It’s springtime in Washington, my favorite season in our nation’s capitol. The cherry blossoms have faded, but the bright red tulips are standing erect like soldiers in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. The streets are clogged with tourists and school groups, taking pictures, looking at the monuments, a bit dazzled by Washington’s beauty.
Walking to work today, I was struck by how thankful I am to live in a country where I can advocate for the things I believe in – scientific integrity, transparency and accountability in government, federal agencies whose mission is to protect the public free of political or corporate interference.
In other parts of the world, advocates like me are not as fortunate. A few years ago, while working for another public interest group, I traveled to Kiev to teach new public interest advocates how to marshal support for government reform. It was right after the Orange Revolution, and these were the people who had led that amazing push for liberty in the Ukraine. The Ukraine in 1991 had thrown off the yoke of Soviet domination, but freedom was elusive. In 2004, a mass movement formed to push back against a rigged election that pitted a reformer against a Soviet-style politician. Due to political pressure, the reformer, Viktor Yushchenko, assumed the presidency, and there was hope for democracy.
On a rainy night in 2005, these activists took me on a tour of the city, stopping along the way to point out various confrontations with soldiers and the way the demonstrations played out. But even then, just post-revolution, being a reformer in the Ukraine posed risks I could not imagine. The knock on the door, the job that disappears, the veiled threat: It was difficult to shake off such long-held fears. The apprehensions were justified. In recent years, the country’s democratic aspirations have been sharply threatened by a conservative regime now in power, which has jailed some of the revolution’s political leaders.
The truth is, advocacy is not easy in much of the world. As much as we in the public interest community may complain about the obstacles in our path – a recalcitrant Congress, a White House that sends mixed signals about transparency, a lack of responsiveness by some federal agencies to scientific integrity – we are the lucky ones.
For those of you who celebrate Easter or Passover or just the coming of spring, this is a time of hope and renewal. And gratitude.