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It's time to become a 'citizen advocate' for Puerto Rico, says this organizer

Volunteerism and charity can't replace a functioning government providing services, says National Puerto Rican Agenda member Gretchen Sierra-Zorita.
Image: A new fault reduces the generation of electricity in P.Rico after hurricane
Two employees of the New York company Con Edison works to restore electricity cables damaged by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan Puerto Rico, 16 November 2017.Thais Llorca / EPA

Next Monday will mark two months since the worst hurricane in over a century virtually decimated Puerto Rico's electric grid, as well as crucial parts of its infrastructure and housing. Yet almost sixty days in, most of the island's residents have no electricity and are still living in tough conditions.

U.S. residents have generously given money, supplies and expertise to rebuild the U.S. territory.

Gretchen Sierra-Zorita, one of the founding members of the National Puerto Rican Agenda, (NPRA) argues that while voluntary contributions of time and aid are necessary, they are also limiting.

"We don't have the capacity to carry out on a permanent basis the functions of government, which is to provide services to its citizens," said Sierra-Zorita. "At some point, the focus has to shift to activism — we have to become "citizen advocates."

On Saturday, stateside and island Puerto Rican policy makers and academics are holding a one-day Diaspora Summit in Washington, D.C. to discuss policy issues including rebuilding and economic development.

On Sunday, a Unity March and rally in the nation's capital will draw Puerto Ricans from the island and around the country — with speakers from Lin-Manuel Miranda to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz — to call attention to the island's situation as well as to structural and political realities and their effect on the recovery.

"Marches are very cathartic, there's a great desire to convene in Washington, D.C. in an organized fashion to create awareness and to help organize," she said.

But in the end, said Sierra-Zorita, the path is for greater activism that leads to pressure on government leaders for tangible action in Puerto Rico.

We spoke to Sierra-Zorita about her call for Puerto Ricans and other Americans to become "citizen advocates" for Puerto Rico.

Why do you think there is an inflection point and it's time to move from helping the island to "citizen advocacy?"

Almost two months after Maria tore through the Island, Puerto Ricans are still living without basic necessities. The diaspora continues to work feverishly, making up for delays and gaps in Federal and local government aid.

Unfortunately the worst is not over. The rebuilding of Puerto Rico will cost billions of Federal dollars that Washington may not be willing to spend. Convincing Congress that Puerto Rico matters will require a greater mobilization, from the Puerto Rican diaspora and from all who care about Puerto Rico, than what has been required to run thousands of centros de acopio (collection sites) and fundraisers. All of us, not just our “official” leaders, will need to engage in advocacy work.

How do you encourage citizen advocacy on Puerto Rico?

I personally believe in the power of one; one person can be strategic and accomplish a lot. You educate every chance you get, at a cocktail party or Rotary Club conference. The U.S. is a big country and there are just not enough Puerto Rican talking heads to go around. When it comes to Puerto Rico, we must all become citizen educators if we want to get our point across.

Get in touch with people who can move the levers of government, whether it's your local, state or federal official. I suggest to organize friend action groups, divvy it up so not one person does all the calling and outreach all the time. You have to start creating a relationship with your elected officials.

Many people, especially Puerto Ricans, are uncomfortable with the notion of becoming citizen advocates because they associate it with partisan cronyism. But the fact remains that most government officials understand that their role as public servants is to listen and respond to the needs of all citizens. As for the citizens, they all have the right to be heard and to vote out those who do not listen. It’s that simple.

If you are not sure who to contact check out the non-partisan online political encyclopedia,

Apart from contacting local officials, what else can people do?

Wear a Puerto Rico pin on your lapel. People will notice and ask you questions. I write on my car side windows the number of days without electricity in Puerto Rico. Get creative.

Contact your local high school and ask if you can talk to their students about Puerto Rico. You will find receptive audiences in Spanish classes, extracurricular clubs and sometimes even entire high schools.

You can also donate a book about Puerto Rico to your school or local library. My favorite these days is “The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA” by Doug Mack. It’s easy to read and speaks about all territories not just Puerto Rico.

Attend rallies and marches. It’s hard for outsiders to take small groups seriously. Numbers matter.

And you can get a Twitter account. Not only will you learn the latest news, chismes and chistes — gossip and jokes — about Puerto Rico but you will be able to tweet about issues that are important to you. Twitter is one of the tools government officials and media types use to figure out what the public cares about.

Last but not least, register to vote and vote in every single election. No amount of Puerto Rican flag waving can make up for your actual vote.

What about fellow Americans who want to help Puerto Rico?

That help has been a constant; we would like to express our gratitude to individuals and groups who have been helping the island, like National Nurses United. I know the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda composed of 40 national Latino organizations, has been a strong advocate for Puerto Rico.

I encourage people to read thematically, google Puerto Rico news and see what's important, and become a voice calling for rebuilding and for attention to the island.

Hurricane Maria has the real potential to destroy decades of economic development, and permanently damage the fabric of Puerto Rican society. Puerto Rico needs each one of us to demand the resources to rebuild Puerto Rico. This is no time to be shy about exercising our powers as citizen advocates and voters.

Summon your inner Boricua (a Taíno Indian name for Puerto Rico) because Puerto Rico no se levanta sin nuestra ayuda - it can't rise up without our help.