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A day in the life of an activist

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Oxfam's 2008-2009 Action Corps team in Washington, DC, April 2008. Each spring, the team participates in an intense, fun and visionary week-long training session.

Now in its second year, the Oxfam Action Corps is a group of dedicated volunteers in over a dozen US cities who campaign with Oxfam in the fight against poverty.

In April 2008, 26 new and returning Oxfam Action Corps members traveled to Washington, DC for leadership training—followed by a day of in-person meetings with members of US Congress.

8:00 a.m. Breakfast at the Club Quarters Hotel

As the minutes ticked down toward departure, the volunteers were nervous, though they tried not to show it.

Today, they looked the part of Washington, DC lobbyists—conservative business suits, folders full of handout materials. But they weren't here to push for special interests. Instead, they would meet with members of Congress to ask for legislation addressing the effects of climate change on the world's poorest people.

Although passionate about their message, most of the volunteers had little experience with these face-to-face meetings. Their leadership training with Oxfam had helped them prepare, but now it was time to put that knowledge into practice.

8:30 a.m. Travel to Capitol Hill

As planned, the group split up into regional teams to focus on their local legislators. Duyen Nguyen, a Los Angeles-based volunteer, shared a cab with three West Coast teammates. On the way, she recalled the bureaucratic, complex process of setting up the legislative visits. Would today's meetings follow the same pattern?

Adam Olson, a returning Oxfam Action Corps member from Minnesota, felt more prepared than most, since he meets regularly with legislators in his day job as a public library advocate. But today was different, more personal—like many others, he had taken time off from work to attend the training. Today, he was here not as a paid advocate, but as a constituent.

8:55 a.m. Last-minute preparation, House of Representatives

Moments before their first meeting, Nguyen's team gathered around a table in the House cafeteria for a quick last-minute role play.

Then, in what seemed the blink of an eye, they were walking in to their representative's office, shaking hands, and sitting down at the table. A staff member looked at them expectantly, waiting to hear what they had to say.

11:10 a.m. Waiting room, Minnesota representative's office

Olson's team was surrounded by crowds. Everywhere they went—waiting rooms, security lines—hundreds of other activists waited, demanding action on everything from veterans' programs to national parks. Seeing so many other groups, each with their own cause, he wondered if their voices would really be heard.

1:30 p.m. Third meeting, California representative's office

For the third time that day, Nguyen told a Congressional staffer about how climate change-related flooding affects people in Hue, Vietnam—people that she identifies with because of her Vietnamese heritage. She shared the story as a way to connect with legislative staff, and the plan worked: people opened up, and conversations flowed more easily.

Nguyen's team found that most legislators supported climate change adaptation funds for poor communities, at least in concept?though they acknowledged that the political reality involved stiff competition with other funding priorities. One staffer advised the team on how to approach their legislator's district office, while another gave them an insider update on House climate change legislation.

3:00 p.m. Last meeting of the day, Minnesota senator's office

A senior staff member greeted Olson and his team—and she turned out to be informed and passionate on the subject of climate change and poor communities. "We're behind you all the way, but it's a hard battle," she said. "Change can't come from the top down. We need groups like you to ensure that adaptation funding becomes a part of climate legislation."

Olson was reassured by her words. Even if much work and many voices were needed to get results, he thought, their message was being heard.

4:30 p.m. Debrief and wrap-up, Massachusetts representative's office

The borrowed meeting room was hot and cramped, but it didn't matter. The volunteers sat on windowsills and leaned against walls, eager to share their stories.

As they spoke, it was clear they had succeeded both in spreading Oxfam's message about climate change and poverty, and in building their own skills and confidence as activists.

"I felt like I was delivering a message about climate change for people who couldn't do so themselves," Nguyen said. "It was worth it just to sit down and talk to the people who can actually change the situation."

5:15 pm Departure: Bringing it home

With a flurry of farewell hugs and handshakes, the volunteers headed to their airport and their various destinations—though their work was far from over. In the year ahead, they were tasked with leading a grassroots movement in their home cities in support of Oxfam's climate change campaign.

Brian Rawson, senior organizer at Oxfam, accompanied the Oxfam Action Corps members throughout their training. "We really came together as fellow activists," he said. "Once they return home, each of these 26 leaders will show dozens more people how to hold similar meetings with their legislators" district offices. So, today is only the beginning."

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