Monday, September 21, 2015

The power of citizen advocacy and Oxfam: Senator Markey co-sponsors food aid reform

This post originally appeared on an Oxfam staff bulletin. Written by Brian Rawson and Alexandria McMahon, it is edited slightly for posting here.

Anyone who works in advocacy knows that it’s nearly impossible to claim direct attribution for any good decision a Senator makes. But in the case of Senator Ed Markey’s decision September 10th to co-sponsor the Food for Peace Reform act on September 10, we think we can at least give ourselves a hefty pat on the back!  The chatter among Oxfam staff is that the volunteer advocates of the Oxfam Action Corps, in particular our Boston group’s visit to his office on August 21, may have tipped the scale on this one.

If you’re not yet familiar with the Oxfam Action Corps, we are dedicated Oxfam supporters from a variety of professional backgrounds – teachers, nurses, naval veterans, scientists and more –  in 14 US cities. We volunteer to build our US constituency and advocate on Oxfam's issues before Congressional and corporate targets. 

On August 21, volunteers Sarah Lucey, Sapana Thomas, Bibhusha Karki, and Oxfam staffer Angela McIntosh pressed Markey’s staffperson to reform US food aid. They explained how the Food for Peace Reform Act, S.525, introduced by Senators Corker and Coons, will eliminate outdated provisions in the US Food for Peace program so that food aid will reach millions more hungry people each year more quickly and without costing an additional taxpayer dime. 

Sarah Lucey (left) and Vivian Daly lobbying at Senator Markey's office in June.

This was our third visit with Markey’s staff in 5 months, having lobbied his office in June on a foreign aid bill (pictured at left), and in Washington DC during the annual Action Corps training in April.
The Markey meeting was held as part of a summertime push for in-district meetings in coordination with Oxfam campaigns and policy staff. Action Corps has so far held or scheduled meetings with 21 offices in IA, IN, IL, MA, MD, NM, NY, VA, and WI (see pictures below) which are additional to meetings held by Oxfam staff in DC and in-district. Leadership and support for the national effort by Action Corps was provided by Ben Wiselogle of Oxfam Action Corps Seattle, a Navy veteran and grad student. (pictured below).

he summer push followed on the ninth annual training and lobby day in Washington, DC this past April, at which Oxfam Action Corps met with 51 Congressional offices on Capitol Hill.
There is a long way to go to convince Congress to pass such reform into law. A handful of Senators have co-sponsored so far, and others have expressed their willingness to vote in favor. (Notably, the previous co-sponsor was Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who did so back in April within 24 hours of the Action Corps lobbying him in his DC office during their annual training). We expect Congress to take its next step this month or in early October when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducts its markup of the legislation.  

We wish to thank Senator Markey and his fellow co-sponsors for the courage to co-sponsor S.525, the Food for Peace Reform Act, and for continuing to advocate for better, quicker food aid to people in the grips of a hunger crisis.

To voice your support for this bill, click Oxfam's e-action here:
Minnesota Oxfam Action Corps – Outside Senator Klobuchar’s office

New Mexico Oxfam Action Corps – At Senator Udall’s Office
Iowa Oxfam Action Corps – Outside Senator Ernst’s Office

Washington Oxfam Action Corps – At Representative Jim McDermott’s Office
Washington Oxfam Action Corps Ben Wiselogle with Representative DelBene


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Planting seeds in drought-stricken El Salvador

In 1991 Oxfam staffer Brian Rawson first visited El Salvador as a 20-year old college student and accompanied a farmer's rights organization. This month, Brian returned to one of the communities he worked with, San Agustin, Usulutan. 

Note that this blog post is not related to Oxfam America projects, but rather one individual's visit to personal contacts.

On August 17 I threw my bag in a truck and headed east of the capital, past a number of volcanoes, and uphill along the pitted road to the town of San Agustin, Usulutan. Here I reunited with friends I had worked with during my first visit to El Salvador some 24 years ago. 

