23-Year Old Advocate Mei Sze Phung’s First Experience at the RESULTS International Conference 2017, Washington D.C.
“Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that generation. Let your greatness blossom” – Nelson Mandela
What does it mean to fulfill your life purpose? For me, it means wholeheartedly committing to helping to end poverty in my lifetime, not holding anything back. I’m a mixture – Filmmaker, Dancer, Activist – and my mission in life is to devote myself to this growing movement by contributing my unique skill set to the cause.
Some background – I am a filmmaker working on a drama/true story feature film “Dance for World Peace” and the complementary social media activism platform Project #DanceToEndHungerNow.
When I was little, I would ask my parents why they came to America. My parents, grandparents, and ancestors come from China and Vietnam. My mother and father grew up during the time when the Vietnam War was happening. Poverty and hunger was common and widespread in our family. My parents immigrated here for the American Dream. I escaped growing up in extreme poverty and had the opportunity to have a quality education at the University of California, Los Angeles, having graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in World Arts and Cultures (here, I first learned about arts activism and fell in love with the concept). To think of it, I am actually very fortunate. That is why I am a part of RESULTS today.
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.
I first became an advocate with RESULTS on June 10, 2017, when Jim Driggers, the Contra Costa RESULTS group leader, contacted me through my Meetup group “Global Poverty and Hunger Alleviation – Art and Action”, hoping for a way for us to help each other end global poverty. From there, he connected me with Sue Oehser, the Oakland RESULTS group leader, as I live near her area. There are RESULTS groups in over 100 locations across the country, as well as individual activists in many other communities. A group typically consists of 4–8 activists who meet regularly to plan meetings with members of Congress, to discuss strategies for generating media, and to get the advocacy skills they need to make hunger and poverty political priorities.
Although I’ve only recently joined RESULTS, my advocacy efforts actually started much earlier. I started the Hunger Awareness Leaders of Tomorrow Club at Alameda School, I’ve been a volunteer with Action Against Hunger and Oxfam America for years, and more recently, I connected with the UN World Food Program USA to host a few outreach/education events.
I went to the June Global Webinar gathering that Sue held in Oakland, where I learned about the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and participated in letter writing to Senator Kamala Harris to ask for her support for the GPE. Sue and Jim’s persistence in following up with me several times caused me to soon decide that I would to commit myself to RESULTS. Sue followed up with me after the June Global Webinar Gathering to discuss ways I could continue my RESULTS activism, and it became clear that the next step would be to attend the RESULTS International Conference 2017 (A gathering of 600-800 of us spending several days – July 22-25 — hearing from leading experts, learning new skills, and meeting fellow advocates committed to ending poverty. After that, we would take our message straight to Capitol Hill so that congress could hear from US). Sue introduced me wonderfully to her local RESULTS chapters via email, and I was welcomed by RESULTS staff, board members, and fellow volunteers. The excitement had just begun and the rest is history. Once I began volunteering as an advocate for RESULTS, I knew I had found the right place. I felt like I was becoming part of a huge family and to my wonder, it was as if I’d known my fellow volunteers my whole life. There was a comforting familiarity. Following graduation from college, it had been rather difficult to immerse myself in local communities that shared my values towards ending poverty, but when I found RESULTS, I no longer felt lonely fulfilling this mission. I was working closely side by side with folks who were just as passionate, enthusiastic, and driven to end poverty as I was!
The rigorous preparation started – A California-wide U.S. Poverty Lobby Prep call with Meredith Dodson, a Northern CA Global lobby prep with Crickett, and the July monthly grassroots webinar/conference call where the Oakland Chapter joined the gathering in Contra Costa hosted by Jim Driggers, followed by Bill and Tari’s delicious lunch. I was really feeling excited as I anticipated the RESULTS International Conference 2017 coming closer day by day. Being around helpful, resourceful fellow volunteers added to my happiness. Lastly, I participated in the RESULTS U.S. Poverty National Webinar with Debbie Weinstein. As always, there was plenty of information to take in and absorb.
