Last Friday, May 4, Janessa Goldbeck concluded her 4,200 mile, coast-to-coast solo bicycle tour. We were so thrilled that Janessa’s final event coincided with the Truman Project’s annual conference, and that the entire Truman community was able to share in celebrating Janessa’s successful tour and safe return to Washington D.C. Below are Janessa’s remarks from the Cycle for Security Grand Finale event:
Thank you to Liz McKenna, Campaign Manager for the Make US Strong campaign. Liz not only organized today’s event, but ran all of the logistics for my ride over the last three months. She is the person who made sure I was still alive, eating right, and making good decisions. Without her, this ride would not have been the great success that it was – or happened at all.
Thank you to the staff and interns at the Truman National Security Project for launching the Make US Strong campaign and giving me the opportunity to take this ride. I want to personally recognize Truman’s CEO, Rachel Kleinfeld, and Executive Director, Mike Breen, for their commitment and leadership on this critical issue.
And thank you all for being here today.
Three months ago, I set off from San Diego, California, on what felt like the world’s heaviest bicycle, with one mission: to spread the word that international development – sometimes called “foreign aid” – keeps America safe.
Today, after more than 4,200 miles of cycling - across 11 states, over 3 mountain ranges, through rainstorms and despite one minor vehicular mishap – after hundreds of conversations with Americans of all stripes – my journey comes to an end.
To those of you who have been following the ride and sending notes of support along the way – thank you. On nights when I was alone in my tent in the middle of the desert, or on afternoons when I found myself staring up at a particularly nasty hill, it meant a lot to know you were behind me.
To those of you who may be hearing about the ride and me for the first time today, I want you to know that I usually dress a lot cooler than this – my pants are usually longer.
You’re probably asking yourself, why would anyone bike across the country to talk about international development?
I decided to take this ride because making the world a safer place is something I’m really passionate about – and something that I believe we have the capacity to achieve.
For the last five years, I’ve worked in human rights advocacy in DC, with a particular emphasis on genocide and mass atrocity prevention. Later this year, I’m headed off to Officer Candidate School with the United States Marine Corps.
I sometimes get funny looks from people when I tell them that I’m a human rights advocate who has decided to join the military.
The way I see it, the most basic human right – freedom from fear – begins with security. In today’s interconnected world, achieving security here at home means engaging globally. Not just through our military, although our brave volunteers in uniform and the technology that supports them will always play a leading role in our defense. Alongside our troops and our diplomats, international development is an integral tool in our security toolbox.
Development has been a key part of America’s security since the Greatest Generation rebuilt Europe and Japan at the end of World War II. Since then, development has been key to taking on some of the biggest challenges of the twentieth and twenty-first century: limiting the spread of pandemic diseases, shutting down gun and drug trafficking, and making sure developing nations can stand on their own feet.
Through international development, we have the ability to help struggling farmers in Africa improve their agricultural practices, so that extremist groups can’t use food aid as a recruitment incentive. Our development professionals have the know-how to prevent and treat diseases before they spread across borders and wind up on our shores.
Leaders from the Pentagon to the State Department have said over and over again that development helps keep us safe.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “Looking ahead, the most persistent and potentially dangerous threats will come less from ambitious states, than failing ones that cannot meet the basic needs – much less the aspirations – of their people. To truly harness the “full strength of America,” requires having civilian institutions of diplomacy and development that are adequately staffed and properly funded.”
Here’s something that may surprise you – our elected leaders in Congress also know that international development keeps us safe, even if they refuse to admit it publicly. Here’s how I know that: in every state that I biked through, I met with the staff of Senators and Representatives in Congress. I expected to have to plead with many of them – I biked across the south, remember? – to have to argue my case.
But in every office that I visited, on both sides of the aisle, staff members were not only receptive, but welcoming.
In Savannah, Georgia, in the office of Representative Jack Kingston, a man who has been called “the most conservative member of the House,” a staffer opened the meeting by telling me “You’re preaching to the choir.” Then, at the end of the meeting, she gave me a hug. That was very confusing.
The regular people who I talked to – at gas stations, in campgrounds, at bars, in coffee shops – I expected to have to vigorously defend my case to them, too.
You’ve probably all heard that statistic – when asked what should be cut from the federal budget, the most commonly given answer is, “foreign aid.” So I expected to have to get into it with people. But if you ask those same folks how much they think we spend on foreign aid today, most will guess that it’s between ten and twenty percent. If you ask them how much we should be spending, people usually say, “Well, 5 to 6 percent is reasonable.”
In reality, the amount we spend on foreign aid is less than one percent of the entire federal budget.
I found that – no matter where I was, including once, memorably, in a bar full of cactus salesmen in the middle of West Texas – the Americans I talked to got it.
Did you know that in bars in West Texas, you’re supposed to throw your peanut shells directly onto the ground? I was having a Tecate at the only watering hole in a hundred miles, just sitting there, waiting. That was my strategy in most places I rode through. Find the local bar or restaurant, order a drink, sit and wait. Eventually, someone would always come up and start asking questions, and eventually, we’d get around to the purpose of my ride. Spread the good word, have a drink…two of my favorite things in the world.
