Interviews with Congressman Sam Farr, Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, and Alyse Nelson
I think today I learned what a congressperson does.
Of course before I knew the official job description, and I met several members of the House already, but, somehow, with Rep. Farr, it clicked. He told us the story of his path to politics. He grew up being dragged to political events and swore he would never go into politics. But after volunteering in the Peace Corps in Colombia, he realized his passion for listening to people and helping them overcome the problems they wanted solved. For example, when he arrived in his post in Colombia, he expected to help the villagers fix their sewers or build a school. But no. They wanted a soccer field. By listening and being willing to support them how they wanted, Rep. Farr gained their trust and was later able to make infrastructure improvements with the full involvement of the village. This was the topic he returned to throughout the interview: how much he and most other representatives listen to their constituents. No matter what question we asked, the answer ended up having to do with the power of the ordinary citizen to influence the decisions of their government.
I think today I learned what a congressperson does. A congressperson listens.
Yesterday, Reps. Kennedy, Donovan, and Blumenauer showed me that members of congress can be people. Today, Rep. Farr showed me that people can be members of congress. He introduced us to Rep. Lois Capps yesterday, a congresswoman who started out as a school nurse and had no idea she would go into politics. She referenced a belief of our Founding Fathers: “You should enter the people’s house with mud on your boots.” I believe that’s correct. Representatives need to be in close interaction with their districts. It also gave me an idea that has been tumbling around in my brain since then and which I finally noticed during our interview with Rep. Farr. The idea was: perhaps I too could be a politician. Listening has always been a gift and a passion of mine, but I never thought of it as a politician’s trait. I still plan to continue my formal education, travel, and pursue career opportunities that interest me because the country needs people from a diversity of backgrounds in elected office and in the polis itself, as citizen politicians.
I think today I learned what a congressperson does. A congressperson listens.
Whether I choose to pursue elected office myself or not, meeting with Rep. Farr helped me realize I want to engage more with government by writing my representatives about issues I want fixed.
Congressman Sam Farr is in his final term, which I find disappointing because I would have liked to vote for him. Partly because I find his focus on reducing poverty and good neighborly practices in South America admirable; mostly because I respect his view of government.
He views government as an institution with the purpose to help people have good lives. Not to tell people how to be happy, but instead learn about the problems and challenges people from all around the country, and even internationally, have, and to mediate and support the solution of those issues.
He also noted that elected officials cannot do this job without the support of their constituents, stating, “How can they be expected to fix a problem if no one has told them about it?” A congressman must respect the wishes of his constituents, but we should give them the trust and respect so that they can do their jobs. As he said, government is founded on the people’s respect for it. To many of us, the government may seem like a massive immovable bureaucracy unaffected by the wishes of one individual. While massive and bureaucratic, it actually can be moved. Slowly. One bill, one form, one letter, one conversation at a time it inches forward purposefully and deliberately. I, and many others of my generation, find this pace intensely frustrating. Rep. Farr reminded me that it should be like this. What the government does can affect everyone. Should it not be careful and cautious? We should respect that with our involvement and support the government will get where it needs to eventually.
So the next time you catch yourself grumbling about the incompetent government, write your representative instead. It’s their job to read it.
This morning we returned to the Capitol to interview Congressman Sam Farr. The glossy wooden table was circled by mossy colored leathered chairs. Paintings of past presidents were decorated across the cream walls. We anxiously waited for Congressman Farr to enter through the polished doors. I could not wait to meet the man whose alma mater is the college I will be attending this fall: Willamette University. I wanted to wear my bright red Willamette sweatshirt to show my Bearcat pride, but that would have not met the business outfit standards.
The doors swung open, and in walked a jolly man with a beaming smile. We immediately stood up and he said, “Oh relax! I am not the president!” Laughter coated the room. He sat down in his designated chair, excited to speak with students from our school for the millionth time. Congressman Farr began the interview with a lengthy introduction. Each word held great value. I was especially impacted with his desire to “wipe out the root causes of poverty.” Congressman Farr explained that proper access to medicine and education was crucial to wiping out poverty. Even though this seems to be a common consensus among most people, the way Congressman Farr described this seemed very genuine. His inspiration to help impoverished areas sparked from a personal experience. Congressman Farr lost his sister in Colombia due to the lack of access to medical supplies. He explained to us that only until he personally experienced death did he realize that there are thousands of people losing their lives because of the unattainable medical resources. He was committed to find a solution to this crisis that many people experience in these underdeveloped countries.