Finally… the moment we’ve all been waiting for… the week of the RESULTS International Conference came. I had a dip in my mood. As someone who experiences mental health issues, in my case, the rare schizoaffective disorder, I knew it would be a challenge, but as always, I never stray away from challenges. My ambitious self was going to take this on. It was the Sunday before the RESULTS International Conference and I had come back from an intense, sacred, saintly, marvelous two-day Dao Temple Seminar in Sacramento (I’ve practiced Dao ever since I was a child). I was not deemed ready to take the vow to “Tze Zhai” to become an official vegetarian (a vow of great significance which meant no eating meat, garlic or onion and no smoking, drinking, or drugs). It was a vow that I believed would give me a greater sense of purity and closeness to the Buddhas/Goddesses, whom I aspire to be like. My mood goes up and down like a rollercoaster, especially this past year. Happy events result in elevated mood, and sad or stressful events result in low mood. For a few days, I was emotional and couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed or finish my preparation for the RESULTS IC. It was about two days before the conference, and after all I had contributed, participated in, learned, and developed excitement and hope for, I started to consider putting off the trip to Washington DC. Would everyone understood if I had to withdraw, after all their support and faith in me? Could I leave the earth and still have a promising timeless legacy? Would anyone remember me?
One day before the RESULTS IC… I told my sister confidently, “I’M GOING TO WASHINGTON D.C., I’M GOING TO WASHINGTON DC”. By the way, this was the very first time I had ever traveled so far alone without the protection and guidance of my family. I pulled myself up “by my bootstraps”, and set off to put everything in order – printing and quickly reviewing the agenda, policy briefs, poverty legislative handbook, and logistics etc. I spent all night packing everything. My grandma, parents, and fellow community members had been raving in enthusiasm of this huge milestone in my life, not only amongst each other, but also to friends and colleagues. It was a big deal. When I’m determined and headstrong, my parents are just as much so — always on the same page as me. When I am down and distressed, my parents witness this too. It’s a pretty consistent pattern, which is great whenever I have my drive intact. It can also be humorous, and it means that I know they will always support me, yet be honest and strict when I am down and distressed. My grandma had told me to “dress nicely and take lots of pictures”. I am all about artistic expression, whether it’s through my films, dance, art or clothes etc. For everyday of the conference, I had an outfit in a different vibrant color – orange, turquoise, red, light pink, and red pink. I aimed for classy yet expressive – conveying who I am as a person. Now, after all of this, I am slightly dizzy, but I enjoyed these moments.
~ * ~
OKAY.. SO NOW WE REACH THE START OF THE CONFERENCE. The preparation itself can feel like half the battle, doesn’t it?
I came in and reinforced these goals for myself throughout the conference –
-To not only absorb and take in information, but to also bring my skills and unique talents to the table, so that I am able to return to my community and make the biggest impact possible
-To film the RESULTS IC promo video 2017 (the idea of San Francisco Volunteer Sarah Thomas, which Pankaj Agarwal, SF volunteer and board member, supports). The title was later changed to “Why I’m an Advocate”, which I will go into details further into this post.
-To meet board members/directors etc.
-To network with film contacts/international volunteers/folks with connection to Africa (one of my dreams is to go there one day to help alleviate poverty, how uplifting)
-To improve my lobbying skills and to develop deeper relationships with my senators and representatives
I went to the “Building Advocacy Training Skills to Engage your Community” workshop, which covered the topics of what RESULTS is, what advocacy is, letter writing, making a call, and meeting with our Member of Congress. This is a great workshop for those of us who would like to further involve our communities. Afterwards, we were able to share our thoughts and comments, which I appreciated. A common theme throughout the RESULTS International Conference is that not only do we have the privilege to listen to keynote speakers and engage in workshops and informational/preparation activities, but we also have the opportunity and space to voice our comments and questions. The speakers motivate us. At the same time, we fuel our energy towards the speakers. It’s an amazing dynamic that shows that we are all in this together.
