Brinkmanship over the federal budget, the debt ceiling and the Affordable Care Act has offered an especially harsh backdrop to my recent conversations on reclaiming democracy. Whenever an interviewer asks about my work to create the political will to end poverty or ensure a stable climate, I am always sensitive to the audience’s despair about making a difference on these issues and their deep cynicism about the political process. As a result, I constantly begin by describing my own journey from hopelessness to action.
When I started that journey more than 35 years ago I was a musician and, like most people, I was pretty ignorant about environmental issues and problems like hunger and poverty. But the death of a friend in 1964 and the death of Robert Kennedy four years later got me to asking questions of purpose. Why am I here? What am I here to do? Mark Twain wrote, “The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Those two deaths put me on the quest to answer that “why?”
Nearly a decade later I was invited to a presentation on The Hunger Project. At the time I thought that world hunger was inevitable because there were no solutions. If there were solutions, I reasoned, somebody would have done something by then. But I quickly realized the obvious. There was no mystery to growing food or providing clean water or basic health. My hopelessness was not about the perceived lack of solutions, I was hopeless about human nature — that people would just never get around to doing the things that could be done. But there was one human nature I had some control over — my own. So I got involved.
In 1978 and 1979 I spoke to 7,000 high school students about world hunger. Before speaking to the first class I read statements from a National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Study calling for the “political will” to end hunger. I asked those 7,000 students to name their member of Congress. Only 200 knew the answer, and 6,800 didn’t.
I started the citizens lobby group RESULTS out of this gap between the calls for political will to end hunger on the one hand and the lack of basic information on who represented us in Washington on the other. I realized that real change would occur only when individuals overcame their fear of stepping outside their comfort zone to become empowered citizens, well informed and daring to speak convincingly to their elected leaders. We developed a deep structure to under-gird them: support groups, national conference calls with guest speakers, monthly action alerts, and packets for editorial writers. Over the past 29 years this deep structure of support has allowed RESULTS to be at the center of advocacy efforts that have prompted a decline in global child deaths due to largely preventable malnutrition and disease from 41,000 a day in 1984 to 18,000 a day today.
Now other organizations are providing citizens with this kind of support and empowering them to make a big impact on other issues. For example, Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) has enabled their volunteers to have 900 media pieces published and organize more than 600 meetings with members of Congress or their staff on a revenue-neutral carbon tax, all in the first eight months of this year.
This brings us back to the brinkmanship over the budget, the debt ceiling and the Affordable Care Act. If we want a life that matters then we need to choose an issue we care about, be it poverty, climate change, peace, or something else, and learn the facts rather than clinging to unexamined assumptions.
Yes, congressional gridlock can bring despair, but so can hopeless inaction. If you still need a nudge try this drawing. On the left side of the page is a small circle labeled “your comfort zone.” On the right is a much larger circle labeled “where the magic happens.” The work of reclaiming our democracy is about helping us move out of our comfort zones to where the magic happens, whether it involves seeing our deepest hopes expressed in the newspaper or moving our member of Congress on an issue we care about. As the unattributed quote asserts, “Be outrageous. It’s the only place that isn’t crowded.”
Sam Daley-Harris of Princeton, N.J., is the founder of RESULTS, the Microcredit Summit Campaign and the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation. He is the author of “Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government” (Camino Books 2013).