Tuesday, June 9th, was the Human Services Summit. It had been several years since I attended this event, and it was my first time there as someone who helps to prepare students for work in the human services, rather than someone within an organization in that service delivery system. Mike Hendricks, a columnist for The Kansas City Star, had a column yesterday that summarizes some of the comments that participants left regarding how their organizations are attempting to adapt to the changing climate, particularly the increased economic hardship. I linked to that below. Rather than restate what the speakers said, and the data that were shared regarding the increase in need (which I assume all of my students and other readers know abundantly, from your own practice), here is my core observation: despite all of the talk about collaboration and innovation and leadership as being the keys to progress during these trying times, for the most part, it seems that organizations are turning inward. And, while completely understandable, that’s also very concerning.
Some evidence of this was reflected in who was not present on Tuesday. Again, having not been there for the past few years, I’m not sure how the attendance compares to the most recent past, but I do know that attendance was down from the years when I have attended. Many organizations sent only a couple of staff people rather than representatives from across their programs. I didn’t see any of my students, and there was only one person in the room under 30 (and she was asked to stand all by herself!)–I think that this reflects the fact that relatively newer employees are not receiving some of the access to professional development as they may have once expected; as organizations cut back, these ‘perks’ are reserved for employees with more tenure and clout.
But the real reason that I feel comfortable with my assessment that organizations are turning inward and scaling back is that that’s what I saw and heard, when I spoke with people in the room. I made a point to talk with everyone not only at my table but those at several tables around me; I asked them what they were doing to communicate their needs and their serious concerns to policymakers who have the power and resources to help them. And I mostly got blank stares, timid excuses, or a repetition of how overworked they are and how they don’t have anyone who can dedicate time to that advocacy (although I don’t actually remember anyone using the term advocacy besides me!).
These conditions, I know, are real. And there is a lot that needs to be done in terms of training and consciousness-raising and connecting in order to make advocacy something that even stressed organizations and individuals can weave seamlessly into their practice. But that’s why I was even more concerned about the conversations I had with the several elected officials in the room. Most of them told me that no one was approaching them to make a case for increased funding for their organizations or their causes. A few even said that they really weren’t being approached by anyone they didn’t already know, even just to say hello and introduce the work of their organizations. It may have been that the human service advocates in the room just didn’t know who the elected officials were–I wished that UCS would have identified them at the beginning–but they should. As one state representative, Sheryl Spaulding, said, “We are visited every year by the transportation people. They are organized, and they tell us, ‘these are our top 5 priorities, and this is why they should be priorities for the state. If you can’t fund all 5, then start with these 3.'” As a result, they get some of what they want even in a bad year, and they’ll likely get more when economic conditions improve.
I pointed out the state representatives and county officials who were there to those seated at my table. I told them a little about the committees they sit on, their disposition regarding human services, and the part of the county they represent. I encouraged them to go introduce themselves, and I even offered to go with them. For the most part, though, people seemed overwhelmed, overworked, glad for a chance to sit in a nice room and talk with a friend and take a brief break from the chaos and desperation into which so many of those we serve have been thrown.
That’s understandable, really, but it’s also indefensible.
Now is precisely when we most need to look beyond our own walls, to take every opportunity to hound those officials who have the resources that our clients so need, and to be relentless in our pursuit of the justice that we know our clients deserve.
Before I left, I scanned the Post-it notes that participants had left on the wall. I guess I was hoping for a few, “increased our lobbying,” “organized our clients to demand more funding,” “started leadership training for our grassroots activists,” or something, in response to the questions about how organizations are adapting their work to today’s demands. I didn’t see it, but I know that it’s happening out there somewhere. Please, if your organization has engaged in those kinds of strategies to get through these tough times and emerge stronger in a better economy, I want to hear about it. I want to share those ideas with the planners of the Human Services Summit, as I encourage them to make advocacy a component of their work in the years and the summits to come.