Category Archives: Events and Calls to Action

Reimagining Poverty Part II

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The second of our speakers series on Reimagining Poverty is tomorrow!

I’m excited to welcome Dr. Tom Shapiro to the university, and really looking forward to hearing him talk about race, poverty, and inequity.

Dr. Shapiro’s work is pretty stunning; if you haven’t read Black Wealth/White Wealth, you really should.

His scholarship exposes the extent to which differential access to institutions influences radically disparate outcomes for blacks and whites in the U.S. economy. For example, a $1.00 increase in income = a $5.00 increase in wealth for whites, but only $0.70 for blacks.

Yeah, really.

As he has said, “The genius of the American dream is the promise that those who work equally hard will reap roughly equal rewards, be it in wealth, lifestyle, or status.”

Statistics like the above make it clear that that promise is largely being broken.

Combating poverty in the U.S. absolutely requires acknowledging–and committing to dismantle–institutional racism.

That’s not a reassuring realization, certainly, but it’s a critical one, and I am glad that we’re helping to spark that conversation.

I feel like a lot of my work and, so, many of my reflections here, are converging now: the All-In Nation effort that I’ll be posting on in a few weeks, my alignment with the Kansas City Equity Profile team, my AEDI emphasis on the links between poverty and education.

So Rich, So Poor makes the point that school quality is an antipoverty strategy, not only because making sure that every child has access to a quality education will equip American children to climb out of poverty, but, more importantly from a structural perspective, because taking school quality off the table as a driver of residential choice would deconcentrate inner-city poverty and dramatically reduce racial segregation.

That could be a game changer.

If educational reform is the seminal civil rights challenge of this generation, we must redouble our efforts to examine how the institution of education is failing children and families in poverty, from preschool through their heavily-leveraged college degrees.

I hope you’ll join us tomorrow as we continue this conversation, either in person at the Kansas Union at the University, or following along on the live webstream from home.

Let’s reimagine poverty, yes, but then let’s end it, so that, by the time they grow up, it exists only in my children’s imaginations.

Frightening beyond words

I know, I know.

I’ve heard all the arguments about how the Voting Rights Act isn’t dead, about how there are still lots of options for those alleging infringement of their civil rights, about how the Supreme Court’s June ruling really only tinkers with this fundamental human rights protection.

And, you know, standing on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma this summer,

I’m.Just.Not.Buying.It.

What’s scary to me this Halloween?

That our Supreme Court could honestly think that, somehow, history couldn’t repeat itself. That racism is over. And that getting a lawyer to fight for your right to vote is anything like equal citizenship.

That’s just frightening.

I have often found myself wishing that those who, today, take their right to vote for granted would have to pass a citizenship test, witnessing what aspiring Americans go through for the same chance to help shape our democracy.

I’ve altered that: now I wish that we all had to walk in the steps of John Lewis and the freedom fighters whose steps marked a generation and threw down a gauntlet that changed us forever.

It was an incredibly powerful walk across that bridge, imagining the fear and remembering how, just a few weeks before, the highest court in the United States prematurely declared that the fight was won.

We must not only not forget. That suggests that this is, somehow, a relic of history.

We must, instead, keep walking.

To do otherwise is too scary to contemplate.

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Ready to walk

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Sobbing with every step

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My husband knew I would want this picture

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The church where courage was forged

Top of my Christmas list: Restoring the Right to Vote

The blog e.politics had a post a couple of months ago with a map that I find fairly haunting. (I can’t get it to embed, so click on it. Trust me.)

It shows the concentration of voter identification laws primarily in the states that, at one time, had poll taxes, plus Kansas, which purportedly has the highest concentration of ‘voter fraud’ cases in the country.

At 97 total cases, out of millions of votes cast.

Then, more recently, the Government Accountability Office released a report that failed to document any cases of voter fraud in any of the numerous states that have recently passed stricter voting regulations.

What the GAO did find was a substantial increase in voting requirements over the last 10 years. Twenty-one states passed new voter I.D. laws and seven heightened requirements, bringing the total number of states requiring restrictive identification to 31.

To address a virtually nonexistent problem.

Primarily in a part of the country still grappling with a legacy of restrictive voting laws that denied democracy to millions over generations.

