Last month, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called the college-aged demographic “Generation Q” because we quietly act out our idealism through service rather than engage in political activism. While service is a critical component of creating a better world, it is difficult to create widespread change without mobilizing people to become involved in the political process so that they can make their priorities known to their leaders. Service becomes more meaningful when you can share your passion with those who have the power to make policy changes.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be able to contribute to one particular injustice: ending global poverty. It seemed so unfair that I had everything I needed and much more while thousands of other children died of hunger every day. However, this was too big of a problem and I was too small of a voice to make an impact. I decided that I would do my part by donating food, volunteering and going on service trips, but all this changed when I became involved with an international grassroots poverty group called RESULTS.
RESULTS is dedicated to creating the public and political will to end hunger and poverty. Its leaders started by looking for key strategies that could help solve some of the root causes of poverty, such as providing micro-credit loans to help impoverished people start small businesses and assisting countries that want to eliminate public school fees so that all children can attend school.
Then, RESULTS leaders began creating chapters all over the country and educating members about poverty issues. They also trained members in how to write effective letters and get meetings with their representatives in Congress so that they can convince them of the tremendous impact anti-poverty programs could have. In this way, about 200 members around the country were able to get the U.S. government to spend millions of dollars on life-saving anti-poverty initiatives.
After my first meeting with my legislator, I was hooked. I had never thought that an influential politician would listen to a regular citizen like me, but he did. The facts I presented and the stories I shared about my experiences tutoring children in Ecuador made an impression on him. I felt so empowered as a citizen knowing that he would support anti-poverty legislation largely because of our efforts.
University of Michigan students have tremendous passion for social issues. However, service without involvement in the political process still seems to be the norm for many students. My advice is: Take service to the next step.
Gather a group of students that have passion and knowledge about a particular issue and try to set up a meeting with a legislator. It may take time and several phone calls, but you can almost always get a meeting with at least an aide, who has great influence over which issues are at the forefront of his or her boss’s agenda. Go into the meeting prepared with facts, and don’t forget to include personal stories – they remain in the mind long after numbers and statistics are forgotten.
Of equal importance is educating the public about your issues through media like newspapers and radio. Especially if you can get a local angle on an issue, editorial boards of newspapers may be willing to meet with you and consider publishing an editorial about your issue. Rallies and educational events can be extremely effective as well, especially on campus: You never know if a student might have a light bulb moment of inspiration at your event.
Once you can get the public to pay attention to an issue, politicians will have to respond. One anti-poverty group that has been very successful at putting global poverty on the public’s radar is the ONE Campaign. That group has gotten over 2.4 million Americans to endorse the campaign, and now that it is supporting specific poverty legislation, it will have a billion-dollar impact on the national political budget.
Lastly, it is critical to partner with other groups that share your ideals. The more people are working on an event, campaign or lobbying push, the more you can accomplish. It is for this reason that I joined the Michigan Student Assembly Peace and Justice Commission and have become a member of the newly-formed Interhumanitarian Council. It is also why the University chapter of RESULTS has joined with ONE Campaign members on campus. To battle global problems such as poverty, we must work together to create lasting change.
Lisa Treumuth is a Pharmacy graduate student, co-chair of the MSA Peace and Justice Commission and a member of the University chapter of RESULTS.