The DeMarco Factor

There is a lot that is pretty cool about my new, full-time position at the university.

I mean, I get a parking pass. For real.

I love my students and my colleagues, and I love the magnolia tree outside my window.

I love that tree A LOT.

But the very best thing, hands down?

The review copies of books.

It’s like Christmas every time I have a new text to select for a class, and those catalogs are like treasure maps.

It’s hard to keep up with all of the good publications coming out, and my students would cry foul quickly if I tried to assign everything that I think is worth their time to read, but it’s still pretty incredible.

One of the books that I previewed for this semester’s Advanced Advocacy Practice course is The DeMarco Factor, a sort of case study of a particularly effective advocate for health investments and equity in Maryland. It’s so hard for my students to conceptualize what advocacy really looks like, and to think through how they can apply their social work skills to its practice, and so I think there’s great value in humanizing the whole endeavor.

It’s very readable and quite well-received, but here are some of the highlights, as you’re weighing whether it makes it on your summer reading list.

  • Another point for social work relationship skills, in the advocacy context: There’s so much here about the importance of personal connections in moving policy, especially in the face of political and social odds. I feel vindicated, really, in my continual exhortations to my students that they were born for this. One observer calls DeMarco a ‘mythmaker’, capable of connecting with people so that they believe that they are capable of even the grandest political wins. If that’s not empowerment practice, I don’t know what is.
  • It takes campaigns: What I appreciated most about this book is the demystification of the advocacy process, without ‘simplifying’ it. If anything, there’s an increased understanding of the sophistication needed to develop and execute an advocacy campaign, including the process of running a public awareness component to galvanize support and the development of an electoral strategy to influence who’s sitting in the decision maker seat. But it’s not smarmy or murky or opaque at all. It’s an intervention, not that dissimilar from the interventions that we implement all the time, to induce change. Again, we can do this.
  • In building power (and you must), intensity matters: If we want to build enough power to induce policymakers to follow our prescriptions, we need far more than just public opinion on our side. We’ve really already met that threshold on a lot of our issues, and yet we’re clearly not winning many of them. What we need is fervent support, support that will convince elected officials that there will be a price to pay for failing to deliver. Policymakers will only listen when we make them. That is power.
  • You can work your model, on issue after issue: That’s the core takeaway from this book, I think, given that the central figure–Vinny DeMarco–has successfully executed advocacy campaigns on a variety of progressive issues in Maryland. Using the same modus operandi, more or less, he distributes resolutions to get organizations on board, shops policy models that can test the political waters, demonstrates economic impact, works his relationships to build powerful alliances, and uses a combination of polling, grassroots agitation, and insider politics to get to the victory. It worked on gun control, tobacco control, health care reform…we can win on anything, with the right approach.
  • We can be players: We may not all want to be power brokers the way DeMarco became. We shouldn’t. But there is more than one path to power. My favorite passage in the book, which I find really inspiring, is this: “It’s intimidating because you know that, no matter where you go in your district, or in your church, or in your world, you’re going to hear about his campaigns on behalf of the children and families of Maryland” (p. 45). To this, we should all aspire.

There’s no great utility in lionizing a particular advocate, and I don’t think that was the author’s intention with the book. What it says to me is that public interest advocacy is a noble profession and an art form, but one that can be studied and learned, to our own advantage as advocates and in service of the causes we care about.

I’m glad that there is a Vinny DeMarco, for the people of Maryland, and I’m glad to know about him, so that I can be the most skillful, powerful advocate I can, here in my own backyard.

Leadership Crises and Temperature Failures

My thinking about leadership, sparked by the book For the Common Good, hasn’t just been limited to probing what leadership should look like in my own life.

I’ve also been thinking about our need for public leadership, on a grant scale, to confront the adaptive challenges we face.

Leadership requires choosing among competing values, and that’s hard for a lot of people to do, particularly when they are trying to simultaneously satisfy many different actors. I’m thinking about elected officials, obviously, but also nonprofit leaders and others to whom we look for leadership on the core problems plaguing our society.

For the Common Good talks about a ‘conspiracy to avoid’ dealing with our toughest issues and I thought, yeah, that’s a lot what Congress looks like these days. Or nonprofit staff meetings.

The parts of the book that I found the most profound, even revolutionary, are about the need for leadership equal to the hardest challenges we face. That means not just new learning and new application–thereby surpassing a technical challenge–but also shared responsibility.

We can only have a chance to solve these adaptive problems if we actively seek out tough interpretations of what we’re seeing, instead of defaulting to a search for benign explanations.

We can only bring enough people along with us if we raise the temperature so much that reluctant ‘followers’ feel compelled to act. That means organizing, since little can raise the heat like grassroots pressure.

