The Earth is What All We Have in Common

When I met Jackie Nelson for the first time, I knew we had to interview her. She’s the complete embodiment of all we’re trying to celebrate at Don’t Ask, Do…she’s a passionate activist committed to bringing awareness about global humanitarian issues as a Senior Entertainment Relations Officer at Oxfam America and she’s also…a farmer! That’s right, she’s making the world a better place AND driving a tractor on the family farm that’s been going strong for 5 generations.

We caught up with Jackie to pick her brain about how to engage in a meaningful way with organizations committed to making the world a better place to call home.

What makes you passionate about the work you do?

Jackie: I’m passionate about what I do because, in my bones, I know that most people are good. They want to work to provide for their families... keep them safe… walk them to school… watch their favorite show with them… feed them a decent meal… look out for their neighbors… compare lawns… share recipes... The more I travel the world for work, the more I know this to be true. I deeply believe that the power of people who share these values – if they see each other truly – can overcome the injustices that rob people of a decent life. There is enough “decent life” for everyone.

The arts have a unique ability to convey those stories and shared values in a way that truly moves people. When people are moved by truth and beauty, we can create movements. These movements can build and insist on peace, decency, and fairness. To work with both the global humanitarian community and the arts community is a dream come true for me, and, while difficult at times, I pinch myself every day.

For better or worse, I am hopelessly in love with people. I always have been. So I have to do this work. I am driven by love and deeply held conviction that we should all get to live a life where we at least get to watch our favorite sitcom once a week or so together with our family in a safe home with a full belly. I refuse to believe there isn’t enough goodwill and shared conviction for that to be possible.

How did you come to work with Oxfam?

Jackie: When I was in college, I was part of an interdisciplinary honors program that looked at the world through the lens of history, philosophy, art, theology, etc. It challenged me to think critically about how change actually happens and what would a better world really look like. When I graduated, I asked some of my college professors who had come to know my views through the years where they thought I should work to most affect change. They said, “Hands down – Oxfam. They believe what you believe – that everyone should have the right to raise themselves out of poverty, unhindered by injustice.” They also knew, because I have a long family history of farming, that I’d appreciate their work with female farmers around the world (who provide most of the world’s food, by the way). I applied and applied, but never got hired, so I moved on to other non-profits and eventually disaster and humanitarian work. Then, about 2 decades later, when given the opportunity to be a part of Oxfam, I knew it was where I was meant to be. I love being a part of their work every day.

What is Oxfam’s mission?

Jackie: Oxfam is a global organization working in more than 90 countries to end the injustice of poverty. We help people build better futures for themselves, hold the powerful accountable, and save lives in disasters. Our mission is to tackle the root causes of poverty and create lasting solutions.

We believe in the power of people to end the injustice of poverty. Poverty is not inevitable; it is the result of human action and inaction. We believe that because poverty is man-made, we can end it.

Ending poverty demands an ambitious and practical response. We must tackle the root causes of poverty by working together to solve problems greater than any one organization or nation can solve alone. All of us—those living in poverty and those who are not—have a role to play.

Ending poverty and injustice requires upholding economic, social, and political rights. Governments must protect these rights. We hold our governments—as well as corporations and other duty bearers—accountable to ensure that the interests of the wealthiest and powerful are not favored over the interests of all.

Currently, among other areas of Oxfam’s work, this means protecting the rights of people fleeing war and conflict; addressing root causes of climate change; fighting for gender equality in programs and laws around the world; addressing root causes of poverty here at home through efforts like pushing for a decent, living wage; strengthening the world’s food systems by working with farmers and labors – especially women; and much more. There are no shortage of challenges and drivers of poverty right now, unfortunately.

Since it’s Earth Day, we want to talk about about how climate change directly impacts the poorest communities. What environmental issues is Oxfam trying to target?

Jackie: It may be shocking for people to realize, but the carbon footprint of the world’s one billion poorest people represents just 3 percent of the global total. Yet as climate change continues to worsen, poor communities are hardest hit. Just look at the images from Cyclone Idai in southern Africa—villages wiped away and crops entire communities were depending on, destroyed for the next harvest and beyond.

Not only do we have a responsibility to avoid doing harm to others, but Oxfam believes we have to help them adapt.

People living in poverty get hit hardest by climate change and contribute least to it. It’s a maddening absurdity to observe around the world. While, here in the US, people still debate if it is real, while our brothers and sisters around the world are crushed by the realities of it. In some places, the farms they have fed their families with for generations will no longer grow food. In these places, Oxfam works with local partners to adapt farming practices and introduce safety nets like crop insurance programs. In other places, this lack of food leads to conflict as people, governments, and players fight over scarce resources. In these places, Oxfam works with local leaders and governments to work on creating long-term sustainable solutions. No one can deny the uptick in horrendous disasters of an entirely new scale due to climate change. In places hit hardest by disaster, Oxfam provides emergency relief, water, and sanitation, and pushes for solutions that build up the power of local economies, and Oxfam works with local partners to build communities’ resilience to disaster. In all places, we support moving women into leadership roles in their communities, government, civil society, etc.

