Don QuixoteThis Tuesday will find me on Capitol Hill once again, talking to members of Congress or their aides about what we can do to end extreme poverty in our world. I’ve been doing this nearly every summer since the 1980s as a volunteer with RESULTS, a little-known but highly effective advocacy organization. Many might see my quest as an exercise in futility and me a latter-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

But I know better.

I first got involved with RESULTS at a time in my life when I was an angry young man who was on his way to becoming an angry middle-aged man, leading eventually to being an angry old man. I was angry about the great injustices and problems of the world and at the people who had the power to fix things but didn’t.

A young woman who would later become my wife introduced me to RESULTS. I didn’t think much about it when she tried to explain it – something about creating the political will to end hunger.  I said I was glad there were people like her doing that, all the while thinking I couldn’t waste my time on something so hopeless and destined for failure. Six months later, my curiosity overcame my resistance, and I went to a meeting.

It was a conference call where we listened by speaker box to a former substitute music teacher and founder of RESULTS named Sam Harris. Hundreds of volunteers across the country were connected. At the end of the call, there was roll call for all the groups to announce how many were in the room and how many letters they would write to their representatives or how many newspapers they would call to pitch an editorial. Listening to all the cities – from Miami to San Francisco — announce their numbers, it suddenly struck me that I was not alone. There were others like me, a conspiracy, if you will, to make the world a better place. I thought: “This might actually work.”

My newfound faith in my ability to change things was quickly tested.

famine_2In January of 1985, as famine threatened the lives of millions in Ethiopia (Remember “We Are the World”?), an emergency spending bill was introduced to provide food aid. We managed to get a meeting with a newly elected member of Congress, a conservative Republican from Georgia named Pat Swindall. We asked him to support the emergency appropriation. We were dumbstruck by his response:

“I don’t think the government should be doing this sort of thing. This is something that the churches and private groups should do.”

He was unmoved by our protestations that churches and non-governmental organizations couldn’t match the resources the U.S. government could provide and that millions would perish if we failed to act.

True to his word, when the bill reached the House floor, Pat not only voted against it (one of only 15 to vote nay), he made a speech on the floor about why he opposed it. We hung our heads in shame that Pat Swindall was our representative. My first exercise in citizen lobbying was a dismal failure.

A few weeks later, Sam Harris called to check in with our group. We told him about our disappointing effort with Pat Swindall. My feeling was that if the guy wouldn’t vote for famine relief, there was little point in talking to him about anything else. Best we could hope for was that somebody else would get elected to his seat two years later.

“Well, yeah, you could do that,” Sam said, “but in the meantime there’s 40,000 children dying in the world each day from preventable causes. Are you sure you want to wait that long?”

“I get your point,” I said. “So what can we do?”

Sam said there was a group in Texas struggling with a similar situation. They had written a prayer for their congressman designed to change their view of him from one of contempt and resignation to one of respect and optimism, to see him as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. We adapted the prayer for our own use and recited it aloud when we were together.

At first, we didn’t sound very convincing, especially when we got to the end: “Help us to find the next expression of love for Pat.” There was an unspoken but palpable “yeah, right” the first couple of times we said the prayer. But the more we said it, the more we came to believe it, and eventually our view of him shifted. It was time to see him again.

Every month or so, Swindall would show up at a public place – a book store or hardware store – to talk to constituents. These small, informal gatherings were dubbed “Chat With Pat,” but they often turned into “Spat With Pat.” Folks would introduce themselves and speak their minds for a couple of minutes, some of them getting very confrontational with Pat about something he’d said or done, voices raised and fingers wagging. These exchanges agitated Pat and put him on the defensive, and he gave as good as he got. These folks clearly had something to get off their chest, which they succeeded in doing. But ten minutes later when they walked out the door, the question had to pop into their head: “What, exactly, did I accomplish in there?”

When Pat would come around to us, our hand was extended, and we greeted him with a smile instead of a scowl. We thanked him for taking the time to make himself available. We could see by his expression and body language that he was much more at ease. He was also ready to listen intently.
Our mission was to simply educate him on issues (a request would come later). We did this through a technique in RESULTS called the “laser talk,” which relates an issue in one to two minutes, making it clear, concise and compelling. We started telling him about a Bangladeshi economist named Muhammad Yunus who was making small loans to destitute women so they could start small businesses and lift themselves out of poverty. He loved the concept. We shared more about it each time we saw him.

