Ad·vo·cate (‘ad-və-kət) n. 1: one that pleads the cause of another
– Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary
When defining an advocate, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary misses the mark when it comes to Erica Ngoenha. They leave out passionate, intelligent, creative, determined, and all around amazing.
I met Erica in college, when I joined the University of Florida’s chapter of the ONE Campaign. I was looking for a way to make a difference, but wasn’t sure how I was going to turn good intentions into actions. At a panel on famine Erica posed a question to the audience that mirrored mine, and a lot of other young people’s, sentiments on getting involved in the fight against global poverty.
“What can I do?” she asked us. “I’m just a college student. I’m not Bill Gates. I can’t donate millions of dollars to help in Africa.”
As I would come to so often see, Erica had the answer, even if it was to a question she herself had asked. “And one of the things the ONE Campaign really pushes is advocacy,” she said. “Let people know what’s going on.”
That’s what Erica’s done. Since high school she’s been an advocate on behalf of the world’s poorest people. Through grassroots efforts she’s raised awareness about extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. And she hasn’t stopped at getting the word out. She’s empowered hundreds of young Americans to use their voice to speak up on behalf of foreign aid, and has helped deliver their message to Congress and the White House herself.
Currently less than 1% of the US budget goes to foreign aid, but is responsible for saving million of lives. Erica said she noticed that a lot of people change their mind about foreign aid when they’re presented with all the facts.
“People start out saying we give way too much on foreign aid. We should keep that money at home. We have problems at home, but then they find out how much we spend, it’s this tiny portion of our budget, and all of a sudden people say oh, we could probably do more”
Changing people’s perceptions on foreign aid is something Erica’s accomplished through the ONE Campus Challenge (OCC), a competition that motivates students to organize on their college campuses. Over the last few years, Erica has been one the strongest OCC leaders in the country and, because of her work, had the opportunity to meet ONE co-founder, Bono. He told OCC members that all rock stars want two things: to have fun and save the world, and that’s exactly what OCC members like Erica are doing.
In the past, the word advocate has evoked images of someone with a clipboard trying to force uninterested people to sign a petition, but today with women like Erica behind the helm, there’s much more to it. Her abundant creativity and outgoing personality make advocacy something anyone can get behind. She’s still participates in petitions and letter writing campaigns, but also has organized events like movie screenings and hunger banquets that make advocacy captivating and enjoyable.
“If you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, even for five minutes, it’s going to affect how you view the world,” she said. “I try to approach advocacy from that perspective. How can I make this person feel what someone thousands of miles away is feeling?”
Erica was born in Mozambique but grew up in America with Western culture. Working with ONE has allowed her to connect with African culture, a connection she tires to pass on to others. She says keeping advocacy interactive and fun helps motivate her to lead a generation that will make a global difference.
“I think we need to look at past generations and see what they were able to achieve by really standing up for something,” she said. “We can be the generation that stands up for something rather than the generation that just accepts the status quo.”
Throughout college, Erica inspired hundreds of students to make calls and write letters to their representatives in support of foreign aid. She’s made sure their message has been heard by meeting with representatives countless times at town hall meetings, local offices, and on Capitol Hill. By using her voice, she’s helped save millions of lives, qualifying her for super hero status. She doesn’t have to turn into superman to do it either. She can save the world as Clark Kent, that’s what being an advocate is all about. Her enthusiasm and knowledge allows her to seamlessly include being an advocate into everyday life. As a recent college graduate, applying to grad school, she acknowledges that her career path may lead more towards international relations instead of developmental advocacy. And that’s okay, she’s says.
“Your whole career doesn’t have to be about an issue or a cause, you can still make a difference. I think sometimes people think to make a difference it has to be their whole lives, but it doesn’t”
Erica’s steadfast belief in change has taught me that anyone can make a difference by standing up and using their voice. Yes, anyone. That means you too! If you don’t know where to start, don’t despair, here are Erica’s top 5 tips to be an advocate.
1. Don’t be intimidated.
People are often intimidated by advocacy, especially reaching out to elected officials. Don’t be. Elected officials represent your voice in government. It’s your right and, in my opinion, duty, to tell your elected officials what issues you care about and why. Calling your congressman is one of the easiest forms of advocacy, and takes only a few minutes. Similarly, a meeting with your congressman or his or her staff is a lot easier than it seems.
2. Get educated.
The more you know about an issue, the more comfortable you will be talking about it and answering questions about it .You don’t have to become an expert overnight, but as you expand your advocacy efforts expand your knowledge. Watch documentaries, read articles, or explore websites to get more information on your subject of interest.
3. Focus your issues.
There are many issues that need advocates but you can’t be everything to everyone. Try to find one or two issues you truly care about and stick to those issues. If you’re talking about a million different issues with your elected official your message will not get across.
4. Choose a form of advocacy that works best for you
There are many forms of advocacy, choose the one that works for you! If you’re comfortable talking to people face-to-face, there’s grassroots advocacy or canvassing. You can share your message to members of your community by talking to your church group, hosting a party where you educate friends and family, or setting up an info booth at local events. If you’re a writer, use the power of the pen to write letters to the editor of your local newspapers or start a blog! Also, social media is a great way to spread the word.
5. Join a movement
The power of a voice is stronger when it’s multiplied. To be the most effective advocate you can be, find an organization that works on the issues you care about. This way you’re working alongside hundreds or thousands of other Americans across the country.
Erica found her issue in global poverty and organization in the ONE Campaign, but there are so many issues that impact us as women, and young Americans. These problems wont solve themselves, so find an issue you’re passionate about and get out there!