Sam Daley-Harris speaks to the power of grassroots advocacy
By Jamie Ptacek
Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change, carbon fee and dividend, and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Check out recaps of past speakers here.
“Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy with a large population of people who think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience. What’s really radical is being willing to look right at the magnitude and difficulty of the problems we face and still insist that we can solve these problems.” – Alex Steffen
This was the opening quote shared by the activist and author Sam Daley-Harris before his talk on the efficacy of grassroots organizing in shaping national policies and priorities during CCL’s August meeting last Saturday. There is perhaps no more appropriate quote to introduce a man who, since the 1970s, has dedicated his time and efforts toward activism to address the seemingly intractable problems of hunger and poverty. To this end, in the 1980s he founded the organization RESULTS, which recruits and trains volunteers to lobby the government on issues of hunger and food security. If that strategy sounds familiar to you, it is likely because CCL was modeled after Daley-Harris’ organization. He is also the co-founder and former director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, a non-profit based in the U.S. that utilizes microfinance to alleviate poverty worldwide, and he authored the book “Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government.” Currently, Daley-Harris serves as the CEO of Civic Courage, a non-profit that coaches organizations to improve the effectiveness of their advocacy strategies. Through his work as an advocate, activist and author, Daley-Harris has inspired countless citizens to turn their despair into hope, and that hope into political action.
This month, Daley-Harris joined our meeting to share the three messages that he utilizes to empower people who have not yet engaged in what he refers to as “deep, appreciative, bipartisan, relational advocacy,” as a means of enacting political change. In addition, he offers many examples of how the collective power of citizens has already transformed policy and priorities in the U.S., drawing both on the work his organization RESULTS has done, as well as the efforts of CCL and our incredible base of dedicated volunteers. You can listen to Daley-Harris’ remarks below, or read on for a recap:
“You can make profound differences on big issues with your voice as a citizen.”
This is the first message that Daley-Harris shares with people who may not be convinced that their voices carry important political influence. Hopefully those of you reading this post already know the power of your voices to shape political discourse, but if you, too, need more convincing, Daley-Harris offers some illustrative case studies.
In 1983, UNICEF reported that 41,000 children were dying every day from largely preventable malnutrition and disease. Taking this as a call to action, RESULTS volunteers began lobbying every year on child survival. By 2016, global child deaths per day had decreased by nearly 63% to 15,300 deaths, an improvement that UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Kul Gautam attributes in part to the “receptivity created by RESULTS” through the political engagement of ordinary citizens. The profound impact of this lobbying can also be seen through the bipartisan decision in the U.S. House of Representatives to increase spending for Maternal and Child Health and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria in the year 2020 by 2% and 16%, respectively, despite a request by the Trump administration to cut funding for both programs by over a quarter.
These numbers make it clear that the collective power of citizens can contribute to meaningful political change, so why, Daley-Harris asks, do more people not get involved? This is where he introduces his second message:
“You (politically un-empowered citizens) probably haven’t (become involved in politics) because of your sense of powerlessness and resignation about politics, especially federal politics.”
He refers to this phenomenon as the “politics of resignation,” or the belief that the changes that need to happen to transform the world through politics are unattainable. The key for engaging these people, Daley-Harris says, is by “thawing resignation.” This is a task best accomplished by giving citizens the tools and training they need to confidently and effectively exercise their collective power, a strategy that we at CCL pride ourselves on. As Daley-Harris references, between 2010 and 2018 the number of letters and op-eds written by CCL volunteers increased from 65 to 4,282, the number of local chapters went from 14 to 465, while meetings with Congress increased from 106 to 1,408 and conference attendance grew from 25 to 1,400.
The idea that eradicating people’s political resignation is in part dependent on the tools and training given to them by politically focused organizations brings Daley-Harris to his final message:
“If you find an organization committed to dissolving the powerlessness, you can make that profound difference.”
For people who feel ready to turn their resignation into optimism, and their optimism into action, Daley-Harris recommends finding an organization that will assist in “dissolving” the feelings of powerlessness that often inhibit people from becoming politically involved. Daley-Harris offers a list of organizations, including CCL and RESULTS, that work to address various causes by empowering citizens to push for political change. He emphasizes that it is important to find a group that will get you to move “out of your comfort zone, and over to where the magic happens.” Whether that means developing a meaningful relationship with a member of Congress, writing an op-ed or starting a local chapter, finding an organization to guide you along that path will help to ensure that you become an activist with the strength to do as Alex Steffen says, and “look right at the magnitude and difficulty of the problems we face and still insist that we can solve these problems.”
To hear more from Sam Daley-Harris, watch the entire August meeting on YouTube. If you are interested in joining the Civic Courage email list, suggesting a lecture opportunity or hosting a book group for Reclaiming Our Democracy with the author calling in on the phone, you can contact him at sam @ civiccourage.org.
Jamie Ptacek is a communications intern at Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She has a B.A in Environmental Studies and Earth and Oceanographic Science from Bowdoin College. Currently, she is traveling through Southeast Asia, where she is working for different organizations dedicated to making the world a sustainable and equitable place.