Early in 1987, RESULTS helped draft and introduce the first microcredit legislation considered by Congress. Called The Self-Sufficiency for the Poor Act, the bill authorized funding within the foreign aid bill for micro-lending programs throughout the world such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Generating the political will for this required a great number of co-sponsors. It was time for an office appointment with Pat Swindall.

As the four of us prepped for our meeting, I turned to my wife and said, “I’ve got a feeling he’s going to say yes to co-sponsoring this bill, and when he does, I’m going to ask if he’ll do a piece for one of the papers about why he’s supporting this.”

“I don’t know,” Sara said. “You might be pushing your luck with that.”

“There’s nothing to lose. I’m going to ask him.”

We poured into Pat’s office, hauling in a TV and VCR with us. Our mood and our attitude had changed remarkably since that first office meeting in 1985. We knew in our hearts that Pat didn’t want to see people suffer and die needlessly any more than we did. We had a powerful solution to offer, and he was in a position to move that solution forward. We all spoke our laser talks flawlessly, and when it came time to watch the video, Pat sat on his desk, knees propped under his chin. When the video was over, I made the pitch for our request, finishing with the big question:

“Pat, will you co-sponsor the Self-Sufficiency for the Poor Act?”

There was no “I’ll have to take a closer look at the bill” or “Let me see who else is supporting this” or any of a number of things a congressman might say to wiggle out of making a commitment.

“I’d be delighted to co-sponsor this bill,” he said without a second’s hesitation.

It was all we could do to keep from jumping out of our chairs. Two years ago he had voted against famine aid. Now Pat Swindall was co-sponsoring the first microcredit bill.

With my head swimming, I struggled to gather my thoughts and make the second request, the one about publishing a column on his support for the bill. As the words were forming in my mouth, he beat me to the punch.

“You know, this is the kind of thing the public should really know about. Tell you what. I’ve got a column that runs in the DeKalb News-Sun every couple of weeks. Do you think you could write something up about this and give it to my staff to look over and then submit as my column?”

I turned to my wife with a grin so wide it hurt. Then I turned to the congressman.

“Pat, that’s a great idea. I think we can do that.”

My feet never touched the ground from Pat’s office to the car. I was now ghostwriting for a member of Congress who, two years prior, had voted against aid to keep people from starving. My view of the world was forever altered. It was no longer a world of us versus them, of good guys versus bad guys (bad guys being people who didn’t share my views). It was now a world of greater possibility.

The Self-Sufficiency for the Poor Act garnered more than 100 co-sponsors. The bill never came up for a vote, but because of all the support it generated, money was set aside in the foreign aid appropriations bill for microcredit programs. The United States quickly became the leader in funding micro-lending programs around the world, with billions now  invested in this innovative strategy.

Ten years after this legislation was introduced, the first Microcredit Summit was held in Washington, D.C., where 2,900 participants committed to extending microcredit to 100 million of the world’s poorest families. Ten years later, that goal was achieved, and Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for providing loans to the poor.

So much for windmills. These are real people being given ladders to climb out of life-crushing poverty. And I’ve had a hand in making that happen.
I’ve also avoided becoming an angry middle-aged man, and there’s little chance I’ll become an angry old man.

So on Tuesday I will walk up to the Hill again and sit down with people who don’t share my party affiliation. And with a gleam in my eye I’ll look at them and, in so many words say, “Let’s talk about what we can do to change the world today.”

For some, being right is all that matters. Me? I’d rather make a difference.

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Steve Valk

Steve Valk

Steve Valk is communications director and regional manager for Citizens Climate Lobby. Before joining Citizens Climate Lobby, he was an editor for 31 years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. For 25 years, he has volunteered as a citizen lobbyist with RESULTS, which works to create the political will to end poverty. He's building a new career dedicated to creating a more just, equitable, sustainable and peaceful world. His articles also appear on Open Salon and The Huffington Post. Steve Valk left his job of 31 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on May 29. His last position there was Sunday Metro Section editor. He has also volunteered for more than 20 years with RESULTS, an advocacy group working to end poverty.