After that, there was the Plenary, “Conference Opening Celebration and Keynote” where we were able to listen to Dr. Joanne Carter, Executive Director of RESULTS. This was awesome because not only is Joanne inspiring, but I could already feel the strong energy of the RESULTS family.
Grassroots Group Networking was where I got to meet all of my fellow California (North and South) volunteers in person at the same place at the same time. Before the RESULTS IC, most of my interaction with my fellow volunteers was virtual – emails, webinars, phone calls etc. (I did join the Oakland/Contra Costa meetings, as these were more local to me). We introduced ourselves, shared what inspired us to come to this year’s conference, and spoke about particular interesting experiences in our lobbying.
(Left to right: Taonga Banda, Namooya Nanchengwa, Maxwell Mumba)
Throughout the next few days, we engaged in additional plenaries, workshops, and Advocacy Day preparation activities. There was the “Brown Bag Lunch – Zambia Learning and Sharing Tour” where we heard from fellow advocates who went to Zambia. I got to meet three REAL Change Fellows from Zambia: Maxwell Mumba, Namooya Nanchengwa, and Taonga Banda. The REAL Change Organizing and Advocacy Fellowship is a hands-on training program for young people between the ages of 18–30. During the yearlong program, fellows learn how to work with the media, their communities, and policymakers to create change. REAL Change participants receive a crash course in advocacy at the RESULTS International Conference in Washington, DC. After three days of coaching and inspiration, fellows spend the final day of the conference on Capitol Hill and speak directly with members of Congress and their staff. Throughout the rest of the year, fellows receive ongoing training through bi-weekly calls. They hone their advocacy skills by taking actions ranging from writing letters to the editor to hosting events to meeting with their members of Congress in-district. Maxwell, Namooya, and Taonga were not only unique leaders, but they were also committed to change and development for their country. It is delightful to see this younger generation of leaders speak up and work for this cause that we care so much about.
(The Real Change Fellows)
I attended a workshop called “Introduction to the U.S. Legislative Process” where I learned about the difference between in-person issue visits from constituents and visits from lobbyists. “Lobbyists” are paid. Constituent visits are the most effective way of influencing members of congress, compared to email messages, phone calls, petitions etc.
In between this information-filled and engaging experience compacted into a few days, I was able to film the RESULTS/RESULTS IC 2017 promo video. As I had mentioned earlier, Sarah Thomas from San Francisco actually had this idea, which she consulted with Pankaj about. We talked about me possibly being “Results Journalist” at the conference to bring the conference alive and real time, allowing people to get a view of what’s happening and promoting the work and opportunities for participation with RESULTS. Sarah believed that this could be a breakthrough for the Bay Area. Knowing that I had studied film, this assignment had been brought to me and after discussion, we agreed that we would make a 2-4 minute promo video. However, when Sarah and I were planning for the video, she asked about my story and why I’m part of RESULTS. When I told her about my backstory and aspirations, she was excited and decided we take the video in another direction, telling it from my perspective. Hence, the title of our video is now “Why I’m an Advocate”. Finally, I would like to thank John Tupper, owner of Illusive Reality Animation (www.illusivereality.net), for his incredible coaching on editing for “Why I’m an Advocate” video, which led to a polished final product.
“A Day at the Fare: One Woman’s Welfare Passage” was a Plenary featuring Pamela M. Covington, speaker and author. She spoke powerfully about her unexpected plunge into, and triumphant emergence from, deep poverty. I loved the spoken word aspect as well.
“Engaging with the World Bank – Opportunities and Challenges in Global Development” was a workshop that emphasized that the World Bank would be an important partner to engage in our effort to end extreme poverty. Its key roles played in global development were discussed. There was an overview of its structure, as well as an outline of key points of leverage. There was also talk about strategies to influence the institution at multiple levels and the challenges and opportunities that we will face in the years ahead. During this workshop, I raised the question about how we RESULTS Volunteers can help out. I believe that Tony Baker (speaker of workshop; Associate Director, Global Education, RESULTS) mentioned that we could write letters, make phone calls, etc., the same way we would lobby our congress members.
