Two years ago I was asked to consider becoming a United Nations Foundation Shot@Life Champion and join 40 women (including a few men) on a trip to Washington to kick off our efforts and learn more about what it means to be a Champion. Our minds were filled with vaccine data along with media and advocacy training. We are now 500+ and growing and one of my favorite things about being involved with the group is the people and their dedication. One of those women is Cindy Levin. She blows my mind with her dedication, knowledge and passion. I think you should get to know a little bit about what drives her, too. If you’re considering getting involved with any social good or advocacy programs, Cindy is a fountain of information and inspiration.
Cindy is a mother of two and lives in St. Louis, MO. In addition to being a UN Shot@Life Champion, she advocates for people in poverty with RESULTS, the ONE Campaign, and Bread for the World. Her favorite activities are ones that engage kids and stay-at-home parents in the movement to stand up for global child survival. A automotive mechanical engineer by training, she changed professions 9 years ago to dedicate her time to her passion for fighting hunger and poverty. She is currently on staff with RESULTS, coaching grassroots volunteers with fundraising activities.
What was the spark that started you on this path for change?
There’s a wordless lullaby I used to listen to while feeding my new baby. It begins with one woman who sounds like a mother humming intimately to a baby. She is joined by other women, like other mothers wrapping the first in a loving blanket of support. More and more people join in – men and women – in a round to create a rich tapestry of sound and then it all peels back to the first voice alone and sweet. In the dark of night, I was beset with irrational fears about whether I could feed my baby well or care for her adequately. The song comforted me when I reflected that all mothers have these same worries, but we are not alone. In that time of heightened vulnerability and empathy, I understood how horrible it is that mothers in extreme poverty cannot meet the basic needs of their children. I decided I should literally use my voice to support mothers who love their children as much as I love mine.
What keeps you going despite what must seem at times like unsurmountable odds?
Two things. First, I’m inspired by the optimism of my fellow activists. Many of them are my mentors who have been doing this work for 20 years or more. They’ve seen wins and losses in all kinds of political climates, but they demonstrate incredible perseverance and help me to keep an eye on the big picture. The big picture view brings me to my second inspiration, which is simply the evidence of success. Since 1990, global extreme poverty – the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day – has been cut in half. That’s insanely good news, especially considering that world population has risen in that time. It’s no accident that more children are surviving and more people have access to basic needs like clean water and sanitation. World governments are not naturally inclined work together to help powerless people in poverty. That kind of change only happens because advocates like me stand together and demand it.
How many different causes/issues are you supporting? How do you say no–I’m sure once you get recognized for supporting something others come out of the woodwork and want you to help them as well.
I have one main issue – the end of poverty – but that can splinter into so many different aspects! I specialize in global issues for children like vaccines, nutrition and education. Yet as an American mom, I can’t turn my back on U.S. issues, so I do some advocacy for early childhood education and nutrition for American kids as well.
Saying no can be socially tricky. Years ago, I read “The Path” by Laurie Beth Jones about creating a mission statement for work and life. It helped to focus and be more effective about things I care about. These days, I evaluate an opportunity in light of how it fits in with my life mission and raising my children. If it doesn’t fit, I let it go. Even so, I try to be helpful to other issues by helping people make connections, making a financial contribution, or finding a creative way to tie into my pet issues.
An example of this latter point happened when dear friends started a local farmer’s market and needed lots of help. With some creative thinking, we found ways to for me to contribute that helped all our causes. I volunteered to run some community awareness tables at the market and helped wordsmith a grant application for SNAP benefits (food stamps) to be accepted there, so hungry people could have access to healthy produce.
What are some of the most interesting things you’ve done as an advocate?
Hands down, the most thrilling experience was travelling to Uganda with the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign to have conversations with mothers raising children in poverty. I accompanied UNICEF on community health program days, which provided services like vaccines and AIDS testing. Personally seeing the life-saving impact of my actions was incredibly inspiring. I was also invited by my senator to attend a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for Professor Muhammad Yunus with my name entered into the official Congressional record in recognition of my advocacy work for microfinance programs.
Those opportunities were both exceptional, but my most satisfying experiences happen when my own children get involved. Watching my bipartisan senators – Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk – bend down together to hear my daughters explain to them why global vaccines are important filled my heart to the brim. Incidentally, those gentlemen went on to jointly co-sponsor anti-polio legislation the following year.
What are easy ways for people to get involved in things?
Luckily, in our connected world, you can have huge impact with very little effort.
- Make an online donation to an organization working on a cause you care about. You can have great impact on a life right away. For instance, for only $20 you can save a child from 4 preventable diseases through Shot@Life. If you donate to any organization, you’ll get on their mailing list and they’ll likely share even more ways to help.
- Take an advocacy action. It could be an email or a quick 90-second phone call to a member of Congress. It will cost you nothing and your efforts combined with others can strategically send millions of dollars to help others. For poverty or global health issues, I recommend visiting RESULTS, Shot@Life, or Bread for the World. All have online actions and instructions on how to take action.
- Make new friends. The four organizations I mentioned all have volunteers across the U.S. who would be happy to have you join them if you want to get more involved and go visit your members of Congress together. Changing the world with friends is fun and kind of addicting in a really good way!
You can follow Cindy at:
The Anti-Poverty Mom