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Exclusive Interview with Cynthia Levin

Cynthia Changyit-Levin and Gokul Venkatachalam, St. Louis, MO


Click here to find Cynthia and Gokul and network with them!

RESULTS is a movement of passionate, committed everyday people. Together, they use their voices to influence political decisions that will bring an end to poverty. Volunteers receive training, support, and inspiration to become skilled advocates. In time, volunteers learn to effectively advise policy makers, guiding them towards decisions that improve access to education, health, and economic opportunity. With every hour of their time, volunteers multiply their impact through the enormous power of advocacy — whether it’s helping change policy to support millions of families putting food on the table or helping raise billions of dollars for the world’s most vulnerable children. Backed by the in-depth research and legislative expertise of staff, RESULTS advocates realize the incredible power they possess to use their voices to change the world.

Cynthia Changyit-Levin is the co-leader of the RESULTS St. Louis chapter and an active member within the RESULTS organization.

Why are you so passionate about ending poverty?

On an emotional level, my religious faith initially compelled me to get involved, but since then it has become personal. I have friends living in poverty in the U.S. I have met mothers and kids in extreme poverty in Uganda. For me not to act would be to turn my back on very real people in distress. On a more intellectual level, I am passionate about this problem because poverty causes so much pain and heartache and it is – at this point in our timeline – a systemic problem that is avoidable.

Why do you think poverty still exists today?

I could point to areas in our world with poor roads, sanitation, and lack of access to education, but those are just symptoms of a cause. Basically, we have a lack of motivation in leadership to end poverty. With the technology we now have available in agriculture, health, transportation, and communication, poverty is human-made situation caused by the systems we create as a society.

We are making progress, but we have not yet made it a priority in our government budgets and policies to end poverty. In fact, many U.S. and international policies are keeping people trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Why do you think citizen advocacy is so powerful?

In democratic countries, citizens hold the power to elect up or remove our leaders. Smart politicians never forget this. Most of them realize that if a group of constituents are personally motivated enough to travel all the way to DC on to talk with him/her at their own expense or take the time to write letters to the editor, they have the potential to be powerful allies or opponents. We can be a resource to them, showing them what issues are important to folks back in the district and publicizing good work that they do. Or, we can be the watchdogs who expose them in the media and help hold them accountable for representing people in need.

In a recent survey of members of Congress and staffers, in-person constituent visits were rated as the number one advocacy action that could sway a member’s opinion if he/she was undecided. When we are organized about an issue that helps people in need and create a working relationship with a member of Congress based in respect, we represent democracy at its finest.

What were you surprised by most when you started lobbying?

I was surprised by the willingness of most offices to meet with constituents and to discover there are still members of Congress out there who will eagerly put aside time to meet with constituents face to face anytime they can. But I was most surprised when I started getting phone calls from foreign aid staffers to personally let me know that their bosses signed onto a bill because I had brought it to their attention. I still remember where I was standing and how stunned I was when I heard that a U.S. representative had taken an action based on my recommendation as a constituent. It was thrilling…and still is!

Have there ever been sometimes lobbying that have been frustrating?

Most of the time, lobbying is frustrating. In RESULTS, we used to have a saying to describe this feeling: “Dirtwork, dirtwork, dirtwork…miracle!” It’s the “miracle” part that makes any level of frustration worth it. It’s always frustrating when our requests seem to fall on deaf ears. Sometimes it can take years of persistent advocacy before the right conditions align for a member of Congress to take our issues to heart. Those conditions might be due to a certain phrasing in a face to face request, an expert we bring to a lobby meeting, a landslide of media we generate, an event in a member’s life – like a medical diagnosis or the birth of a child – or simply a shift in the political landscape.

Yet frustrating lobby experiences are not nearly as frustrating as living in poverty. Thinking about girls who can’t attend school because they must carry water or parents struggling to get healthy food and medical care for their kids reminds me that I can always do a little more to put aside my negative feelings and keep going.

How stressful is it leading a chapter/lobbying while going through day-to-day activities?

It’s so stressful that RESULTS has monthly group leader meetings in each region, so that we can support each other! This year, we also had a session at our International Conference in D.C. about how leaders can avoid “burnout.” Personally, I find it helpful to take on a model of co-leadership with another RESULTS partner, so that two people can share different challenging aspects of the role.

When a group is working well together and tasks are distributed evenly, it can be an absolute joy. When volunteers fall out of communication or simply don’t complete actions they sign up for, it can be disappointing. I think this is generally not different than other kinds of volunteer organizing like leading election campaigns, scouting troops, or church committees. The difference, perhaps, is the high level of personal training we try to provide to each of our members and the “hurry up and wait” pace of passing legislation. Just because something needs urgent action in the House or Senate, it doesn’t mean that volunteers have time in their personal lives to react to it! So, group leaders must do what we can to keep people inspired, motivated, and engaged even when we may not be feeling that way ourselves.