The US and our citizens have a disproportionate influence over the suffering caused by climate change. To be crystal clear, we have influence over whether or not children will eat 1, 2, or 3 meals today. We have influence over whether or not a home, swing set, and tended garden get wiped out by floods. We need to tell our Congress that addressing climate change as the immediate and urgent problem it is, is a top priority. And, we need to consider our own disproportionate use of energy, consumption, and waste.

Our lives and choices are creating what is becoming an unbearable situation for our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. I’m haunted every day by how much responsibility that places on me. And, yes, I’m very aware of how terrible of a party guest I am when I bring these topics up. But the reality is, this is an urgent moral imperative. People are living or dying now, based on our choices. It is not a problem of the future. It’s here for the people who are least contributing to it.

What threats has Oxfam seen to natural resources and the conflict they cause between countries and their own people?

Jackie: While natural resources can generate wealth, countries that depend on this wealth often suffer greater corruption, social unrest, and human rights violations. We believe people have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

The tensions created by land grabs for mining, deforestation, and other resources cannot be overstated. It is all too common for investors and local officials to essentially steal land from impoverished communities and indigenous cultures. These practices rob people of their ability to continue to feed their families from the land and sell their resources. Oxfam supports the rights of these families by bolstering the power of local partners, players, and activists.

Women are particularly vulnerable to bad laws, policies, and land grabs, but are also some of the most fierce and effective leaders of change when the power of people is organized. So we put our muscle behind women, in particular.

Speaking of women…according to some estimates, women make up 70% of the world’s poor. What programs have you seen that have the most success in bringing women out of poverty?

Jackie: Oxfam believes that ending the injustice of poverty begins with equal rights for women

We stand side-by-side with women in their fight for power over every aspect of their lives, in their quest to live free from violence, and in their drive to influence policies and institutions that affect their futures.

Across the world, women are disproportionately affected by violence, food insecurity, climate change, and overall threats to their livelihoods. Globally, women and girls make up the majority of the 1.2 billion people who live in extreme poverty. They tend to have fewer resources, fewer rights, and fewer opportunities to make life-shaping decisions than men do. And when emergencies strike, women are the worst affected.

But here in the US and abroad, women are rising to meet these challenges with courage and resilience by developing immediate and long-term solutions to generate new livelihood opportunities and create change in social and political spheres.

Oxfam works with women and girls to help them overcome gender discrimination, realize their full potential, assume leadership roles in their communities, and ultimately break the cycle of poverty.

Economic empowerment is fundamental to women's ability to move out of poverty. Through our programs like Saving for Change, Women In Small Enterprise and much of our global and US-based advocacy work, Oxfam supports women in their fight to gain equal access to resources like land and credit and to receive equal pay for decent work. In many countries, women are responsible for the majority of food production, yet have severely limited access to credit, land, and markets to sell their goods. Oxfam works with women to help them achieve the kind of equal access to resources that could help decrease hunger rates, lower child malnutrition, and raise the overall incomes of rural poor. This kind of economic empowerment can allow women to move from daily subsistence and reliance on aid, to providing a better, more sustainable life for themselves and their families.

In the United States, Oxfam focuses on women in the workforce who earn low wages and face arduous conditions, especially immigrant women workers. The US economy relies on women’s labor to grow, process, and package our food, clean our buildings, and care for our families. Yet, women face the most dangerous working conditions, have the fewest protections, and are the least able to assert their rights. Oxfam seeks to understand and address both the immediate needs of women workers, as well as the underlying systems that create these circumstances. Our research leads to campaigns that often result in progressive steps forward in both legislative and private sector landscapes. And our advocacy work advances the interests of women workers at both the state and federal levels.

Another Oxfam program, Female Food Heroes, focuses on offering new skills and opportunities for collaboration among female farmers in countries like Tanzania, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. In many poor communities, women are the ones who grow their families’ food, yet women in the developing world are often denied access to loans, land ownership, and the time needed for agricultural production. In Tanzania, for instance, the program produced an annual reality TV show that airs nationwide and elevates the status of these women farmers in their communities and celebrates them as the real heroes they are.

We know that investing in women's rights and gender justice can not only transform the lives of women, but their families, communities, and our world as a whole.

Can we just take a moment to think about how much better our media landscape would be if we replaced the Kardashians with a reality show about female farmers…America’s Next Top Farmer? As the daughter of a chicken farmer, I feel like we can bring this Tanzanian platform to E!

Getting personal again…how has everything you know about these global issues changed daily practices in your own life?

Jackie: More than anything, the privilege of seeing global issues firsthand and meeting the people most affected by them has made me want and need less in my own life. In ways, admittedly, it’s made me a bit weird. When I am home in the US, on my best days, I float around in a state of grace and gratitude. I exist in a state of wonder at how good we have it. I can vote without the risk of getting attacked. I can drink water when I am thirsty from my faucet. I can contact my family by phone anytime I want without putting them in harms’ way. The breadth of my exposure to global issues has made my life nothing short of glorious. It makes it easy to go to work and easy to bask in the light of a such undeserved grace that results purely from something so random as where I was born.