In this one particular bar, a dim, smoky place that I’m sure my grandmother would have been thrilled to find me in, I found myself in conversation with a group of cactus salesmen. Now when I say salesmen, I’m not talking about a bunch of suit-and-tie guys. I’m talking, “We grow ‘em behind the trailer and sell ‘em on the highway,” kind of guys. Guys who are really feeling the hurt during these economic times.
So, after a few beers, I launch into my spiel – how development keeps us safe, how little we actually spend on it, why it’s necessary. Suddenly one of the guys grabs my hand and looks at me with fire in his eyes. I’m mid-sentence, and I’m thinking, well… this is it.
He looks at me and growls, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, putting those peanut shells back in the bowl? Those go on the GROUND.”
So, you know, I threw the shells on the ground, and we kept talking.
Here’s the thing – after I made my case, he agreed with me that international development is a commonsense way to win friends, keep problems like disease and conflict small and far away, and build stronger economic partners for the United States.
It’s not rocket science – it’s just common sense.
In Tallahassee, Florida, the scene was a little bit classier. I spoke at an event hosted by the mayor and few state senators. The room was filled with folks dressed a lot nicer than I was – men and women from the local political scene, the local news channel, and students from the surrounding colleges. There were cheese plates and crab cakes – it was very classy.
So, I gave my spiel, this time from behind a podium. Afterwards, as I talked with members of the audience, I was struck by how similar the response were from the folks in Florida to the folks in Texas.
A lot of people said that they’d never really thought about international development before because they are focused on local politics. They had never connected the dots between development overseas and what happens in Tallahassee.
That night, I met a former Navy Seebee – Seebees are part of the construction battalions that go in and build stuff in the action zones. He told me that during his time serving in Iraq, he didn’t think of the people from USAID and the State Department as “foreign aid” or “development” workers – he just saw them as the civilian component of his military mission.
Development was so much a part of the security strategy, that he didn’t even know it was development.
So – imagine this: I’m about six weeks through the trip, and I’ve been eating a lot of Clif bars. My tan lines are pretty atrocious and I know they’re just going to get worse. Everyone that I meet agrees with me that development keeps America safe. I’m starting to ask myself, what the hell am I doing out on this bike?
Then, the house passes the Ryan budget, which eliminates a huge chunk of funding for international development programs. So, what’s the disconnect?
Well for one, most members of Congress think they can score cheap political points by cutting funding for international development programs. I am sure it feels good to stand in front of a bunch of people who are going through hard times and say, “Screw the rest of the world, let’s spend every dollar here at home!”
But that’s a false choice – especially once you realize that it’s cheaper to prevent a conflict than it is to intervene in one later. That it costs less to prevent the spread of disease than it does to manage an outbreak. That it’s cheaper to feed a boy than it is to fight an extremist. And that these costs are more than just financial – American lives are at stake.
Some politicians have purposely perpetuated myths about how much we spend on international development – and some have refused to admit how little the actual number is as a way to justify cutting funding. These politicians are putting their own careers ahead of our security interests as a nation, and it’s dangerous.
Over the course of the last three months, I met countless Americans who agreed with my message. But for many of them, it was the it was the first time they had ever heard someone explain how international development is an important part of our national security strategy.
There are still millions of Americans who have yet to hear this message. We need to make sure that all Members of Congress and their constituents have the facts about how international development — alongside defense, diplomacy, and democracy programs — keeps us safe here at home.
Just last week, the House Appropriations Committee proposed drastic cuts once again to the very programs I rode across America to protect. My bike ride may have just ended, but clearly we still have a lot of work to do.
You don’t have to get on a bike and ride across America to spread that message. In fact, please don’t – it will look a lot less cooler if everybody starts doing it.
You can get involved in the Make US Strong campaign and invite others to do the same. If you haven’t signed the petition to Congress on MakeUSStrong.com, you should do that right now.
Spread the word – but I know the people in this room have the power to do a lot more than that. Those of you who work on the hill – educate your bosses. Those of you who work in security, in development or in advocacy – get your people to the hill, get them on the news, get them in the media. Tell your success stories. Explain how what you do over there is good for Americans back here.
Yesterday, I was outside a town called Culpeper, Virginia, and I met a group of retired Marines who were World War Two veterans. These guys were in their late 80s and early 90s, and they were on bicycles, heading from North Carolina to DC. They were coming with a message for Congress that they wanted our men and women in uniform to come home from Afghanistan. They were in their 80s and 90s, on bikes.
How cool is it that we live in America, the greatest country on earth, at a time in history when each of us, no matter how young or old we are, no matter who we are or where we come from, has the ability to make the world a better place.
The Truman National Security Project is leading the movement to ensure international development receives the funding necessary to build a safer and more prosperous world. I decided to be a part of that movement by riding a bicycle across America.
Find a way that speaks to you and, as the commandant of the Marine Corps General Jim Amos has been known to say, “Get after it.”
Thanks for being here, and enjoy the rest of the conference.”