It’s an abomination, and its epicenter, today, is in my home state.

The land of John Brown and Jayhawkers.

So, dear Santa Claus, what do I want for Christmas?

It to not be 1964 anymore.

I want people’s right to vote to be respected, not trampled on under the trumped-up guise of ‘voter fraud’. I want people to stop using totally specious arguments like “but you have to show ID to get into a rated R movie,” like watching a movie is in any way comparable to exercising one’s most fundamental constitutional right. I want us to tackle real problems–there are plenty from which to choose–instead of wringing our hands over mostly made-up statistics.

I want the man who is homeless and lacks a photo ID to be able to vote. Just like me.

You know plenty. Just vote

This fall, several of my students have (separately) voiced that they have stayed away from politics because they “didn’t feel informed enough” to get involved.

And, I mean, I guess I sort of get that, after my initial recoil.

Social workers have an ethical obligation to competence, after all, and it is hard to keep up with all of the different races, and the different candidates’ positions, and what the fact-checkers uncovered this week.

And, for all of the talk about one vote not really mattering, no one wants to wake up the next morning and realized you cast a ballot for THAT candidate, without really understanding the ramifications.

But, really?

You know plenty.

So just vote.

What I tell my students, and what we need to remember, is that our ethical obligation to engage in advocacy in pursuit of social justice means that we have no excuse for non-participation. It is essentially not an option.

So if we feel paralyzed by lack of information, we have to find some way over, around, under, or through that particular obstacle.

Some suggestions?

  • Recognize that failing to vote is, in essence, the same net effect as voting for the candidate you didn’t want to win. So you’re not exactly ‘off-the-hook’, in terms of not voting in ignorance, even if you don’t vote. You’re there, you’re eligible, and so you figure into the equation one way or another.
  • Remember that there’s no absolute standard for intellect or even political engagement for voting. If we hold ourselves to a higher standard, as a ‘cost of entry’ than the general polity, we’re self-selecting out of the political process. We’re not raising the bar universally.
  • Educate yourself. Forget trying to understand every issue or analyze every speech. Find some issues that matter to you, a lot, and use them as a guide. I don’t necessarily object to the ‘single-issue voter’, as long as you understand that that narrow a lens will, necessarily, lead you to support some candidates whose positions on a wide range of other issues run directly contrary to your interests. But, still, if what you really care about, more than anything, is public education, then just spend energy figuring out where the candidates stand on that.

Election day is next Tuesday. If you don’t already have your absentee ballot, make plans now to fit voting into your daily schedule.

Hopefully you’ll have to wait a while, because turnout will be high and lines long.

You can stand next to all of the other people, who don’t know every nuance of every race, either, but who are there to make their preferences felt.

Just like yours will be.

When you vote.

Pendulums, and giving them a nudge

Kansas’ political situation today can practically be described as ‘apocalyptic’.

After the August 7, 2012 primaries (a date that will be burned in my brain forever, I think), the Kansas Senate, long a moderate chamber, is now overwhelmingly (their phrase, not mine) “ultra-conservative”. Several moderate Republicans were defeated in the House, too, but it’s the Senate that was completely dramatic, nearly revolutionary.

And the reverberations will be felt for a long time.

While there are those who describe the outcome of the election as a ‘mandate’ for conservatism, it was mainly the old story of very low turnout in a closed primary, such that a pretty small percentage of Kansans are responsible for the dramatic shift.

And advocates–in healthy care, child welfare, immigrant rights, housing, civil rights, women’s issues, just about everything–are scrambling to figure out what this means, how we cope, and what the fallout will be.

In a discussion with some nonprofit advocates a few weeks ago, the talk turned immediately to the (pretty euphemistically titled) “new landscape”. (The term makes me think of a post-zombie attack New York City or a desolate wasteland.)

One of my colleagues, who has a long career in and around public health and government service, as well as advocacy, referenced Schlesinger’s The Cycles of American History, which is now on my nightstand, although I haven’t made it through it yet.

But the reason for this post is that, while I don’t take issue with the fact that politics swing on a pendulum, and that we can expect that this particular swing to one extreme will temper back down…

I don’t think that we should content ourselves to wait.

I don’t want to just ride the pendulum to the ‘other side’. I want to put it in motion. And I want you to do it with me.

