The Next Level of Global Citizen: An Interview With Global Poverty Project’s Justine Lucas

The Global Poverty Project's crown jewel is the Global Citizen Festival but the organization works year round to get commitments from politicians and actions from citizens.

When the United Nations General Assembly convenes in September, world leaders will amass in New York, flooding the hotels in Midtown East and creating gridlock on the FDR Drive. One of the topics these diplomats will be discussing is the U.N.’s own Global Goals (formerly the Millennium Development Goals or MGD), and how to advance progess towards these targets, which include establishing universal primary education, improving maternal health and promoting gender equality. These are matters, like the current Syrian refugee crisis, which are not limited to any one nation’s sovereign space and require collaboration to address.

There are, of course, multiple players, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and charities, tackling different aspects of the MDGs. During the General Assembly, these NGOs likely follow the headlines to see how the U.N.’s decisions will affect their mission, after all President Obama and his counterparts are huge news. However, one organization, Global Poverty Project, found a way to project its message towards the U.N. through active participation of individuals and get noticed. In 2012, Global Poverty Project (GPP) started the annual Global Citizen Festival, a huge free event in New York’s Central Park, which drew attention to extreme poverty through musical performances, celebrity endeavors and political commitments, and coincided with the General Assembly. Attendees are selected through an online raffle, earning entries through online activism and becoming better global citizens in the process.

The concept of a global citizen isn’t new or wholly owned by GPP (U2’s recent tour featured the term), but there is a divide between claiming to be a global citizen by caring about the issues and actually being one through social activism. Over the past several years, GPP has ramped up its efforts to put more people in the latter category. Ahead of this year’s Festival, we spoke with Justine Lucas, Global Director of Programs at Global Poverty Project, to discuss the festival and the many other projects GPP works on throughout the year.

“We’d always conceived of a global citizen as being somebody that believes that extreme poverty is unjust and not something that should be a reality in our world. But the evolution of Global Citizen as a platform and the Global Poverty Project as an organization has been really interesting. With the Global Citizen Festival, we decided we’d take the concept of the traditional charity concert and flip it on its head. So, rather than charging people to attend an event and raising money, we came up with this idea that people use their voice, they participate in some way, shape, or form, before coming to the festival. Taking action is really their entry into the festival.

If you go to the [GCF] website this year, we’ve started taking it to the next level. We’ve not only said, “You should take this action journey and really engage in multiple issues around the issues of extreme poverty,” but we made it a requirement to take all eight of the actions. This time around, [we are] pushing global citizens to go the extra mile, to really step up and take some difficult actions, like picking up the phone and calling the State Department, or [writing] an email in your own words. That’s a really great sign of the evolution of what it means to be a global citizen — it’s an actively engaged individual that still believes the ethos that extreme poverty is unjust and unfair, but is willing to act on it.”

Photo of Dave Grohl by Sachyn Mital

Social activism is an area I’ve long been interested in. Music is another area. This festival is at the junction of both and, in a way, I can call it a tradition of mine, having attended the past three years. Past performers have included John Legend, Neil Young, Foo Fighters, No Doubt with Sting and Jay Z. This year Pearl Jam, my favorite band, are the headliners. Given the band has carried an activist spirit their whole career, it’s about time. Putting together a lineup with such huge names is hard work.

“I can say Pearl Jam has been a great supporter of ours for many years. And so that one is such a win, that we were able to get Pearl Jam to perform this year. We were in discussions with them over the course of a couple years. So that definitely was more of a longer term run-up. As you can see from a lot of the press around 2015, Chris Martin [of Coldplay, one of the performers this year] has stepped up and made a fifteen-year commitment to Global Citizen. It took some time for him to really understand the way that we work, and [now] he’s become such an advocate. He came on a trip to India with us. He’s just an incredible example of somebody that’s really invested, and invested for all the right reasons, which is so great.

[The other two performers] Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé – we started talking with them within this past year and worked hard. Both of them have been incredible advocates for the issues; Beyoncé is a long-term supporter of women and girls. It’s definitely not easy to secure artists… Ed Sheeran is in Boston the night before, he’s actively touring. So, being able to grab him for a night is definitely a huge win. But I’m just so proud of the lineup that we’ve put together.”

While the music is often what draws the audience, GPP’s platform is open to corporations and political figures, too, provided they can make a pledge towards improving the state of the world’s poor. GPP may approach these entities, such as the Vatican (the Pope will be leading a procession through Central Park the day before the festival) but in some cases, folks reach out to GPP.

“The realization (is) that the Global Citizen Festival stage has become a platform for large-scale commitments to be made in a way where leaders are held to account — it’s made in front of such a large audience, we have 60,000 people in the park but there are millions watching via the broadcast and the livestream. It’s an incredible opportunity to make a new commitment and celebrate that. So, we have had world leaders come to us. Last year, we had the Prime Minister of India [Narendra Modi] on our stage.

We’re in conversations with the Pope’s team; it’d be fantastic to have him involved in some way, shape, or form. We’re also launching another Action Journey tomorrow, and one of the actions targets the President of Indonesia regarding sanitation. Getting him to commit to end open defecation in Indonesia is something we’re hoping for. We’re also working very hard on trying to get the Prime Minister of Italy to come around food security. So, those are a couple actions that you might see in [the final August] Action Journey that launches. It’s part of our plan to try to get them there. We don’t always win on everything, but these are opportunities we see as really important so we’re going to try as hard as we can.

The precedent we’ve set with engaging heads of state has really paid off. We are able to have a lot of these conversations early on [since] it’s very difficult to get the commitments that we get on stage. It takes the grassroots with all the global citizens taking meaningful action at the appropriate time and it also takes us having high-level conversations with governments to convince them to make new commitments on specific issues that really need attention. It’s a perfect combination.

