Believing Collective Action Can Work Is the First Step Toward Making It Work
Sam Daley-Harris Changed the World With Grassroots Organizations
Devin: What is your superpower?
Sam: What is my superpower?
I think it's that I'm in on the joke. I actually know that people can make a difference, and I keep my eye on that ball.
I look at the news, and I get a little depressed by the news. But I look at what the grassroots groups I am working with are doing, and I get excited. Last year [President Trump] called for a 31 percent cut to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria, which over the last 17 years, along with its partners, had saved 27 million lives. Results volunteers got 162 Republicans and Democrats to sign one letter to the top appropriators on the subcommittee that appropriates it saying, no, don't cut it. The appropriations subcommittee has nine people on it. When those nine subcommittee members get a letter signed by 162 [of their Congressional colleagues] saying pay attention to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, [it matters]. So I pay attention to those volunteers who are getting 162 Republicans and Democrats to say no, don't cut the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. When I look at the Citizens' Climate Lobby, last year, they had enrolled 45 Republicans and 45 Democrats in the House Climate Solutions caucus when four years ago you couldn't get one Republican to put their name on anything with the word climate in the title. How exciting does that get about breakthroughs in new territory! So, I'm in on the joke that people think, somebody thinks, everybody thinks we can't make a difference [on big issues]. I know that we can. And I keep my eye on the ball [and on all of those who are making a difference.] That really feeds me.
You can watch the full interview with Sam here: sam.s4g.biz.
Sam Daley-Harris may be the most impactful person you’ve never heard of. He runs with the likes of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus. Trained as a musician, Sam founded RESULTS, a leading anti-poverty lobby that deserves credit for dramatically reducing child mortality globally over the past 40 years.
He first began asking questions about his purpose when a friend died in 1964. He was further shaken by the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, again causing him to ponder the question of his purpose.
In 1977, he attended a presentation on ending world hunger. Up to that point, he had assumed that if ending world hunger were possible, it would have happened. So, clearly, it wasn’t. He learned some unsurprising facts that changed his thinking. There is no mystery to growing or distributing food. The problem was simply creating the will to end hunger. The event planted a seed of confidence—hope—that collective action could change things.
Sam jumped in with both feet. Classroom by classroom, he spoke to 7,000 high school students about fighting global hunger. In every presentation, he asked the students if they could name their congressional representative. Only 3 percent could! From this disappointment, he saw an opportunity.
Because so few people are aware of and are engaging with their representatives in Washington, he figured out that they could make a big difference by organizing a small group of people. He saw that a systematic approach could change policies that would save lives. The approach included writing letters to the editor and opinion pieces for newspapers to shape public opinion and directly lobbying members of Congress through letters, phone calls and personal visits.
In 1980, he founded RESULTS to do just that. In those 41 years, the number of children dying from hunger and preventable disease has dropped from 41,000 to 14,000 per day. There is still work to do, but millions of people are alive today because governments, responding to pressure from citizens, have funded efforts to end hunger.
Along the way, Sam’s confidence in the power of collective action, the unstoppable force of a citizen-led campaign for change, became absolute.
In 2007, he helped Marshall Saunders, founder of Citizens' Climate Lobby, organize a parallel effort for fighting climate change. Muhammad Yunus now sits on the board. Today, the organization boasts over 180,000 members in 590 groups around the world. Sam is confident that this effort will help to reverse climate change.
How to Develop Confidence in Collective Action as a Superpower
Let’s not belabor a simple plan. When I spoke with Sam for this book, he said the best way to gain confidence in collective action is to participate and practice.
Sam shared with me the story of Marshall Saunders’s first meeting with a member of Congress. Marshall was so nervous that he couldn’t remember what he had prepared to say. Now, it is routine. Citizens' Climate Lobby members, including Marshall, met with 1,800 members of Congress and their staff members in a single year. Practice makes progress and builds confidence.
Sam notes that it is essential to join a group that will empower you as an advocate. Some organizations designed to lobby Congress use a different approach, focused on collecting money from donors to pay Washington lobbyists to push the agenda. Others, like RESULTS and Citizens’ Climate Lobby, empower and encourage their members to use their voices.
When you join an empowering group, you will receive training on writing letters to the editor and OpEds that will get published. You’ll get coaching on writing letters to members of Congress that will get read. You’ll even have opportunities to join with your peers to visit the halls of Congress and meet with your representatives to make your case. As you experience this, you will gain confidence in the power of collective action to make a significant difference in the world.