By Marian Wright Edelman
Jackson Advocate Guest Writer
As the first votes are being cast for the 2024 presidential election, many Americans are thinking deeply about their own part in our democracy right now – and many are wondering whether they have any power to make a difference. It’s a question Sam Daley-Harris has been asking for decades, and even at a moment of surging voter cynicism, he keeps arriving at the same resounding answer: yes! Daley-Harris has just released a new edition of his book Reclaiming Our Democracy: Every Citizen’s Guide to Transformational Advocacy, revised and updated for this critical election year. Daley-Harris wants every citizen to feel hopeful and empowered to move beyond what he calls transactional advocacy to the much more powerful transformational advocacy, where you’re trained to do things as an advocate that you thought you couldn’t do.
Daley-Harris has a long track record of results – he is the founder of RESULTS and the RESULTS Educational Fund, a movement of passionate, committed everyday people using their voices to influence political decisions that will bring an end to poverty. He – along with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus and John Hatch – co-founded the Microcredit Summit Campaign, which in 2007 achieved its goal of reaching 100 million of the world’s poorest families with microloans and other financial and business services. And he is the founder of Civic Courage, which trains nonprofits to deliver transformational advocacy. Threaded through all this is the evidence that “small-scale” actions – a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, a microloan to one working mother, a meeting with your own member of Congress – can lead to transforming change.
One of his earliest lessons in citizen education more than 40 years ago came when he began giving anti-hunger presentations to high school students: at his first talk, he asked the students how many of them knew the name of the person who represented them in Congress – and only four answered correctly. This disconnect from members of Congress was not just limited to young people. Learning how to engage directly with your elected representatives is one of Daley-Harris’s key messages, and throughout Reclaiming Our Democracy he introduces readers to “ordinary citizens,” from teenagers to adults, who chose to do just that. One, Maxine Thomas, described her first visit to her senator’s office where she shared her experience of how the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit helped families like hers: “I was a ball of emotions . . . I was scared and worried whether I would say the right thing.” But she did, and her senator said, “Wow, this has been emotional.” At the end of a day of meetings, Thomas said, “I was euphoric. I was on this high and felt I was part of something revolutionary.”
Daley-Harris wants every citizen to understand and start wielding this power. His organizations provide training in specific actions like meeting with elected officials and reaching out to the news media, and emphasize working together with others. As he asks in Reclaiming Our Democracy: “Who do you want to be? Do you want to be someone whose cynicism leaves them on the sidelines, or do you want to be a changemaker? When I say changemaker, I don’t mean that you singlehandedly change the world, but that you are powerful in your community, and perhaps beyond. You are powerful with your members of Congress. You are powerful with the local media. You are powerful with other community leaders – in fact, you’ve become a community leader yourself.”
He goes on to quote climate activist and futurist Alex Steffen: “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 those problems.”
In a recent interview Daley-Harris gave a similar answer when he was asked how to respond to people who feel beaten down by our current politics: “Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart said, ‘We aren’t passengers on spaceship Earth, we’re the crew.’ Well, are we, and if we are, what does crew act like?” Sam Daley-Harris’s call for a radically optimistic, active, engaged crew of citizens is desperately needed right now – especially among young people and young voters, who can be effective, informed advocates for themselves and need to know they can make a difference.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information visit childrensdefense.org.