San Agustin remains a tranquil community despite the national surge in crime, thanks to its people and leadership. But the drought remains an urgent threat, as this season's corn harvest has dried up to nothing. (Pictured below is pasture for livestock.) Here, when people speak of climate change you hear the anger in their voices.

Daily you hear birdsong, the footsteps of cattle passing by, the clucking of hens and crowing of roosters.

The former mayor remains a pillar in the community (and behind him the patron saint)

The current mayor is raising funds for the youth soccer league and education program.

Credited with keeping gangs and crime at bay, the soccer field in the town square is always busy. There are nightly soccer tournaments in the town square. The missed shots hit the fence with a PRAP! and we jump out of our seats.

Such recreation is a distraction from the central worry that grips this town: the long-standing drought that has disrupted their farming cycles and ruined their crops. On a visit to one livestock cooperative, which decades ago was a coffee plantation of a US landowner, a rain-fed cistern was dry (below, left). One associate, Juan, spoke about how his coffee crop in the highland hills had failed to produce any fruit due to the drought and associated brushfires near his crop. (lower right)  Using the land as pasture for livestock presents a more resilient alternative.

On the weekend of my visit, news broke which had all the townspeople talking and stepping up onto pickup trucks bound for the nearby city of Usulutan: the national ministry of agriculture was set to distribute a second round of assistance to each household in the community. 

This second round of government assistance was highly unusual. Three months prior, there had already been distribution of one sack of corn seed and one sack of fertilizer to each household in San Agustin. In a typical year, that would have been the end of the annual assistance to the list of communities designated as being in extreme poverty. But the drought caused the corn plants to wither and stunted their growth and the corn harvest was lost. So the unprecedented news of a second round of fertilizer and seed - either corn or bean - had residents buzzing. Although one sack of seed only amounts to a fraction of what's needed for each family, it nonetheless gives farmers a little push, or "un empujoncito" in the words of a local resident, and could mean the difference between eating or going hungry.

Neighbors and family members checked in with Anita (below) a member of the local community development association, to verify that their household was listed to receive assistance.

So midday on this particular Sunday, truckloads of farmers - women and men - bounded down the hill in a festive mood. Beneath the laughter, though, remained the knowledge that the seeds' promise of food would only be delivered if the drought relented and rain fell. Thus each farmer faced an agonizing choice: to plant the crops now in hopes of rain, or to wait to plant later in anticipation of a wetter tomorrow?  

In this way climate change grips the town of San Agustin, disrupting seasonal patterns and upending the farming customs established over generations. All over the world similar farmers in similar towns are facing the same distressing options. My visit to San Agustin reminded me why our efforts to hold governments accountable are so urgent, and why in the lead-up to the COP21 climate talks we must urge governments to support the Green Climate Fund to build resiliency for the communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tips for music festival and concert outreach

Oxfam America had a successful outreach effort at Bonnaroo. Andrew, an Oxfam Action Corps organizer in Columbus, OH, helped collect petition signatures for food aid reform. He wrote the following account about his experiences, which has lots of great tips and tricks for outreach.


Submitted by Andrew Rodarme

When canvassing at a large event such as Bonnaroo, where over 90,000 people congregate, it is important to bear in mind that you will encounter numerous festival goers with wildly diverse backgrounds. Communicating with varying tactics based on any given individual’s knowledge of the subject and level of engagement in the conversation, can make all the difference in gaining their support. It is also a good idea to alter your pitch based on where you are speaking with them. Just by making some slight changes to your delivery based on these very basic concepts you can more easily gain their signatures, and leave a lasting and positive impression of Oxfam with them. 

Some individuals will see a petition, and will start signing it, without knowing the first thing about it. Instead of leaving it at that, I always found it to be very useful to still explain to them the importance of the bill, and of Oxfam’s work. These groups of people will often be the most excited about our work, and will often ask about volunteering. So never just collect their info on the petition, there is so much more to be gained from them.