The “Developing Grasstops Influencers in your Community” was helpful in that it showed practical tools, ideas, and examples of how we can engage with grasstops influencers, typically well-known community members who know lawmakers or are able to mobilize larger networks. The combination of a strong RESULTS group, community (grasstops) influencers, and a large base of action-takers in the Action Network is powerful and effective in influencing lawmakers.
On Sunday night, I had dinner with fellow Northern California Volunteers at the Washington Court Hotel. The topic of Dao/Buddhism was brought up. The question I raised was that if hypothetically before one reincarnates, his or soul gets to choose what he or she will be in the next life, why would some people choose to live in poverty? Why would someone choose to be a homeless? With Jim’s input, we came to an agreement that perhaps they were meant to teach us a lesson. Now this, I could understand.
(Judiciary Square, Washington, United States)
How could I not mention my experience sight-seeing? I went with my two roommates, Cecilia Van Wijk and Sarah Leone, as well as Cecilia’s friend, Caleb, who was a great tour guide for us. Some of the attractions we visited were the White House, the Constitution Gardens, the World War II Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. I even got to stand at the exact spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a Dream” speech. Astonishing.
A topic commonly mentioned is “how to reach all children with quality education” in transforming our future. It’s one thing to have the opportunity of education, but it’s another to actually have a quality education.
Monday night came, and each region prepared for Advocacy Day, where we would lobby our congress members at Capitol Hill. There are “asks” for global poverty, U.S. poverty, and the World Bank (which international folks would be lobbying). For global poverty, the “asks” include “Global Partnership for Education: Ask Congress to Cosponsor the GPE Resolution” and “Reach Every Mother and Child Act: Request Congressional Support for Upcoming Maternal & Child Health Legislation. The domestic asks include no cuts to Healthcare (ACA and Medicaid), no cuts to food programs, expand to people without children and expand eligibility for EITC and CTC, and to not have tax cuts biased towards the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
(My grandma had told me to “dress nicely and take lots of pictures”)
Finally we were ready. Advocacy Day Kickoff took place, after which we all proceeded to attend our Advocacy Day Meetings. Not only was I able to participate in meetings with Democratic congress members/aides, but I was even able to join in on several meetings with Republicans. I (with my group) met with Representative Mike Thompson’s aide, Jennifer Goedke, Representative Ami Bera’s aide, Erin O’Quinn, and Representative Tom McClintock’s, aide Taylor Bower. Jim is rather experienced with lobbying Republicans, as it is important to not only influence Democrats on our side, but also Republicans.
(Rep. LaMalfa’s office gave a good listen about taking appropriate actions to end poverty by 2030. Left to right: Bruce Preville, Pankaj Agarwal, Georgia Platts, Legislative Correspondent John Veale, Jim Driggers, Mei Sze Phung)
Later during the day, I had a few more meetings. Right before our meeting with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s aides, I witnessed a powerful protest by approximately 300-500 disabled folks shouting “NO CUTS TO MEDICAID” repeatedly. I believe many senators and aides around the upper level floors of Hart Senate Office observed this spectacle.
(Meeting with Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Left to right: Legislative Assistant M.A. Keifer, Pankaj Agarwal, Gail Dolson, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Jessica Bartholow, Joel Rubinstein, Sylvia Sabels, Mei Sze Phung)
I got the chance to tell my story to Dianne Feinstein’s aide Anup Rao (see above: parents from China and Vietnam did not have the opportunity to finish school there – moved to America for the American Dream, and I was able to graduate from UCLA). It was a nerve-wracking experience where at that moment, I could feel all eyes on me. If a pin dropped, we probably would have heard it. However, it was a delightful experience as well. Anup was later joined by Chris Gaspar, whom my fellow NorCal advocates have developed a relationship with. Lastly, I got to meet Congresswoman Barbara Lee (she represents the 13th district of California including Alameda – where I live, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, and San Leandro ) in person! This was an incredible moment that I will never forget. Congresswoman Lee is a champion for the issues RESULTS is working on.