And we can only hold ourselves together during the difficult work of meeting these adaptive problems head on if we have the ‘bridging social capital’ that can make adaptive change more palatable. This, of course, is another way that inequality hurts us.

A really cool thing for me was that the book featured David Toland, whose work with Thrive Allen County in southeast Kansas has been part of my evaluation work for the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, specifically on some of these points about the type of leadership that is needed for a community to embrace change in pursuit of progress around adaptive challenges (in this case, obesity rates and poor health outcomes in the community). He found data that reveal crisis, but a culture of complacency. So he faced a leadership task of galvanizing momentum and supporting people through change, before he could tackle the substance of the problem.

The question, then, is of course, “Where have all the leaders gone?”

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the loss of ‘statesmen’. I am not nostalgic for any particular time past, nor do I believe that any particular period or culture has a lock on this kind of courageous, visionary, public leadership.

No, I’m not thinking as much about the ‘who’–who will be the leaders ready and willing to carry the mantle–but, instead, about the ‘why’.

As in, why don’t we demand this of those who would be our leaders?

More Reviews, just in time for summer

It’s never too early to start planning out your reading calendar.

To help, I have some comments on books I have read recently, starting with a book by someone I am glad to call a friend and colleague, Kansas Leadership Center Director Ed O’Malley. The book, For the Common Good, is about civic leadership, and I have posts about it today and tomorrow: first, today, thoughts about how we understand–and misunderstand–leadership, and, tomorrow, a plea for the urgency of our need for civic leadership up to the challenges that confront us.

The central premise of the book, and core to the Leadership Center’s approach, is the contention that leadership is for everyone, an activity, not a position.

And, if everyone and anyone can lead, then the next step, clearly, is to think about what leadership looks like for us, in a very personal way.

I have never really considered myself much of a leader. Leadership is a force for change, and, while I am proud and committed to be part of movements for social change, I more often play the role of foot soldier, rather than marshal.

But this book has me thinking somewhat differently about that self-characterization, and about the extent to which I have been content to be led, rather than stepping up and stepping out as a leader myself.

In the midst of this soul-searching, some of the questions that I’m pondering:

  • For the Common Good exhorts all leaders to be aware of our ‘defaults’ and open to the potential that we may need to actively work against them. It’s conscious choices that make the difference between compelling, effective leadership and coasting, often, and the process of combating our own inertia begins with self-awareness. For me, this is thinking about how much I love living in the comfort of technical problems, where I can lull myself into thinking that I have some measure of control. I need to get more comfortable with chaos, which, for me, has become harder as I balance my public and private roles; since my home life can be somewhat chaotic, my public tolerance for the same has declined.
  • Related to this idea of resetting our defaults, we need to know the story others tell about us. I am acutely aware of how, in the roles I play now, I get less good feedback than I used to–my students have obvious incentives not to honestly confront me with my failings, and the consultant role distorts this feedback loop somewhat, too, particularly when someone else is paying the bill. But getting this perspective is critical, so I need to find ways to cultivate it.
  • Leaders have to attend to process, even when, like for me, we much prefer to focus on content. How people come together matters. How decisions are made matters. And how people are feeling about all of those things matters. We can’t navigate those realms without taking the time to ‘check’ our processes for change. For me, that means resetting my own default that tends to rush to decision point. Knowing that is the first step toward doing something about it.
  • A specific type of process-attending that is crucial is the ability to speak to loss. After all, if leadership is about sparking change, well, something is always lost in change. We have to resist the temptation to label as apathy what is more correctly understood as concern about the opportunity costs of change. Helping people to move past each requires very different interventions.

I know it’s not necessarily ‘beach reading’, but For the Common Good uses real stories of leaders (in Kansas) to illustrate leadership principles, and I found it very readable and, obviously, engaging. I’d love to hear from those who have worked with the Leadership Center, or Ed, or read the book, or who have other leadership recommendations for me, as I continue to think about how this particular journey unfolds in my own life.

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

Here’s another post for ‘Colleague Week’.

Aka ‘academic lovefest’.

Do you ever read someone’s article in an academic journal and think, “I bet she is a really nice person?”

No?

Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, I think, by this point, that I could recognize Jennifer Mosley’s work even in a blind test. She has developed a scholarly voice that is so recognizable, and occupies such a critical place in the field, that I have come to gravitate to whatever it is she’s putting out.

I mean, with titles like “Recognizing new opportunities: Reconceptualizing policy advocacy in everyday organizational practice”, I feel like we must have been separated at birth.