The majority of our canvassing took place in long lines for food, restrooms, or other amenities. In these situations you must take note of how fast the line is moving. You can often start your pitch to people at the back of the line, and before you know it you can find yourself at the front of the line before you have even collected their signatures. If the pace of the line is slower, it provides you with much more flexibility in terms of how long you can speak and how detailed you can get. If you ever find yourself in a fast moving line, the best tactic is to give a very brief intro into Oxfam, and to quickly elucidate the main points of the Peace For Food reform act. Once people realize we can feed millions of more people, without adding anything to the budget, they almost immediately sign the petition.

There are of course the doubters. Unlike lobbying Congress, we did not hear concerns about labor. The main resistance came in the form of not buying food in the United States. In these cases, it is best to explain that the bill simply makes food aid more flexible, and that some food will still be bought in our country. It is also a good idea to point out that surpluses of certain commodities will still be purchased by other industries, such as corn for ethanol use. Another strategy, is to pull buttons and stickers out of your pocket in the presence of resisters. Of course you do not want to make it a quid pro quo exchange. You would be surprised at how many groups would change their tune with the mere prospect of free swag.

We also approached people who were sitting down under trees trying to avoid the torrid Tennessean sun. In these circumstances we often had five to ten minute discussions. This is where more in depth concepts like monetization can come up. Many people will also want to talk about themselves and the non-profits they either support or volunteer with. It is important to be respectful and to allow them to express those views. Often you can tie it back quite nicely to Oxfam by informing them that we are often looking for allies to work with. These were some of the more fun conversations, because you no longer had to repeat a quick pitch to keep up with a moving line. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

FUNdraising for Nepal!

On Thursday, May 21st, Oxfam Seattle's Action Corps witnessed the power of dedicated volunteers coming together to work towards a better world. That evening, we saw a high school student, Alex Cole, take time out of her busy schedule to hold a wildly successful fundraiser for the people of Nepal, people she will likely never meet. From contacting the Nepalese restaurant in Seattle, to negotiating profit sharing for Oxfam's relief efforts in Nepal, to day of set up, Alex focused, sacrificed her time, gathered friends and family, and with very little oversight, raised over $1,300 in just one night. Those in attendance, young and old (and two Seattle Action Corps Co-Leads) left the event inspired and hopeful about the future.
Alex Cole (second to the left) with event attendees.

And then there was Alison O'Neil, Oxfam Seattle's phenomenally talented Co-Lead, who on her birthday, chose to spend her evening supporting the fundraiser and Red Nose Day. Alison delivered a great speech towards the end of the event to catalyze the crowd into donating through her clear articulation of Oxfam's mission and programming.

This is the power of people. With enough compassion and energy, we can move mountains.
The event coincided with Red Nose Day-a national telethon to raise money to fight poverty.

Action Corps Organizers Ben Wiselogle and Melissa Watkinson show their support!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Another Successful Action Corps Training!

On the morning of Saturday, April 25, thirty-three of our newest initiates to the Oxfam Action Corps filed into a small conference room in Washington DC as news of the earthquake in Nepal was breaking.  The group of Oxfam supporters, including navy veterans, nurses, professors, development workers, high school coaches, facilities managers and other professions, had come to the 9th annual Action Corps training to lobby Congress for US food aid reform and to train for a year of leadership service to Oxfam in the 14 US cities they call home such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and even Washington DC.  

As they took their seats and greeted one another, another matter became clear:  one of their members was awaiting devastating personal news from her home country, Nepal. Rallying to her support, by the second day of the training they were using their break time to mount a fundraising drive for Nepal, complete with a homemade video

On Tuesday, April 28, Action Corps members took to Capitol Hill to hold 54 meetings with Congress to urge reform of US food aid-5 of which were member level! In fact, one prominent Senator, Dick Durbin (D-IL), agreed to co-sponsor the very same day while others responded favorably and provided intel. The earthquake underscored the urgency of our call to modernize the program. Since the 1950s the US has shipped food aid slowly across the oceans, but the Food for Peace Reform Act of 2015, Senate bill 525, would permit US food aid to be purchased locally near the crisis and delivered faster and cheaper, thus reaching 12 million more people in need without additional cost to the US taxpayer.