Influencing congress members means building relationships with them. Not only did we meet with them in person, but us volunteers also wrote letters and emails, made phone calls, had news articles/letters to editors published, and presented relevant media during this process.
During the Advocacy Day Reception, numerous congress members came to speak to us and rally us. Congresswoman Barbara Lee did mention during our lobby meeting that as long as we keep doing our work, she will keep up the action on her end. It’s a two-way collaboration where not only are our congress members empowering and influential, but we are as well.
That leaves me to the very last day of this exciting agenda-packed conference, Wednesday July 26, 2017. I attended a Media Training workshop (opinion-editorial workshop – learning the process of having op-eds published). These skills are definitely ones that I will be taking home to put to use. I bid farewell to Ken Patterson (Director of Global Grassroots Advocacy) and thanked him again for the Gap Funding that assisted me in being able to come to the RESULTS International Conference 2017. I expressed to him that I had a valuable learning experience, to which he replied that I also contributed by asking questions. Lastly, I stated that I would continue my work as an advocate with RESULTS.
I left the conference feeling…
Inspired, appreciated, loved, awestruck, mesmerized, exhilarated, and happy that I had such a productive time in just five days. It is an experience that will stay with me for the years to come as I continue my work as an activist.
On the Metro train ride and journey with Jim to the airport, I mentioned, “The conference is over, can you believe it?”
Jim replied, “It’s not over until you have finished with all of the follow-up work”. This rang a bell for me, as I was reminded that the excitement/mission doesn’t stop until we have reached our destination to end poverty by 2030.
I will look into opportunities with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for film grants/scholarships to move my film, “A Dance to World Peace” (now “Dance for World Peace”) into production. This film will not only tell a personal story (A schizoaffective Asian American female, Macy, attempts to alleviate global poverty and hunger with awareness through dance worldwide), but it will also raise awareness and bring light to the issue of poverty in the hopes of encouraging the world to join in on our mission. UPDATE: We now have co-Producers Bruce Nahin and I, Screenwriter Joanne Harris, myself as Lead Actress, Chhaya Samtani as Indian Dancer, and tentative Visual Effects (VFX) Expert Saul Santell (Avatar, Tintin, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk) and Music Composer David C. Hëvvitt (CEO of AFX Industrial (film scores)) on board. It’s stories that move people, not just facts. Moreover, film can be an enormous medium capable of reaching audiences from all over the world. According to the New York Times, “RESULTS is one of America’s best-kept secrets.” Subscribe to Project #DanceToEndHungerNow on YouTube and follow us on Twitter and Instagram (see bottom of page). You can also join my Meetup Group “Global Poverty and Hunger Alleviation – Art and Action” on meetup.com. Follow to stay up to date with this blog. I welcome producers, directors, and those interested in any other positions to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries or collaboration.
Ready to commit to helping to end poverty? Be sure to join a RESULTS Chapter near you, which you can search up on results.org. You can also join our Action Network via http://www.results.org/take_action (receive action alerts to take several actions each month). Of course, join us at the next RESULTS International Conference, whether as a Real Change Fellow or RESULTS Volunteer! Let your voice change the world. https://resultsconference.org
(My 2018 RESULTS International Conference experience has been documented on my Twitter and Instagram pages because I wanted to post real time and allow for social media interaction. Please do check it out)
(Don’t worry.. after the conference, I understood the virtue of patience and that making a vow to be a vegetarian “Tze Zhai” might not be a vow that I would want to rush. I have utmost respect for Dao and in no way am I contempt. If anything, it was a test along the road to becoming my true divine self)
**Updates to this post made on 9.24.2018 and 9.25.2018