On my bad days, however, it makes me very angry. So many of the causes of suffering in the world are created by people and need not exist. The futility of that is truly maddening when you’re exposed to it every day. And, admittedly, I am always in a state of grieving, too, for the people I’ve met, I love, and who needlessly suffer. So, I have to make stability, self-care, and relationships with supportive friends and family a priority to keep from crushing under the gravity of my concern about the day-to-day impossibilities that people I met and love must face.

At a practical level, it means that I rarely make a purchase or eat something without considering who did the work for me to have it. Sometimes, this means I make different choices. Sometimes, shamefully, it doesn’t. I try to just do better each day for the people I’ve met. They deserve that.

If others want to start somewhere, a good place to start may be to just recognize the disproportionate power and privilege they have and don’t squander it. Vote. Buy thoughtfully. Put your Congress reps on speed dial and tell them what you value even if you don’t fully understand an issue. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t totally understand XYZ issue, but I know it matters to me that innocent civilians don’t suffer as a result of our choices and policies.” Calls to Congress make a bigger difference than people think. Oxfam makes this easier for you by keeping you tuned into key moments in Congress, when you join our mailing list by visiting Oxfam America.

I also love Oxfam’s #EatForGood tips. They are 5 simple actions people can take a home that directly affect global food insecurity; Save Food, Shop Seasonal, Eat Less Meat, Support Farmers & Producers, and Cook Smart.

What important issues should we be aware that aren’t getting enough coverage in the media?

Jackie: More than anything, I wish the public was more aware of their power to affect change. Poverty does not need to exist; it is a problem created by people and can be solved by people. I sympathize with how easy it is to glaze over when so many issues are ablaze right now. But, the grand size of the issues doesn’t require your grand efforts to respond. Oftentimes, a 5 minute call to Congress where you just say what you think about an issue can make a big difference, even if you speak in platitudes. Oxfam really tries to make it as easy as possible for people to know when and where they can make the greatest difference on an issue in a matter of minutes by signing a petition quickly or speed-dialing that Senator or Rep. Commit to one call a week, and don’t be afraid to steal the script from any org who is working on the issue. We want it to be easy for people. And, I have observed and experienced that many people find that the gravity of today’s issues lighter if they’re taking action than if they’re not.

What questions should you ask before deciding to donate time and money to a specific charity?

Jackie: Take stock of your values first. Make sure you’re giving to what you care about – not only who is asking for a donation. Be proactive and be true to your perspective.

Second, look for organizations that are solving root causes, so the need eventually ends. If their approach to solving problems is long-standing, sustainable, and respects local points of view and power, you will eventually get to choose a new cause to give to. Progress gets made. Ask, but what happens next…then ask again.

Lastly, leverage the many independent agencies that evaluated charities and NGOs to do your research. Take the time to understand how they define success and be sure it aligns with how you define success. Consider their analysis through that lens.

And, of course, if possible, ask people who benefit from the non-profits’ actions. They will often speak candidly about what actually helps and if respect for people is part of their practices.

How can someone get involved with Oxfam? What would be the most helpful way to participate and volunteer?

Jackie: At any given time, most of the things you can do to help can be found here.

Jackie, you remain an inspiration and force of nature. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us. I look forward to visiting you in Illinois and doing farm things, which I am going to assume means wearing gingham, letting pies cool on the windowsill, wranglin’ (that’s a thing, right?), and drinking strong coffee from enamel cups before collecting eggs before the rooster crows. Keep fighting the good fight, and promise to let me drive the tractor at some point.

Jackie Nelson is a Senior Entertainment Officer at Oxfam. Her focus is on mobilizing the talents and generosity of artists, celebrities, and entertainment partners to affect global humanitarian and social justice change. Jackie designs unique engagement opportunities that leverage each partner’s creative gifts, passions, activist voices, and commitment to “pay forward” their own good fortune with challenges Oxfam faces in their fight to end the injustice of poverty. In her three years at Oxfam, Jackie has realized several high impact projects, including Vanity Fair’s powerful “I Hear You” refugee video series, featuring more than a dozen artists, including John Cho, Margot Robbie, Minnie Driver, Gael Garcia Bernal, creator Julie Anne Robinson, and others.

Jackie travels to various countries with public figures to orientate them with Oxfam and local partners’ programs related to refugee migration, food and hunger, disaster, climate, farming, and gender inequality. Most recently, she has been in refugee camps and settlement in Lebanon, Greece, and Jordan, related to the Syria and Iraq conflicts; Tanzania, related to the Burundi and Congo conflicts; and Uganda, where more than a million people have fled from the brutal conflict in South Sudan. Next month, she will travel to Central America for projects related to what is driving women to leave immediate dangers and migrate north.

Prior to joining Oxfam, Jackie oversaw entertainment engagement for the American Red Cross, where she was recognized with the Marketing Humanitarian of the Year award. In her free time, Jackie enjoys the endless activities in downtown Chicago with her husband, Jesse, and enjoys nature and family time on her family’s farm in rural Central Illinois.

You can follow Jackie’s adventures from the farm to centers of crisis around the world on Twitter and Instagram.

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