There are precipitating incidents, after all, that start the pendulum shift. And there’s no reason that we can’t be them. Or create them.

My oldest son is pretty fascinated by the Newton’s Cradles and loves to pull back one of the balls to start a chain reaction. That’s why I chose that image for this post. It reminds me of what we need.

There are many things that could provide that momentum, in this time and place.

  • Making vivid, for Kansans, the impact of the tax cuts passed in 2012
  • Starting a movement around our public schools, given people’s passions about their kids
  • Organizing public sector workers, a la Wisconsin
  • Making women’s rights a centerpiece, given the likely drastic implications for reproductive choice, in particular
  • Galvanizing caregivers around cuts to Medicaid and older adult services (particularly through the planned move to Medicaid managed care)

And probably others that I haven’t even thought of.

Yes, I believe that pendulums swing.

But I also know that they can be pushed.

And that’s what I’m counting on.

Spend your “extra” day fighting a losing battle

The way I see it, folks, tomorrow is a freebie.

It’s a totally bonus day that we only get once every four years.

You won’t have a February 29th next year, and you got by without one last year. Since we don’t plan on it, then, it’s essentially a total bonus, right?

So here’s my thought:

Let’s “waste” this extra day fighting some battles we’ll almost certainly lose. You know the ones–they need to be fought, to right a wrong or just stir up some trouble for those who need to be troubled. But we avoid them, because it seems more prudent to focus our energies on more attainable victories.

But not tomorrow.

Those 24 hours are a calendar’s gift, so we might as well throw them away on some of these hopeless causes.

My list, to get the day started:

  • Public assistance eligibility for immigrant families–can you think of a less popular cause? But economic hardship sentences some citizen children of immigrant parents to a lifetime of reduced life chances, and financial desperation traps some immigrant women in violent homes. Our public assistance systems are designed to reduce hardship and provide a safety net, and these families–part of our communities–deserve that, too.
  • Tax fairness–okay, so I fight this one on some of the other days, too, but I figure I can spare a few extra hours today. We need a revenue system equal to the challenges that face us, as a state and a country, and maybe this Leap Day can put us over the top.
  • Electing truly progressive candidates to my state legislature–most of the year I’ll do some campaigning for some allies whose relatively moderate views make them important stopgaps in our current political environment, but I have dreams of seeing some folks with big plans and huge hearts elected, and maybe some fundraising calls on this extra afternoon can help.
  • Peace on earth–yeah, I know. But, then, I ask myself: what have I done lately to try to stop war and promote peace? The answer, sadly, is not much, even though I very much want my kids to grow up in a safer world. I’ll spend some time today checking out the activities of peace groups local and international, and find a way to contribute some of my time (or, most likely, my money) as an investment in the future I want for them, and for us all.

The way I see it, we spend too much energy talking ourselves out of some of the fights we really should embrace.

Pragmatism is overrated, and the greatest movements for social justice certainly never conducted a feasibility analysis first.

We have to be strategic, but we also have to be bold. And stubborn. And, sometimes, a bit foolhardy.

So, what’s on your list of losing battles for our bonus day?

Happy February 29th.

Mission-driven, Committed to Clients…and we VOTE


Which one is a nonprofit employee?

My day with Robert Egger last fall prompted some new thinking, and reading, about nonprofit civic engagement. Where I have long helped nonprofit organizations to unleash the civic participation potential of those they serve, through client-based voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote activities, I realize now that I had largely overlooked the employees of nonprofit organizations as a powerful electoral force themselves.

Not anymore.

One of Robert Egger’s new projects, as he described it, is to mobilize nonprofit employees for advocacy and social change, independent of the organizations they serve, as those organizations are often difficult, especially in the short term, to pivot to this transformational work. And we face urgent challenges, not necessarily amenable to a long revisioning of the nonprofit sector.

I’m still committed to harnessing the resources–financial, reputational, human–of nonprofit social service agencies, to build a strong and sustainable movement for social justice.

And I think that that’s compatible with efforts to help nonprofit employees integrate their work lives with their whole selves, to become part of something larger than their own work contexts, and to, collectively, create the “army” of social change advocates that we need…today.

