Bryn Mawr Students Advocate for CARE on Capitol Hill

Posted March 24th, 2011 at 12:46 pm.

Bryn Mawr delegates to the CARE conference with Helene Gayle

Bryn Mawr delegates to the CARE conference with Helene Gayle

More About Bryn Mawr students who attended the CARE Conference:

If Bryn Mawr’s classrooms were bereft of students over Spring Break, the halls of Congress were not: 22 students from the Undergraduate College and the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research spent Thursday, March 10, in the offices of U.S. senators and representatives.

The students formed the Bryn Mawr delegation to the humanitarian organization CARE’s national conference, which culminated in a day of meetings on Capitol Hill. After a series of information sessions and presentations by leading figures including Melinda Gates, conference delegates spoke with their elected representatives about CARE’s legislative agenda of alleviating global poverty through empowering girls and women.

CARE’s relationship with Bryn Mawr has grown stronger this year with the awarding of the College’s Katharine Hepburn Medal to CARE CEO Helene Gayle, and CARE recognized Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Barnard Colleges at the conference’s celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8.

The Bryn Mawr delegation was organized by GSSWSR students Sara Grainger and Sheri McDonald.

Grainger and McDonald, who are both on the GSSWSR’s policy practice and advocacy track, first heard of the CARE conference last year and saw it as an excellent opportunity to gain some practical advocacy experience at a high level. They successfully appealed to GSSWSR officials for funding for a delegation of 10 GSSWSR students.

After last year’s conference, Grainger and McDonald were asked to serve as Care Action Network district chairs for two Southeastern Pennsylvania Congressional districts: Grainger is the chair for District 13, which is represented in Congress by GSSWSR alumna Allyson Schwartz, while McDonald chairs District 2, represented by Chaka Fattah.

As district chairs, they stay in touch with their representatives and their staffs, and they have developed a partnership with the local Girl Scouts.

“One of the responsibilities we have as Congressional chairs is the recruiting of participants for the conference,” McDonald says.

“We said, ‘Let’s do this again next year, but let’s bring undergrads, too,'” Grainger adds. “This year, the conference took place during Spring Break, and We saw that as a wonderful opportunity. We knew that Dr. Gayle would be receiving the Hepburn award, and [Bryn Mawr president] Jane McAuliffe’s focus on global education seemed to make this a perfect fit.”

This year, the Bryn Mawr delegation included 11 undergraduates who received funding from the College and several more who raised their own funds for the trip.

Learning to Lobby

The conference began on Tuesday evening with a celebration of International Women’s Day, including a dinner attended by Bryn Mawr President Jane McAuliffe and a concert. The next day, delegates got to work.

Conference participants were divided into small groups for their meetings on Capitol Hill the next day, with each group assigned to one or two representatives.

Members of each group decided among themselves which delegates would familiarize themselves with which issues, so that each group had people prepared to speak about CARE’s key agenda items: supporting foreign aid, empowering girls through education, and providing economic opportunities for women.

After several intensive sessions focusing on the legislative issues, the afternoon was devoted to information sessions about CARE’s programs, offering delegates some insight into how CARE’s operations support the goals they would later articulate on Capitol Hill.

As CARE Action Network Chairs, McDonald and Grainger led the groups to Representative Fattah’s and Schwartz’s offices. Undergraduates Adrienne Webb ’11 and Sara Gzesh ’12 also led lobbying groups, each containing several Bryn Mawr students, that would meet with representatives of the districts that contain Bryn Mawr.

Sophomore Lakshmi Somasundaram joined the groups that visited Representatives Jim Gerlach and Joe Pitts, as well as the offices of U.S. Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey Jr.

Somasundaram chose empowering girls through education as her focus. It’s an issue that is close to her heart – as a high-school student, she raised $40,000 to build a science facility for orphaned girls in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, at a school where she had spent time as a volunteer.

The conference schedule was demanding, Somasundaram says, but in the end she emerged with more energy than she’d had going in.

“It was great to connect with people from all over the US, and from 40 different countries,” she said. “The delegates may have had various occupations (students, social workers, girls scouts, teachers, businessmen, physicians, etc.), but we all shared a common energy and passion. It was really uplifting to be surrounded by people who are all passionate about empowering girls and women.”

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