And what happened last week with Erna Solberg [Prime Minister of Norway] – having us tweet at her extensively, through Global Citizen, and getting Stephen Colbert to create a video – that’s calling on her to step up on global education. After that video was released and got a whole bunch of press, we paired that with a trip to Norway. Hugh Evans, our CEO, and our head of global policy and advocacy, Michael Sheldrick, were in Norway on the Wednesday right after the Colbert video hit, right after she’d received this wave of tweets. It was something not only could she not respond to – it was instrumental in getting her to agree to come to the festival and she committed to bring other world leaders along. Being able to pair that together is a great demonstration of how far we’ve come with our campaigning.”

Some of the individuals you are not likely to see involved in a conversation with GPP this year are the current crop of 2016 Presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat. A non-profit playing on an international level needs to expertly hone language so as to not be offensive or ideological if they want to find support from every wavelength of the political spectrum.

“We see ourselves – and the only way to be effective campaigners – is to be bipartisan. You’re going to see a balanced representation of Democratic and Republican congressmen on our stage. We haven’t invited any of the political candidates to be a part of the event as, unfortunately, we feel like that will not result in a new commitment for the world’s poor. No matter who they are, I think that people will only see their speech as being sort of a pitch. We’re putting our energy into using the stage to leverage additional support from Republicans and Democrats for food aid reform, an issue we’re campaigning on domestically that can have a huge impact. Even if it means having people with a little lower profile on stage, if it’s going to affect the passage of a bill, that’s the priority for us.”

In America, where the political system is often at a deadlock and the seeds promised during a campaign rarely bear fruit, it makes sense to avoid putting any of the candidates on stage. Ever-shifting political winds could hinder any multi-year obligation the elected decided to make even if they held the top office. But what happens to officials from other countries? Hearing world leaders make bold pledges with huge price tags, such as Denmark’s US $15M commitment to Amplify Change Fund or Nepal’s pledge to end open defecation by 2017, might come across as bluster only designed to curry favor with constituents. Even though there is no mechanism for enforcement, GPP does everything it can to ensure those governments are accountable.

“We have an impact manager on staff. Their full-time job is to track the commitments that are made. And we work with a lot of fantastic partners – Global Citizen is an umbrella for the sector – that are on the ground actively, like the UNICEFs, WaterAids.

Some of the more quantitative commitments, where $100 million is committed towards a specific issue, are easier to track to make sure the money did go to the prescribed entity. The sheer fact that [pledges] are made in public is a good start in terms of an accountability mechanism. Specifically, Prime Minister Modi’s commitment last year to end open defecation in India by 2019, is an incredible commitment made in a very public way.

But we have follow-through mechanisms, as well. We’ve been in active dialogue with his staff and we’ve been to India, we have partners reporting back on how [progress is] going. We’re even actively exploring if there is a meaningful way Global Citizen can help contribute to meeting that goal. We keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening through our impact measurements internally [and] through external evaluation by the partners.”

One individual who has partnered with GPP is Kelly Curtis, Pearl Jam’s manager. In 2013, he worked with GPP on the year-round Global Citizen Tickets endeavor which allows activists the chance to see bands coming through their city (people can’t always make a trip to New York for the main event). Lucas explained the Tickets program and many of the other projects GPP has throughout the year, and how they link with partners on issues like climate change or pollution under the GPP umbrella to address areas outside the scope of extreme poverty.

“Global Citizen is obviously the heart of what we do throughout the year, and not only are we producing tons of content each week that are tied to meaningful actions, but we’re also incentivizing through other programs, like Global Citizen Tickets. If you go on the platform, you’ll see that there are other rewards outside of the Global Citizen Festival – people can be rewarded for taking action wherever they are. We’ve partnered with major music artists all over the world, and they give us two tickets to all the stops on their tour. If somebody is in Santa Fe and is taking action at Global Citizen, they have an opportunity to win tickets to see one of the artists on that program.

In terms of our policy work, the Global Citizen Festival is a great moment in time because we have this huge stage that we leverage for new commitments. But there are lots of moments that we can use as campaigning triggers to achieve new commitments. We pivot immediately after the festival and look at things like World Food Day, which is in mid-October, and World Toilet Day, which is in November. I oversee the Global Citizen Festival but I also oversee “Live Below the Line”, a campaign that challenges people to live on $1.50 a day for their food and drink to approximate the experience of living in extreme poverty.

There are a lot of ways to link the climate change movement to the poverty movement. Earlier this year, we threw Global Citizen Earth Day, a show on the National Mall in April where we worked with fantastic partners on environmental issues because we don’t have that expertise in-house.

We’re actually throwing a mobilization event called “Under One Sky on Thursday, September 24th, in partnership with climate change, inequality and other groups. It’s a huge mass global mobilization that’s going to kick off in Australia and move across the world, culminating in New York City. Right now, that’s scheduled to be at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza across from the U.N. It’s a really fantastic example of how we see all of these different movements being linked to one another.

We are supportive of all of those efforts; we just don’t specifically campaign on it ourselves. There are so many issues under the umbrella of ending extreme poverty. We pick themes each year – where there seems to be the greatest need, where people have reached out to us saying that our organization can have a meaningful impact.”


The Global Citizen Festival happens on the Great Lawn in New York City’s Central Park on 26 September. VIP Tickets are sold out but general admission tickets can be earned by completing action journeys on their website. The fourth journey will close soon while the fifth (and final) one begins 10 September. “Extreme poverty ends with you.”