A big piece of that, I think, that can be immediate and tangible and, if we are careful with messaging and organizing, a first step towards the kind of engagement we want to see, is leveraging nonprofit employees as electoral agents.

We start from a strong position here: there’s evidence that nonprofit employees vote more regularly than the rest of the public. That means that, if we can organize so that they are voting from the values of the missions that their work supports, and from the knowledge that they accumulate every day that they’re working for the public good–in the arts, education, health, and, especially for our interests, social services, then we will see a much larger and more active “pro-justice” electorate, the kind we need in order to elect public officials who will be our partners in reshaping the policy landscape.

So what will it take to help our employees claim and exercise their civic power? To do so as individuals, in their own capacities, and yet motivated by the same mission that drives them every day (and, OK, some evenings and weekends) in their work?

What we have to do, I believe, between now and November, to lay the foundation for this “nonprofit employee voter brigade”, includes:

  • Talk with our employees about elections, and about electoral issues–of course we have an obligation to be nonpartisan, and that’s not just the legal thing to do, but it’s the smart thing, too; our employees need safe spaces in which to talk about the connection between their politics (the issues they care about) and Politics (the election cycle that we sometimes want to avoid)
  • Remove barriers to electoral participation–this means giving people time off work to vote, and providing registration materials at work, and answering people’s questions about the electoral process
  • Transform our organizations into forces for social change, because working in a climate that focuses on root causes and encourages people to ask “why?” over and over again will push people to think about the kinds of structural challenges we face together
  • Empower and recognize individuals, because people who are empowered to see that they can make a difference, especially when they unite with others, will be able to transfer those lessons, and that inspiration, to the electoral context, too
  • Help non-citizen employees become citizens, by providing tutoring on the civics exam, free legal advice, and even scholarships for the naturalization fee

For many nonprofit employees, our jobs are callings. We live our missions every day at work, and we bring them home with us at night, too.

And we can take them into the voting booth.

And we should.

Because when we do, we will be a force with which to be reckoned.

We need to win this on the merits

Image credit: americasvoiceonline.org

You know I’m not a fan of taking the easy way out.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that we can throw the proverbial Hail Mary pass and move down the field (that’s the right sports metaphor, right?).

But in advocacy, as in life, it’s seldom that simple.

And, I’d argue, even when it might be possible, at least temporarily, it’s just not as good.

This is one of those cases.

Around the country, sparked first by the living nightmare that is now Alabama, anti-immigrant forces have been going after what they’ve long considered the Holy Grail:

Kicking immigrant kids out of Kindergarten.

It was at least 8 years ago that I first heard Kris Kobach’s assertion that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, which established the right of every child in the U.S. to attend public K-12 schools, was ‘fatally flawed’, I think along with some pronouncement that he could win a different decision if he had a chance to try the case.

Since then, he has been hoping for his chance.

With the Alabama legislature’s approval of a requirement that K-12 schools verify the immigration status of students, that door was opened, even though that provision was pretty quickly enjoined in federal court.

This legislative session has already seen similar debates in other states, and I guarantee that there’s more to come: in the ‘war of attrition’ that the anti-immigrant crowd has been waging for years, barring immigrant kids from going to school would be a really big deal.

Immigrants and their allies, then, are justifiably hell-bent on stopping these attacks. In our fervor, I think we’re vulnerable to make a serious error.

We have to win this battle on the merits. We can’t take a shortcut, point to the Supreme Court, and just argue legal precedent. Yes, scaring legislators with threats of lawsuits and confusing them with references to previous decisions can sometimes work. And, yes, I fully believe that the U.S. Supreme Court (and I mean this specific one) would still decide a similar case the same way. Absolutely. But precedent can change. Winds can shift. And, so, the foundation can fall out from under those arguments that once looked so solid.

Besides, who was ever motivated to stand up and join a cause to fight against something just because it contradicts Justice Brennan’s majority opinion?

Because the truth is, Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, turning our teachers into immigration agents is a horrible idea. Keeping children, most of whom will eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, out of school and on the streets is really terrible policy. Sending ripple effects through mixed-status families and communities, depressing the educational attainment of an entire generation, just because we hope that it might make some parents leave the country, is a nightmare scenario. Kicking kids out of Kindergarten because we don’t approve of their mom and dad is not an action of a place worthy to be called the United States of America.

