Congress got the message and agreed to the full
$50-million increase. What did the additional $50 million mean? In
1986, UNICEF estimated that it cost $5 to fully immunize a child,
from manufacture of the vaccines to injection. As a result of this
$50 million increase, 10 million children would be immunized,
saving, by UNICEF’s conservative estimate, 125,000 young lives.
Fourteen years later, U.S. government funding is more than five
times greater, helping to save millions of lives annually.

This progress occurred because of actions like Michael’s. His
story is about who we are as problem solvers-people who overcome
their hopelessness and act as spiritual warriors committed to
service. It is an example of what America could be in the 21st
century: a nation that cares not only for itself but for all of
humanity.

Some of you might ask: Aren’t our elected officials the ones to
take responsibility for the state of our planet and its people? I
think Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart answered this question
best when he said, ‘We aren’t passengers on spaceship Earth, we’re
the crew.’

But most of us see ourselves as passengers, not as crew, in the
mission of stewarding the health of this planet and its people. At
about the time that Michael was doing his television editorial, a
number of us began to get up out of our passenger seats, walk to
the cockpit, and realize. .there was nobody up there.

Those cockpit seats are ‘our’seats. This essay is about the
migration to the cockpit of ordinary citizens. I have tried to show
how some of us have started and how the rest of us can follow.

My journey took me and others into civic and political action.
That may not be your path; it might be hands-on work instead. But
don’t let the rage that most people feel about government and
politics keep you from working in that arena if you feel pulled
there. I think that Israeli diplomat Abba Eban touched upon our
deep discouragement with politics when he said, ‘Governments can be
counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have
exhausted all other possibilities.’

What Michael Rubinstein and his colleagues were doing was making
sure governments did the right thing without wasting so much
time.

Be true to yourself. Get involved. Listen to your thoughts and
feelings. If you feel a need to pull back, decide whether it’s
because it’s hard or because it doesn’t feel true. Listen to the
latter, not the former. Remember the words of futurist Buckminster
Fuller, who said, ‘The things to do are the things that need doing,
that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see
need to be done.’

Then answer this question: Isn’t it time to find your way of
leaving the campsite cleaner than you found it?

Sam Daley-Harris is the founder and head of
RESULTS, a nonpartisan citizens’ lobbying group that fights hunger,
poverty, and death due to preventable disease. He is the author of
‘Reclaiming Our Democracy : Healing the Break between People and
Government.

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