Mr. rossl goes to Washington

Last Sunday (the 22nd), I left for Washington, DC.  I went on a trip with my synagogue to meet up with a bunch of other Jewish high school students, where we helped the homeless, lobbied Congress (I was wrong in my previous post - I only met with my Senator, not all of the ones I listed), met with AIPAC, learned about mortgages for low income families, and a lot more interesting stuff.

It was a great trip.  I feel like I actually do have a bit of power in this corrupt, mangled political system of ours, and I'd love to tell you why.

cross-posted at,,, and maybe others

The trip was based around political advocacy and social action, and how that is connected to Judaism (although to agnostic me that really didn't play too big of a role in it).  I'll organize the trip by subject, just to make it easier to read and collect my thoughts.

If I remember right, the first noteworthy activity was a presentation called "Faces of Homelessness," in which a representative from the National Coalition for the Homeless came to speak with us.  Two formerly homeless people told their stories to us, as well (one is currently in a very unstable situation still).  The first speaker is described by an article on the Coalition's website as someone who

grew up in a modest but safe home and, in his own words "did well enough that I didn't need to go to college." His lack of higher education would not become a problem for a long time, as he made a comfortable life for himself as a middle manager and even bought a house in a Maryland suburb. Then, tragedy struck. His company was bought out, and soon after their housecleaning cost Harrison his job, his house burned down. Without a college degree, he was virtually unemployable, and the shock of all the misfortune made it difficult for him to put his life back together. Harrison had lived a fairly solitary life and now found that he was without friends to help him in his time of need. He advised the audience to not end up in the same situation.

He also sang an incredibly powerful song about the pain of being homeless and the struggle of getting by and how he felt excluded from America as a homeless man.

The other speaker was a lesbian from a very small town.  She said that she told her best friend about being gay and it soon spread to the whole town and she was kicked out of her home after that.  She stayed with her sister, but the cost of that was so much that they were forced to move into an abandoned building.  Fortunately, she is now doing much better.

The day after this, we went out to a park where a roving soup kitchen goes every day and handed out clothes and toiletries to them.  We also had conversation with the homeless men there, because that was an important part of the presentation and lesson that we learned - that poverty and homelessness are not just statistics or people on the side of the street.  I mean, everyone on the seminar was well off enough to afford to travel there and bring enough clothes and other things to get by.  Most of us are not accustomed to encountering poverty in our everyday lives.  The harsh reality of these people's lives really set in over this trip, and the homeless presenters and currently homeless people were powerful tools to make us realize that.

A photo of John Harrison, from the Washington Post.

Helping the poor
Part of the group went to a place called Change, Inc. one day, and I was among them.  It's a small organizations that gives out food and clothes and other donated items to the poor, gives them internet access in their building, and helps them with things like job interviews.  We helped to empty out a storage unit for which their lease was expiring.

The next day, we went to a group called Manna, Inc. that helps low income families get mortgages, builds affordable housing, and advocates for low income families in Washington.  It was kind of a boring presentation but there were a few interesting parts.  Probably the most interesting thing in the presentation that was given was a comment that the guy presenting made:  he said that there will probably be another wave of foreclosures in about a year because of ARM mortgages (I think that's what he said - I'm not sure).  He talked about how people with good credit and income sources have them, but because of the way the interest is set up, they will start having to pay double what they pay now and most won't be able to afford it.

Again, these things brought home the reality of poverty.  Where I live, it's easy to hide from the fact that millions of Americans don't have a place to live and don't have health care and don't always know if they're going to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  But on the positive side of things, we were shown people who were out there changing things for the better, and we were shown that progress is not impossible.

Going to Capitol Hill
For me, this was the most exciting part of the trip.  On the last day there, we went to lobby our Congresscritters.  The day before, we actually walked around the national mall for a while, which brings me to something that I've been wanting to say...

We should have never built any monuments to Lincoln or Washington.  We should not have built the Capitol Building into something that resembles a castle.  We should not have made our capitol city so grand and ostentatious and imposing.  Our government should be humble.  Our representatives should remember that they are human and that they represent humans, rather than having their egos built up by the flamboyance of their surroundings.

Anyway, the day we went to lobby, we got all dressed up and looked very important and nice.  Our shoes were loud and blended in superbly with the click-clack that is the soundtrack of D.C.  We went to the building that Senator Bob Casey works in and went up to his office.  We went to a conference room with his legislative aide on aging, health care, and one other topic like that which I forget.

At the time, we knew that Senator Casey was on the committees for foreign relations; agriculture, nutrition, and forestry; and aging.  The previous night all of the kids from Pennsylvania had decided on three topics to discuss - the elderly (since part of the group had volunteered for elderly people), agriculture and the environment, and US-Iranian relations.

The discussion about the elderly was uneventful.  Basically, we told Casey's aide that we're supportive of his bill to help establish smaller, more intimate nursing homes.

I talked about agriculture and the environment.  I first thanked Casey for voting for the stimulus bill because of the infrastructure improvements and environmental progress it pushed forward.  Then, I said that we're supportive of Casey's goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025, but we do not want that energy to come from corn ethanol.  When the aide asked what I wanted it to come from, I said that for cars specifically, I think they should run on electricity, and that electricity should come from renewable energy like wind, tidal, and solar.  Next, I said that Casey should support Obama's cap and trade plan that will be proposed sometime in May, I think - Casey is undecided on this issue, as far as I know, so this was important to me.  Finally, I mentioned that we want Senator Casey to support Obama's proposed cap on agriculture subsidies because they're a waste of money, they help agribusiness while making small farms uncompetitive, and they encourage harmful crops like corn (which is made into ethanol).

And then a girl in our group went rogue when she talked about US-Iranian relations.  We had decided as a group that we would push for tougher sanctions AND diplomacy, because I didn't want sanctions and the rest of the group didn't want diplomacy.  But this girl is a hawk, unfortunately, and she just said to support a specific bill that would tighten sanctions on Iran.

After that, something very nice happened.  I got to push for my own favorite cause (separate from the group), the National Initiative for Democracy.  I told the aide about how this would establish national ballot initiatives and that Senator Casey should look into it.  I told her about how former Senator Mike Gravel is the main man behind the effort.  I also told her about how first-term and openly gay Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colorado) will be introducing a bill later this year that is very similar to the National Initiative.  She said that she would tell Casey about this and that I should email her when Congressman Polis introduces the bill.

After this we went to watch the Senate, which was interesting.  We saw Russ Feingold give a speech about some volunteer program, a southern Republican give a speech about expanding the powers of the FDIC, and then we saw the vote on confirming the Assistant Attorney General (I don't think there were any nay votes).  Joe Biden walked through the Senate and I saw a bunch of famous Senators that I recognized like John Kerry, Arlen Specter, Bernie Sanders (a personal favorite!), and Jim Webb.  And Bob Casey was actually presiding over the Senate while we were there, which is why we didn't get to meet him at all.

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Overall, this was really a great experience.  I got to meet a bunch of new people, I got to see a side of life that I rarely get to see, and I felt empowered.  I knew that I had at least made a small difference and it felt good - I felt like I could change the world, and I still do.

Tags: Agriculture, homelessness, Judaism, Poverty, Senate, Washington (all tags)


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