Cutting through the noise: the power of personal relationship

Editor's note: Allison Walter, policy education associate for NETWORK, is a new blogger for NCR Today. Read more about her.


"We cannot become starched Christians, those over-educated Christians who speak of theological matters as they calmly sip their tea. No! We must become courageous Christians and go in search of the people who are the very flesh of Christ." -- Pope Francis

Working in the world of policy and advocacy, I am recognizing that the power of narrative is stronger than even the most well-crafted political argument.

I was drawn to the adventure of policy work in Washington, D.C., by the same conviction that drives many other millennials: the belief that we can change the world in some way. That belief is how I arrived at NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby.

We at NETWORK have the task of influencing the way legislators make policy. The flood of facts, figures and findings often swamps my intellect, muddling the motivations I held when first embarking upon the journey for change. With so many statistics and lines of reasoning competing for space in the argument, there is one thing that cuts through all the noise: the power of personal relationship.

Christopher Hale of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good said there is a real danger of coming off as a "Washington elitist" when talking about the issues. "It isn't enough to hurl facts about the issues of our days. Rather, we have to speak compellingly through the power of narrative. Stories and human experiences -- not facts alone -- compel people to reconsider their political stances." It's not the data, the numbers or the calculations that change minds; it's the stories of real people that change hearts.

Stories are stronger when they stem from encounters with real people. I spent the summer of 2013 in Managua, Nicaragua, with the Mev Puleo Scholarship, a theological immersion program through Saint Louis University. I promised my campesino friend Lester that I would share this story from the trip:

It was obscenely hot. I wiped away the sweat dripping down my temple with the back of my hand and picked up the machete again. My friend Nate and I said we wanted to live the campesino life. And we were. Roasting in the morning heat as we cleared undergrowth with machetes alongside our Nicaraguan friends, I had a blister about five minutes into the job. Where were my campesino callouses?

As soon as I began picking up the technique, we were on to the next farm chore. Throughout the morning, we fertilized plants, pruned fruit trees, planted pitalla, and stopped for a break to eat mangoes whose juice ran down our chins and arms while we barely noticed. At noon, we shared a meal of beans and rice. Throughout the afternoon, we worked side by side. When our day in the life of a campesino ended and it was time to say goodbye to our friends, the parting request was not for letters or pictures. Lester said, "You're going to tell people about us, right? We'll tell your story and you tell ours."

I am drawn to advocacy because I have witnessed and participated in the power of sharing the story. In the end, it's not about the latest census data or the newest study; it's about people.

When it is not possible to meet the people that legislative policy affects, the next best thing is to share the story. Advocacy is a way to let others know how the decisions they make affect real people. Legislators working in legislative office buildings are in a way removed from those whom their policies impact.

NETWORK is working to change that, uniting Catholic social tradition and factual information with the realities of people, bringing the stories to those who exercise the power of policy-making. It is these stories that will move the fulcrum of politics more than anything. As Hale wrote in Millennial, a journal aimed at amplifying the voices of a younger generation, "The era of the 'voice for the voiceless' is dead. Everyone has a voice. And we must encounter it."

You don't have to be working with federal policy-makers to participate in this work for justice. We all are part of our own communities. To be an advocate, share the story.

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