Mr. Steves Goes to Washington
|Rick speaks on "citizen diplomacy" at a German Marshall Fund luncheon. (Photo by: GMFUS)|
I'm just back from a trip to Washington DC and it was an eye-opener. The main purpose of my visit was to accept the Wittenburg Award from the Luther Institute, for service to the public and my church. It was a great honor, and the event gave me a chance to give my "Travel as a Political Act" talk to an audience in a city that lives and breathes politics.
Sitting in that packed church, listening to music chosen and sung in my honor (Robert Louis Stevenson's "Songs of Travel") and hearing church and seminary leaders talk about my work was a little intimidating for a travel writer from Seattle. It occurred to me that having the opportunity to give my talk to this crowd inspired me as much as anyone in the audience. The reception was a festival, and it turned out to be a wonderfully energizing way to kick off an intense and very political couple of days.
While I was in DC, I also worked with the citizens' action group Bread for the World to lobby members of Congress to increase our development assistance to poor countries. There is a serious need for our government to follow through on America's commitment to the Millennium Development Goals — joining other nations in giving one percent of their budgets to developmental aid. We also need to encourage our nation's decision-makers to see that development aid is needed for people's needs beyond military aid.
In a week when Colombia was given $5 billion in military aid to fight its drug war (as one Congressman put it, "That sells American helicopters"), Bread for the World staffers and I were busy encouraging congressional members and staffers to advocate for the needs of hungry people around the world by asking for $5 billion in developmental aid.
The schedule was brutal and, in my pint-sized escort, Rachel, I met my match when it comes to walking fast down very long corridors.
I was fortunate to have in-person visits with Washington State Senator Patty Murray (who has since voted in favor of the Biden-Luger Amendment to keep our developmental aid strong, for which all BFTW members and I are thankful), Representative Norm Dicks (WA-6th), Representative Jo Ann Emerson (MO-8th), and the staffs of Representatives Mark Kirk (IL-10th), John Carter (TX-31st), and Tom Latham (IA-4th).
Bread for the World knew who was Lutheran, who was a fan of my guidebooks, and who had been on recent trips and wanted to meet me. They were unabashed about using these excuses to get into those offices and sit down to lobby for the needs of the hungry and homeless.
My own congressional Representative, Jay Inslee (WA-1st), as well as Representative Adam Smith (WA-9th) and Representative Jim McDermott (WA-7th) sponsored an event in the Rayburn House Office Building attended by over 100 members of congress, staffers, and church leaders. I spoke for half an hour, followed by a spirited question-and-answer period and messages from three members of Congress.
I was also invited to be the featured speaker at a luncheon sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, where 40 people with a passion for transatlantic cooperation gathered to hear my take on the value of the USA overcoming its isolation and working more constructively with its international friends on poverty, peace and justice issues. (Their podcast version of my message is on their website.)
During my many conversations, I picked up on some interesting phrases that are trendy in DC these days:
- "Soft Power" — The idea that the USA can wield its influence and accomplish its goals more effectively by helping people with constructive developmental aid, rather than threatening with military force and rewarding with military aid.
- "The Brand of America" — The notion that the reason for us to be liked and respected is so that people will be inclined to buy our products...and the realization across the political spectrum that this "brand" has taken a pretty big beating in the past decade.
- "Quietism" — The sense that progressive Christians are frustrated by our government's priorities, but (unlike some conservative Christians) they feel it's inappropriate to incorporate their religious values into their political discourse.
I returned home impressed with the constant grind of people advocating for their financial needs in the Capitol (whether motivated by greed or altruism). The math is simple: any interest (no matter how noble) that is not well-represented in Washington will simply be pushed aside by others that are. If a member of congress gives money to Interest A at the expense of Interest B, it's not because he doesn't like B...it's just that he gave in to A's demands, and the money had to come from somewhere. That's how good and caring members of Congress appropriate funds in ways that indirectly hurt hungry and desperate people.
I left Washington DC with a deeper appreciation than ever for the dogged work done by Bread for the World. And, frankly, exhausted after just two days of playing hard ball with soft power.
Note: This article originally appeared in Rick's online travel blog. To see reader feedback — or to post your own comment — go to the blog feedback page.