The RESULTS International Conference: The Experience of the Inexperienced
Taryn Peacock, RESULTS Intern
June 27, 2011
“The issue we are facing is not a budget deficit, it is a values deficit,” said Marian Wright Edelman as she spoke to a room full of grassroots volunteer activists from around the world at RESULTS’ International Conference this week. Everyone in the room listened attentively to her inspiring words, motivated to continue the fight to end poverty that many people in the room had been committed to for decades. As a new intern with RESULTS, it was amazing to be in a room with people who had been involved for 30 years (that’s 10 years before I was even born!). I had the opportunity to meet with teachers from around the country, college students from Massachusetts, a father-daughter pair from San Jose, California, an enthusiastic wig-wearing bunch from Canada, and a woman working on AIDS and Tuberculosis (TB) work in Kenya. The attendants of this conference came from not only around the nation, but around the world. Though we were young and old, new and experienced, what brought us all together was a strong passion to protect and serve those who need it most — a passion that we hoped to convey to our representatives here on the Hill.
On Sunday when the conference officially began I was nervous. I had participated in service events before and consider myself to be committed to many social causes, but never had I found myself surrounded by so many dedicated advocates before. The last time I remember writing a letter to my representative was freshman year of high school — and, come to think of it, that was my first letter as well. But I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was welcomed with open arms. The first workshop I attended talked about domestic issues such as Head Start, Early Head Start, Medicaid, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). For the past week I had been researching and attending events about these topics, but it was enlightening to hear the expertise of RESULTS staff and to be in a room of people eager to learn about these policies. Rachel Black from the New America Foundation also gave a stimulating presentation on the wealth gap. I really enjoyed the use of multimedia to convey to stark contrast between our nation’s wealthiest and most poor families. Finally we held the conference opening ceremonies. If you were wondering about the Canadians wearing wigs that I mentioned earlier, your questions are about to be answered.
The Opening Ceremony was one of the highlights of the conference. It was the first time all attendees were in the same room, and there were a LOT of us. Everyone sat with other volunteers from their state or country. The ever-enthusiastic Director of Domestic Campaigns, Meredith Dodson, introduced each group, giving them an opportunity to show their pride and excitement. The group from California was one that could not be missed; the Australian delegation did wonderful enactments of the country’s most famous marsupial. But my personal favorite was, of course, those crazy Canadians. They wore wigs, waved flags, and made everyone want to get up and cheer with them. It was during the Opening Ceremony that I realized what an exciting week I was in for. My feelings of nervousness had subsided. I felt like I was at a family reunion being reconnected with my long-lost aunts and uncles. Sunday was a great introduction to my very first International Conference.
Monday morning was full of panels and workshops attend. Since RESULTS has both global and domestic groups, I had the tough decision of choosing which plenary to attend. I choose to attend one organized by the Emerson National Hunger Fellow here in the office, Rebecca Van Maren. What made this panel so special were the current and former Head Start parents who told us their personal stories. It was truly moving, and inspired me to visit a local Head Start facility when I return home; I encourage you all to do the same. The rest of the day was very busy; there were workshops aimed at helping us learn to speak to our representatives and encourage them to become true champions of the fight against poverty, as well as a workshop on the art of fundraising. After these workshops was an incredible speech from Marian Wright Edelman, founder and director of The Children’s Defense Fund and board member of RESULTS. She spoke of the importance of our fight, and how today is one of the most dangerous times to be a child or low-income. I felt empowered — filled with a new excitement and readiness for lobbying the next day. We spent the rest of the evening preparing to speak with Members of Congress, Senators, and legislative aides.
Tuesday morning started bright and early with opening remarks from Senators Sherrod Brown and Michael Bennet. After a delicious (and affordable!) breakfast from the Dirksen cafeteria I was ready for a full day of meetings with the California grassroots contingent. Even though we had divided and rehearsed our speaking parts, I was nervous for our first meeting with Senator Barbara Feinstein’s legislative aide. There was a big group of us from California, but only three of us speaking on domestic issues. So, I ended up having a pretty big speaking part for my first ever lobbying meeting. Fortunately, the meeting went smoothly. The legislative aides were both friendly and interested in our message. After a fantastic presentation from the global group, it was our turn to shine. As I listened to the rest of the domestic team I went over my speech in my head; the aid was so knowledgeable that I was afraid of sounding ill-informed. It was a silly fear because the International Conference had given me plenty of preparation. We spoke of the importance of early childhood education and nutrition programs, and the aides nodded in agreement and told their stories. Finally, I delivered the asks, the closing part of the meeting where we delineate what we want our representative to act on next. Afterwards we all congratulated each other on a successful first meeting. It was a great feeling, knowing that all of our preparation and knowledge was finally being put to use.
We had about five other meetings that day, and it was exhausting. Each meeting varied depending on the aide we spoke with. Some of the aides were extremely welcoming and enthusiastic, which in turn made the meetings more enjoyable. Unfortunately, other aides were not as hospitable. One aide, in particular, was jaded and pessimistic — he talked as if our advocacy efforts were all in vain. Despite his negative outlook, all of our volunteers kept our passion and optimism alive; it turned out to be one of my most memorable meetings on the Hill. Our last meeting was equally as memorable. We were meeting with Representative Farr’s aides, and I was appointed to be the main speaker for the meeting. By the end of the meeting we were speaking to the aid like all friends, learning about Representative Farr’s commitment to early childhood education and speaking about our own experiences at the International Conference and at home. After this meeting we went to a reception in the Cannon Congress Building with all of the grassroots volunteers and staff members. We told stories and had an opportunity to really get to know the people in the room. It was a great ending to a long and tiring day on the Hill.
Even as a college student with no prior lobbying experience, I now feel that I can make a difference. I know that I am not alone in this feeling. There were about 20 other college students at the International Conference, brought together by the Campus for Change Program. We learned how to be successful youth advocates and how to bring the work of RESULTS back to our college campuses. Today, if you asked me the most important thing I learned at the International Conference, I’m not sure if I could tell you just one thing. I learned that it doesn’t matter how young — or how old — you are, you have the right and ability to advocate for what you believe in. I learned that politicians are people and that regardless of party affiliation they (hopefully) genuinely want to do what is best for their constituents. We can’t forget this as we speak with representatives and senators who may not perfectly align themselves with our values and beliefs. Finally, I learned that there will always be more to learn. So much happens every day, both in the Capitol and in the separate states. At times I am disappointed in what I hear about politics and politicians, and at times I am overwhelmingly stressed out about the state of our nation. But what the International Conference has given me is faith and passion. I truly believe that grassroots advocates can come to the Hill and have a large impact. I look forwarded to using my new found experience and creating new ones as I continue to lobby and advocate for the rights of all people.