Janessa Goldbeck, a longtime advocate against poverty and genocide, wanted to take her fight to the next level. So she decided to do something a little crazy: go on a 4,200-mile journey across America in the name of national security and international development with Make US Strong and the Truman Project. By herself. On a bike.
Traveling through 11 states and 23 cities, Janessa made 24 stops between San Diego (where she’s from) and our nation’s capital to talk with veterans, community leaders, students and members of Congress about the importance of foreign aid in helping to keep America safe.
Her journey took nearly 3 months to complete, but she’s now back in D.C. and is more ready than ever to kick poverty’s butt.
Janessa, 26, swung by ONE’s headquarters last week to chat with me about life on the road. I got a chance to ask her some really juicy questions — like, what was her scariest moment? How many new Facebook friends did she make? She graciously answered my questions, which you can read here, and also gives some really great advice on how to talk to someone about international development.
Malaka: Which was your favorite city that you stopped at?
Janessa: I totally fell in love with New Orleans. I had never been there before and it’s a city that is coming back to life in a lot of ways and there’s just a really great energy. I met so many young people who were doing creative things, doing hyper-local things to engage with the city and make it better.
Which was your absolutely favorite moment? And which was your least favorite?
Scariest moment: I got hit by a car about seven days before the end of the ride. But that wasn’t the scariest. There was a night that I spent in the desert (because sometimes there weren’t campgrounds.) So I just pulled off the road and hiked my bike back a quarter mile. One night, I woke up and it sounded like there were 50 coyotes outside of my tent. I was really freaked out. And I keep WD40 and a lighter to use as a blowtorch by my sleeping bag just in case, so I jumped out of my tent and starting doing that. That was the moment where I was like, I am completely alone.
My favorite moment: All the conversations I got to have with people of all different backgrounds and histories. Everywhere I went, people wanted to talk to me. I was on a bike, wearing spandex shorts. People wanted to know what was happening.
Which item in your bag was the most useful during the trip? Which ended up being a waste of space?
The most useful thing was my Spyderco switchblade knife, which I used to fix things, eat with, etc. Least useful? I sent a box load of winter clothes home the first week. I found that I didn’t really need all those warm clothes since I was exercising.
You must have met a lot of people. How many new Facebook friends did you add to your profile? Any interesting characters?
I met a little less than 700 people one-on-one, so a lot of people. But the most interesting characters I met were in West Texas. I was in a little bar in a town in the middle of nowhere. I was sitting there having a beer and waiting for someone to come and talk to me –- that was my strategy most of the time on the road. And these guys came over and were talking — turns out they were cactus salesmen. It’s not exactly the biggest industry ever, but it made a little cash. I was talking about international development, how it makes us more prosperous and that kind of thing, and I was expecting a bristly response. While we were talking, I was eating peanuts. One of the guys suddenly grabs my hands, looked at me and said, “Why are you throwing the peanut shells in the bowl, you should throw it on the ground!” I thought he was going to get mad about international development!
Speaking of bristly, as any ONE member knows, international development can be a tricky subject –- and talking about it with members of Congress or even just peers is no walk in the park. What approach did you use when talking about aid to people? Any tips or advice?
What really surprised me the most is that I didn’t encounter any bristly figures. When I presented international development as one tool in our security toolbox and how it keeps problems far away, people seem to resonate with that message.
A lot of people don’t know what international development is. They think it’s just about giving money to bad guys. And so it was important for me to define that up front.
The mistake that international development advocates make is that they focus on the things that motivate them, about the things that are really important to them, which might not be important to their audience. Your job as an advocate is to find out what the people who you’re talking to care about and frame the message so it speaks to them. For a lot of Americans who are hurting here at home or have health care issues, it’s not going to be effective to say “we need to increase the wealth of farmers in Uganda.” They need to know how international development benefits America.
Americans should be really proud of our international development efforts. We do amazing things, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but makes us safer. If we’re not getting out there as advocates and talking about our successes in a way that makes it clear, then we’re not doing our job.
What’s next for you?
I am going to officer candidate school with the Marine Corps and pursuing a commission, and in the meantime, I’m working on a book about how international development keeps us safe.
Any last words?
Yesterday the house released numbers which significantly reduces funding levels from last year for the very programs that we’re talking about. The Senate is expected to release their numbers next week. This week, it’s important for people to call their senators this is an issue that is important to their constituents.
Thank you, Janessa — and good luck on all your endeavors! Follow Janessa on Twitter at @JGoldbeck, or leave her some kind words in the comments section below.