If you’re not yet familiar with the Oxfam Action Corps, they are dedicated Oxfam supporters from a variety of professional backgrounds and ages in 14 US cities. They volunteer to build 
our US constituency and voice before Congressional and corporate targets. In its first 8 years the Action Corps held more than 600 lobby visits (half in-district, half in DC), gathered more than 65,000 petition signatures, hosted or presented at 1,650 public events and collaborated with more than 500 local allies.  

On behalf of the Action Corps team of Community & Engagement, including Brian Rawson, Clara Herrero, Bob Ferguson, Nancy Delaney, Alexandria McMahon and Anoushka Barpujari, we would like to thank all our new Organizers for dedicating themselves to this project, and our Peer Advisors for their support (see our prior blog post for their profiles).  We would also like to thank the Oxfam staff who gave their time to help make our training a success, and to all those who provide support to the Oxfam Action Corps throughout the year in their home cities.  THANK YOU!

Announcing the first US Red Nose Day comedy telethon, May 21 on NBC, with proceeds to go to Oxfam America and several other organizations

Monday, April 13, 2015

Please welcome the 2015-2016 Peer Advisors and 
Oxfam Action Corps Organizers!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Community building is important to Action Corps success

Many of you have been participating in online training sessions to prepare for volunteering in your city's Oxfam Action Corp. And some are gearing up for additional training and a lobby experience in Washington DC.  A common challenge for Action Corps is to establish a local presence and build a team of core volunteers. This post written by Yoshiko is a wonderful account of her experience building community as an organizer. 

Building Community in a Population of 7.4 Million

Submitted by Yoshiko Hill

The San Francisco Bay Area has quite the reputation; one of flowering natural vistas, pronounced diversity, technology driven innovation and social activism, but advocating for hunger, poverty and social justice inequality is no easy task even within an activism incubator like the Bay Area. Bearing this in mind, how does one build relevance and elevate above the clutter of bustling lifestyles and boundless priorities to become a force for change in the local advocacy landscape of the Bay Area's 101 cities?

For Oxfam America's California based grassroots arm, the Bay Area Oxfam Action Corps (OAC), the answer lies in community building and a microscopic focus on relationships to connect advocates, volunteers, local leaders and politicians alike in an area with a population of 7.4 million.

As an OAC Organizer, I worked to make community building center stage and created relationships based on the shared vision of a world without hunger and poverty by prioritizing one-on-one communication, managing diverse and engaging local events and shaping a social atmosphere.

While leading Oxfam America's local grassroots efforts, I helped foster an active passion for social justice advocacy within members of the Bay Area Oxfam community by establishing partnerships with leading nonprofits, opening dialogue with local elected officials and of course encouraging fresh-faced volunteers to step out of their comfort zones and flex their outreach muscles.

Of my diverse functions as an Organizer, one of the most rewarding was my role as a catalyst through which I was able to empower our more introverted volunteers to lead and take ownership of local outreach efforts by directly engaging the public and building confidence as a social activist.

Many of our volunteers are new to advocacy and have never taken on such an active outreach role in their professional or personal lives. For these folks, the OAC offers a unique opportunity for self-discovery and genuine personal growth. One such volunteer was a longtime Oxfam supporter, but new to active engagement with the organization. He dived right in by volunteering with our rockstar team at a local farmer’s market and was openly nervous about initiating one-on-one conversations. After an hour with the team, he found his own communication style and was engaging in thoughtful conversations around the importance of local farmers, food justice and worker’s rights like a professional. Playing off of the group’s fun, casual and welcoming dynamics, and after a bit of positive encouragement, he discovered his inner activist.

Effecting these tiny sparks helped create countless memories that I will not soon forget and allowed me to master the dynamic relationship and community building skills invaluable to any career path and essential to promoting social awareness anyplace whether San Francisco or Indianapolis.