May 02, 2016

This Work Isn't Motivated by Quick Wins

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I recently reconnected with an old friend. We had a great time catching up, but I also think he took pity on me after I explained what my job doing government relations involves on a day-to-day basis. The political climate in Washington these days isn’t known for being exactly functional. Polarized, hostile, and depressing are adjectives that more readily come to mind for most people.

Not wanting my professional endeavors to seem too grim, I shared what has been a highlight of my work over several years at MAZON: the effort to address food insecurity issues for currently serving military families and veterans. Though these issues have not been completely resolved, I explained how achieving policy change can be a slow grind and that we continue to plug away at the issue, making small but important progress.

My friend wondered how I keep going after working for so long on an issue and not seeming to get very far. It is a tough question.  

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Since I started with MAZON a little over three years ago, I have been working relentlessly with my colleagues to remove barriers to access for federal nutrition assistance for currently serving members of our military and veterans who are struggling. Frequently, we encounter denial that there is even a problem, sometimes from officials who respond with a hostile tone because they think that MAZON is trying to shame the military. On other occasions, we have heard crass comments from policymakers, such as, “This problem is just a rounding error,” or, “These young enlistees shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford to support them.” It is easy to grow disheartened by such pushback and by the glacial pace of desired policy changes.  

An overview of MAZON’s extensive efforts to address military and veteran hunger issues over the years would fill several pages and would be marked up in the margins with my snarky comments about the roadblocks and frustrations along the way. If I looked at the balance of all of the efforts expended and the positive changes that have happened, it would be challenging to find a good response to my friend’s question about how I keep going.

But I think he was asking the wrong question. It isn’t about how I keep going, but rather about why.  Why do I keep going at this when I have worked on this issue for so long and results have been elusive? This is a much easier question to answer. I keep at this – and MAZON remains committed to achieving policy changes on this issue — because of the men and women who honorably serve our country while enduring personal hardships. We keep at this so these individuals don’t have to worry about putting food on the table for their families.

Recently, I had the chance to help with preparations for a Congressional hearing that addressed military families who experience food insecurity. MAZON was approached as experts on this issue and Abby Leibman (MAZON’s President and CEO) and Erika Tebbens (a former Navy spouse who experienced this issue first hand) were invited as witnesses for the hearing. This was a big deal for MAZON and helped us to focus significant attention to this issue that has been swept under the rug for a long time.  

But it was Erika’s presence at the hearing – the way she bravely shared very personal reflections of her challenging experiences— that offered a clear reminder about why I keep going at this work. At the end of the day, it is all about people – about the individual and personal stories of overcoming difficult circumstances, the difference that can be made by a helpful program or resource, and the impact that policies have on our lives. 

Like Astrid, who shared that she had to cut her family’s grocery budget in order to get by with her husband’s military salary that hadn’t kept up with rising expenses. And Brandi, who confessed about feeling humiliated while standing in line with other military families at a monthly charitable food distribution so that her kids would have enough to eat.  And Joe, whose persistence in applying for VA disability benefits enabled him to purchase healthier foods that help with his medical conditions.

These individuals, and the many, many others like them who deal with painful realities on a daily basis, inspire this work. I keep fighting to do what is right for these families who make great personal sacrifices in service to our country and who quietly endure difficult circumstances because there aren’t resources available and requests for help have gone unheeded.  

Slowly but surely, we continue to chip away at these issues and achieve small victories. But why I do this work isn’t motivated by quick wins. It is compelled by the very real stories of families who struggle, whose difficulties are ignored, and whose brighter days are ahead.