Congressman Farr’s sincerity was humbling. At the end of the interview I was determined to shake his hand and thank him for giving up his time to speak with us. I eagerly walked up to him and shook his hand. He then asked me what school I was going to be attending next year, and I excitedly responded “Willamette.” He then asked me, “Do you know what school I went to?” I replied with a smile, “Willamette.” He then gave me a warm hug. I could not believe that I met a man with such authenticity and perseverance.
In the seconds before Kakenya Ntaiya enters the room, we wolf down food, scramble to find our seats, and run over interview questions with the desperation of actors on opening night. Our motion ceases right as she steps through the door. The vitality of Dr. Ntaiya’s smile infects the room with life. We relax, introduce ourselves, and jump right into questions.
Dr. Ntaiya tells us that as a child, she recognized the connection between education and empowerment. Contrary to the cultural norms of Kenyan society, she chose to pursue her education and now she is the founder of a girls school in Kenya. As a young girl, she was subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). She has dedicated much of her life to bringing an end to this inhumane tradition. FGM epitomizes the importance of challenging cultural narratives about women. But the degradation of women cannot simply be reduced to tradition. The rights of women are intrinsically tied to the issues of poverty and lack of education. Her school is a small but crucial step towards addressing one of the defining issues of our times. Her voice is touched with hope for the women and girls of her country to realize their true potential. At the end of the interview, I thank Dr. Ntaiya for spending time with us. She shakes my hand with a gentleness that only mothers have.
“When you start questioning, you start connecting,” the words leapt out of her mouth so ardently that it felt like my ears popped. Never had I been so stunned by the capability of another’s words. Kakenya Ntaiya articulated this concept while vividly explaining her personal realization that Female Genital Mutilation was a crime. It was something she endured in order to continue her endeavors in education. She explained how she spoke to the fathers who wanted their daughters to undergo FGM and told them of the agony she withstood at the young age of twelve. Female Genital Mutilation is something not questioned by many families in Kenya; instead it is blindly considered as something that has perpetually been done. Something not challenged or questioned by much of the populace.
Dr. Ntaiya told us to question, question everything. I felt like I was being stripped of every verifying concept in my life, in the most liberating way. I began to list every situation I could think of that I didn’t question, and set fire to the possibilities of what could’ve been. I lay here now in my top bunk, buzzing from this overwhelming liberation of habitual conduct. Dr. Ntaiya has forever altered me. She is a product of transforming pain into power.
There we were, seated around a long wooden table in the center of the conference room of the Vital Voices building, located in the heart of Washington, DC. On the pastel yellow walls behind me hung life-sized portraits of women of varying cultural backgrounds, with expressions of courage and strength etched on their faces. I crammed a Cliff Bar into my mouth hurriedly in an effort to silence my hunger pangs and rinsed my mouth out with water. Our commotion ceased abruptly, and a heavy silence sat alongside us in the yellow room as we anticipated the entrance of our interviewee.
A tall figure with a pregnant stomach, prominent cheekbones and striking blue eyes pushed through the glass doors with a sense of purpose. Her name is Alyse Nelson. She is the CEO of Vital Voices, a nonprofit organization that fights for the rights of women across the globe. When I asked her my question, she looked at me head on and listened intently to what I was saying, having an invigorating effect. Her responses were thoughtful and heartfelt, and her presence was dynamic and sincere.
There was a calm intensity behind her clear and emphatic message. She slowed down, implying a certain magnitude to the words that followed. “Power expands the moment it is shared.” I was moved, not only by the truth and eloquence of that statement, but by the fact that she lives by it. I put pen to paper to preserve what she had just said. This interview brought me back to my first day of Values in World Thought class during my junior year, when we discussed the quote, “You cannot enable what you do not embody.” Alyse Nelson exemplifies this quote through her steadfast work with women. She truly lives her word, which is a quality that I admire deeply and strive to emulate.