There are several elements of her research and writing that I particularly appreciate, including her inclusion of the actual experiences of service providers and impacted populations, really without fail; her attention to nonprofit organizations’ real constraints in engaging in advocacy (and treatment of them as sophisticated actors making hard trade-offs, rather than novices somehow feeling their way–toward that end, I like this one a lot, “Institutionalization, privatization, and political opportunity: What tactical choices reveal about the policy advocacy of human service nonprofits”); and her inclusion of global perspectives, in recognition of how much U.S.-based charities have to learn from the activist traditions of, in particular, developing nations.

As I navigate a research and publishing agenda in my own relatively nascent academic career, I look to Jennifer’s work for a sense of where I might make contributions, and I rely heavily on her CV for readings for my classes and my literature reviews.

Part of what I value, then, most about her presence in the field is that presence itself, as a reminder that there are other social work academics who view nonprofit advocacy as a legitimate target of inquiry and a prominent dynamic in the profession.

Sometimes macro practice–and the study thereof–can be isolating, but seeing a familiar name in the e-journal citations makes it, somehow, less so.

Happy Tax Day!

I’m keeping it short this year and, thanks to my oldest son, sweet.

Sometimes, maybe we just need to see things through the eyes of a 7-year-old.

In this case, a 7-year-old who was standing in the toy aisle with his hard-earned allowance, contemplating how much he had to spend.

He had already noted that the trademarked Legos cost more than the ‘regular’ sets because, as he pointed out, “they have to split the profits three ways: George Lucas, Lego, and Target.”

Yes, son. You’re right.

Now, he was adding up the prices on the smaller sets he had selected. The total came to about $16, and he had $20 to spend.

His younger brother tried to add a Lego minifigure ($2.99) to the pile, but Sam stopped him.

“Ben,” he said, “We have to leave enough to pay taxes.”

When a 5-year-old’s protest started, Sam responded, “Who do you think pays for the sidewalk you ride your scooter down? Or the library where you check out those Captain Underpants books? We all do.”

True that, second-grade wisdom.

True that.

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

I could call this just ‘shout out’ week, I guess, because I don’t necessarily have a real treatise on these professionals’ work. In some cases, I’m not even sure what I could really add of tremendous value.

But I wrote an email to one of these colleagues last fall, expressing how much I appreciate her writing and her professional voice and her leadership in the field, and she responded saying that it is quite rare, really, for academics to receive this particular kind of appreciation and accolade and, well, since I don’t live close enough to make all these folks quick breads, the way I normally do to thank those to whom I owe a debt, I thought this was sort of the next best thing.

I have used some of Benjamin Shepard’s work here before, about the use of play in organizing.

But there are other pieces that I have discovered more recently and enjoy tremendously, including an article on social work and community gardening as environmental activism, a sort of case study on mixing direct services and social action, in the life of one transgendered activist, and some Huffington Post articles (on my life list!) on Occupy and direct action in New York City.

One of the coolest things about those Huff Post pieces, in my opinion, is the byline. It’s really gratifying to me to see an “Assistant Professor of Human Service at New York School of Technology/CUNY” writing about the planning for Occupy street protests, in a popular press publication.

It’s colleagues like these who I think deserve more attention and commendation. They’re demonstrating every day (in some cases, literally!) that academics don’t have to stay within the walls of the academy, that there is a role for analysis and theory in grassroots movements, and that progressives of all professional persuasions should join common cause.

I’m proud to call these folks colleagues. Hopefully our paths will cross someday, at a conference or on the streets.

No, really. Really. Words matter.

Maybe I should have been a linguist.

Because I find that I’m a little bit obsessed with language.

Specifically, the language that we use to talk about the issues that matter, and how what we say shapes what we see.

Two thoughts leaped out at me from Generation Roe, related to language:

First, how the frame of ‘pro-choice’ evokes a certain perception of how women come to abortion, and, conversely, how being, then, framed as on the other side of ‘pro-life’ triggers undesirable conflicts, too. Because it’s a very different equation, to pit ‘life’ against a ‘choice’. When the lines are drawn that way, where we end up feels different.

And, second, how we define ‘access’–to any service–is very important for marking the parameters of equity and justice and, truly, meaningful access. Because is it really ‘access’ if people are too poor to get to the service? If it’s not offered in their native language? If they don’t feel comfortable in the neighborhood where we’re located?

For me, the first of these language concerns relates to how we let others define us, and how we need to be intentional about how we describe where we stand, on a given issue. And the second is about intellectual honesty and ethically representing the limits of our own efforts, rather than using language to console ourselves unjustifiably.

One is about not allowing ourselves to be boxed in unnecessarily and inappropriately.

The other is about not giving ourselves more wiggle room than is warranted.

Words matter.