Those need to be our arguments, not recitations of precedent, even that which is based on a legal principle as important as the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We can win this.

I truly believe that a majority of Americans opposes this idea, and that we can convince state lawmakers that this is not the way to prove a point on immigration reform. I think that we can find new allies–in teachers and administrators and law enforcement officers and business leaders–and that we can emerge from this struggle poised for more success on other fronts.

But we’ve got to fight.

It was bad policy in 1982, and it’s bad policy today.

We don’t need a precedent to tell us that.

Remember: We’re the Sunflower State

This Sunflower hangs on a gate at my house, as a reminder of what we must be.

These are tough times, Kansans.

The economy isn’t great (although we ended last year with a healthy balance, thanks to some pretty drastic funding cuts whose effects will be felt for generations).

We’re in the middle of redistricting, which is ugly in the best of circumstances and potentially explosive with a polity as divided as ours today.

We face battles in this new legislative session around Arizona-style “show me your papers” legislation, raids of the Children’s Initiative Fund, an attack on our revenue foundation, and more cuts compounding the cuts.

It’s a good thing we’re the Sunflower State.

Sunflowers were adopted as a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement by Kansas suffragettes, I think mainly to ensconce their movement fully within the social mainstream. It has been used in advocacy campaigns repeatedly since, according to my research, because sunflowers can take the heat.

And they always face the sun.

And that’s what we need today.

As advocates, we’ve never felt more heat. The stakes are high, and the threats are real.

But we know what our vision looks like, too, and that’s the promise, the sun, towards which we must set our sights, unwilting, unbending.

That sounds about right…

In preparation for the upcoming state legislative session(s)–they’ll be here before we know it!–I’ve been working with some folks who are reviewing policy trends at the state level, nationwide, to identify sources for these new initiatives, messages and strategies that can combat them, and (because I’m ever the optimist!) positive legislative agendas that can chart a way forward, at least in the states where I spend most of my time.

Looking back, especially over the last couple of years, I was reminded of a quote that I bookmarked in Backlash, a book that I read during my maternity leave.

Will Bunch, the author, referred to some of the legislative developments that took precedence in Congress over job creation priorities, as “impulsive acts of rage with imprimatur of law” (p. 164).

And, you know, that sounds about right.

I have an obvious interest, in particular, in the anti-immigrant attacks that are odious not only for their sheer meanness but also for their foolishness, given that almost all of them are completely unlawful (which, if you think about it, is really kind of ironic: What part of “illegal” do they not understand?). Of course, immigrants aren’t the only ones hurt by these attacks: do you want to be waiting in an emergency room in Arizona while personnel are trying to verify proof of citizenship? (SB 1405–I don’t make this stuff up) Or, what–you don’t carry your original birth certificate on you in case of a life-threatening injury? Wasteful, ill-conceived, hateful, ridiculous…and popular, in states with very different demographics and even political landscapes.

But, of course, immigrants were not the only ones targeted by vengeful acts of childish rage. One of my students wrote a paper this year pointing out how the attacks on women’s reproductive rights threaten our economic viability as a nation, given the link, worldwide, between women’s ability to control their own fertility and their labor market participation. People who work for a living, despite their overwhelming strength in numbers, were demonized, devalued, and, in terms of meaningful access to redress for grievances and some power to right tremendous imbalances in the workplace, nearly destroyed.

States went after children’s health insurance, early childhood education, and safety-net services for those with mental illness, in many cases while simultaneously purporting that businesses need tax “relief” because of their horrible struggles. (In this, of course, they were echoed by the U.S. House of Representatives, whose penchant for oil company incentives over children’s health even my 5-year-old called “wacky.” Indeed.)

We cannot afford to bemoan these policy proposals (some of which made it into law, and some of which were forestalled only by the courageous efforts of advocates and policymakers who deserve our support in November 2012). What we need to do, first, is call them what they are: distractions and assaults, not legitimate plans to address the challenges facing our states.

We need organizing strategies that address their root causes–the maligning of the “other” and the fault-finding borne of desperation and preyed upon by those with a horribly unjust way of seeing the world. We need coalitions that see a threat to one as a threat to all. We need an agenda that offers a promise of real solutions.

We need a new year, and a commitment to make great things happen in it.