I offered to read Alyse Nelson’s book, Vital Voices, with zero knowledge of who she was, or the impact her words would have on me. I sketched the name of her book into my planner, unknowingly igniting an underlying passion that would soon emanate. The book is comprised of stories from various women, who have transcended their pain into power, inspiring and influencing the world around them. I weaved in and out of these experiences, gaining new and augmented perspectives of the extremity of women’s rights. In only the first chapter, titled, “A driving force or a sense of mission”, I remember something clicking in my head. Alyse eloquently described the definition of a driving force, or an “internal compass.” She says, “It inspires and humbles you simultaneously, providing focus in the face of great adversity and great success.” Simply from this statement, I was intrigued and felt a pull into the world of Vital Voices.
Fast forward to five minutes before we were supposed to interview her. In the weeks leading up to this trip, I had this unknown passion simmering on the back burner of my mind. However, the excitement suddenly boiled up as we took our seats, waiting for Alyse to walk into the room. Frantically tucking in my shirt and placing my hair behind my ears multiple times, I heard a shuffle of shoes and muffled voices coming from outside the room. She walked in and her smile immediately made a presence on everyone. I placed my hair behind my ear once more before she took a seat in front of me. My eyes and ears were locked into her words the entire hour we interviewed her.
One thing that really struck me was when she was explaining her own driving force. She said, “I seek power to empower others.” The passion that I had been carrying with me up until this interview was explained in just a few simple words. I realized that I had the kernel of a driving force. A sense of mission to understand and empathize with the women I had read about. This quote from Alyse was something I had been trying to put into words, and the authenticity of her words was what really inspired me. What I ultimately take away from this experience is that I hope to someday empower others the way Alyse and the women from Vital Voices have done so naturally, and give a voice to those who have not yet been heard.
“For the women whose voices have inspired, humbled, and propelled us forward and to those still struggling to have their voices heard.” Alyse Nelson, Vital Voices
Too often on Facebook, other social media, or even in real life, I am discouraged or even attacked when I try to voice my opinions in the matters of women’s rights issues, even when (and it always is) in the favor of equality for all genders. Because of this, I often feel out of place, and do not feel wanted, so I tend to try to stay out of the conversation altogether, even though I always felt like everybody should be included in this discussion.
Today I had my feelings affirmed by Alyse Nelson when she said that men needed to be part of the discussion, and that their role in the fight for gender equality was essential. She pointed out that young men in government and young men around the world need to realize that this is an issue that directly affects everybody, which is true, because we cannot advance as a society when we are holding back half of our population. I would like to personally thank Alyse Nelson for her invitation, and encourage other men to support the feminist movement towards equality.
After a surprise interview that popped up with Andrew Coy, we rushed to Vital Voices to interview Kakenya Ntaiya and Alyse Nelson. After researching Alyse and all of the wonderful work she’s done with Vital Voices, I was already very excited for this interview. In February I read her book, Vital Voices: The Power of Women Leading Change Around the World, for part of our research. After the first chapter I was in love with the book, heavily annotating every page. I was so looking forward to having her sign my book and to tell her how much I enjoyed the stories she told about all the women she worked with.
We had already been out that morning interviewing Congressman Sam Farr, and we planned on going back to our little home before going to our Vital Voices interviews, but due to our pop-up interview we were unable to make it back. Alas, my little book was left all alone in my room. I was so upset, but determined to get a signature one way or another.
During the interview she said, “You don’t have rights until every woman has [rights].” She spoke so clearly about what has already been accomplished and what needs to be done. I was inspired by how passionate she was about the work she does. To see someone as driven as she is makes me realize how amazing it is to find something you truly care about. At the end of the interview as she exited the room, I skipped after her with a piece of paper, a pen, and an explanation for my ever so unsettling lack of book. She smiled at me and said that she had a copy in the office and that I could have it. I was overloaded with pure joy as she handed me a fresh signed copy of the book. I talked to her and Ward for a few moments and then rushed off to tell my friends. After a long day of running around the city and working hard to prepare for interviews, this was the ideal end to our day!