By Betsy Dunklin, Dining for Women Advocacy Committee Chair
Last fall, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dining for Women’s volunteer Regional Leaders at their annual retreat. I was encouraged to hear that many chapters are not only excited about our new advocacy program, they are raring to go!
Education has been our goal over the past months. We have learned about the importance of foreign aid … now it is time to take action.
You may be wondering how individuals like us – spread out across our large country – can have an impact on something as big as the U.S. federal budget. That is an understandable attitude. The U.S. budget-setting process is complicated. Despite that, we can make a difference, by relying on the power of our grassroots network of members. We are fueled by you, our dedicated members!
In addition to being DFW members, we are all constituents as well. Our elected representatives want — and need — to hear from us.
Consider this example of a small number of ordinary citizens doing the unbelievable. The current #MeToo movement in reaction to sexual harassment is an example of ordinary women — with no organization — uniting to be heard and causing the mighty to fall. Now women legislators are introducing bills, and human resources departments are instituting new procedures to tear down the structures that have allowed these demeaning acts to go unpunished. We can take lessons from grassroots campaigns such as this.
We know from numerous studies and on-the-ground experience that foreign aid programs that focus on gender equality are the most effective way to end extreme poverty. Empowering women and girls is not only right, it is smart. By putting gender equality at the core of all U.S. foreign aid, we can more effectively make our world safer, more peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous for everyone.
This is not just DFW’s position. There is extensive research on the benefits of investing in women and girls – benefits that extend beyond the individual woman to her family, community, and country. Empowering women and girls and advancing gender equality are a critical part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an internationally agreed upon set of goals to end poverty and advance equality. Many countries are using the SDGs to inform and inspire their aid and related policies. Canada and Sweden, for example, have both formally adopted Feminist Foreign Policies that put gender equality at the core of their foreign aid efforts.
There are also many other international, nonpartisan organizations working toward the same goals. DFW is collaborating with some of them, including Oxfam America and the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. By working together, we can ensure our advocacy efforts are even more effective and impactful. Oxfam values the participation of Dining for Women members so much that they gave us a grant to underwrite our advocacy education program.
What will we ask our members to do?
We hope all of you will send emails or make phone calls to your members of Congress at the appropriate time. Over the next few weeks, we will share with you some tools for a specific call to action we are asking you to join in March. We will help you identify who to contact, when to do it, and what to say. You do not have to be an expert; you just have to let them know that you care and are watching. Congresspersons will realize that there is an organized effort in their district, which will get their attention.
A few of you may be willing to do more. One of the most powerful ways to persuade a Congressperson is in a personal meeting, usually with a staff person in the home office. In time, we hope some DFW members are motivated to work together, across chapters, to educate your Representatives and Senators about the positive outcomes from empowering women and girls.
It is likely that, unless you are in a major metropolitan area like New York City or Washington, DC, your Congressperson has never heard from a constituent or anyone else about the value of programs for women and girls globally. DFW members know a great deal more about this topic than most. Moreover, in time a few of you may be willing to use the samples we provide to write letters to the editor and guest opinions in your local media and post to social media to educate other voters about our efforts and the work of your local DFW chapter.
We hope to make this easy, fun and inspiring. Here is what we have planned for the next few months:
- Educational materials: Thanks to a grant from Oxfam, we are publishing an advocacy guide Raise Your Voices for Women and Girls. This guide will be available online to all our members, and a limited number of printed copies will be mailed to each chapter at the end of February.
- International Women’s Day “Biggest Chapter Meeting of the Year”: We will hold the “Biggest Chapter Meeting of the Year” on March 8, International Women’s Day. Our Board Chair, Susan Stall, will moderate a panel entitled “Putting Women at the Center of U.S. Foreign Aid.” We hope all of you will join this live webcast or watch the recording at your convenience.
- Online tools: In February, we will launch the advocacy page on our website with important information and tools to support you in identifying and contacting your Congresspersons. We will also provide some suggested talking points and templates for you use.
- Call to action: We will ask you to contact your members of Congress in March to let them know you care about the impact of the foreign aid budget on women and girls. March is a key time to advocate because this is when the House and Senate Budget Committees will begin working on the 2019 federal budget.
- We welcome your feedback: We will be reaching out to chapter leaders and members on an ongoing basis to find out how our advocacy program is working and what responses you got from your elected officials.
- We will keep you informed: Our allies in the international aid community will keep us informed of the budget process and votes, which we will report to DFW members.
DFW members know from our own history about the ability of a small number of citizens to make a big difference. When our founders Marsha Wallace asked her friends to celebrate her birthday by making small donations to a program serving women in conflict areas, she had no idea she was starting a movement. Her vision and charisma, combined with co-founder Barb Collins’ organization-building savvy, led to the creation and growth of our beloved DFW.
As Barb said recently, “Advocacy is the heart of our mission. We raise our collective voice for thousands of women who aren’t being heard, giving a hand up so all women have opportunities to control their destinies.”
It’s time to get to work. We can do this!