Have you ever been skeptical of your own actions and wondered whether the end-goal is even achievable?

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have that healthy skepticism now and then. Usually those doubts are related to how well things happen to be going in my leadership of the local group. I often think about my own personal actions to re-evaluate if I am having as big an impact as I could or if I could be more effective. But in the broad picture, I only have to look at the statistics about what we have already achieved to know that the end of poverty is achievable. Since 1990, we have cut the number of people in extreme poverty around the world by more than half. That doesn’t happen by itself. It’s not a coincidence that around 1990 is when we began to see greater cooperation between governments to be united in this effort. That momentum is still going and has survived a global recession and multiple natural disasters. It was inspired by citizens demanding action, so I’m optimistic that we can reach the end of poverty if we continue to be vocal, strategic, and adaptable to the challenges ahead.

Would you consider yourself an activist?

Absolutely. I used to avoid this word because I felt like it evoked imagery of shouting in the streets. But two things happened to lead me to embrace it. First, I realized that most people don’t really understand what “advocate” or “lobbyist” means in the context of the work I do. It helps people to quickly understand that I’m a volunteer. Second, I found myself carrying signs and shouting in the streets for the Women’s March and the March for Science. So, yeah…I’m an activist.

How do you feel about the stigma that surrounds lobbying?

Lately, the stigma around lobbying kind of amuses me. In the past, I was shy of using it upon first meeting someone new. Now, with a recent surge of interest in how an average person can contact a member of Congress, I freely tell everyone I encounter that I teach people how to effectively lobby and call myself a “lobbyist for people living in poverty.” The combination of the words “lobbyist” and “poverty” usually stops people in their tracks and makes them want to know more.

Has your view on politicians changed after you've lobbied them?

I definitely see them more as people now instead of as abstract ideas of “leaders.” I think I was not unusual in that I viewed members of Congress as famous figureheads with fully formed opinions about everything. I now see them as people who took on an incredibly demanding job (for any number of reasons) who can’t possibly know every issue very well. I truly do believe that most of them ran for office because they wanted to make some aspects of some constituents’ lives better.

I've read your blogs, what about writing do you enjoy the most?

My blog is a resource for any activist, but my favorite target audience is moms who want to use advocacy to create a better world for themselves and their children. I really enjoy speaking directly to them through my “mommy” filter. I also enjoy choosing my own topics and writing whenever I feel like it instead of trying to pitch ideas to other people who have limited space to publish pieces about poverty or advocacy.

Is it difficult to not be partisan when lobbying in front of Members of Congress that you disagree with?

It’s actually much easier for me to be non-partisan in a face-to-face meeting than in the privacy of my own home. In a meeting, I’m always aware that I have a job to do on behalf of the people I represent.

No meaningful, long-term change can happen with the support of only one party. This is true in our Senate now, which is so evenly divided that it sometimes requires a tie-breaking vote from the Vice-President. It is true every time we have an election that shifts the power base in the House of Representatives, the Senate, or the White House. Displaying a partisan attitude when discussing a non-partisan issue – like poverty – can only come back around to hurt your cause eventually. Knowing all this makes it easier to maintain a neutral position in front of members of Congress.

Who is one person that you look up to currently?

Dr. Joanne Carter, executive director of RESULTS, is the person I look up to most in the advocacy world. She provides some of the most compassionate, intelligent, and strategic leadership I’ve ever encountered. She began her lobbying as a volunteer (a practicing veterinarian at the time!) and moved up in her leadership until she served on staff and eventually accepted leadership of the organization. Her positions on international boards like the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria influence decision makers around the world. Whether she is giving encouraging words to a new volunteer or leaning on the President of the World Bank to influence program direction, she offers everyone the chance to be a valued partner in the fight against poverty.

Dr. Carter is one of those special people who can make a difference in millions of lives, not through force of personality, but through empathetic listening and bridge building. Her career path reminds me that we are all suited to do this work no matter where we started our journey. Her leadership style reminds me that, as a leader, I should spend more time lifting up others around me than putting myself forward.

Any tips for youth activists out there?

Your opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. Your voice is more powerful than you think it is. In fact, you are more interesting to most members of Congress than I am simply because it’s unusual for people to get involved in this kind of work at such a young age. You may very well get their attention mainly because of your youthful appearance. My advice is to KEEP their attention by being well-informed, confident, and well-prepared.

Anything you'd like to add?

One of the most important things I’m learning as an advocate is to know when to “pass the microphone” to other people...especially when they are bigger stakeholders in the fight against poverty than I am myself. My voice can be strong and powerful, but deliberately stepping back and giving others the chance to speak is the way to grow a movement.

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