It’s all about the orange. Really.

Image credit, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

My students and former students know this graph well.

One of my former students joked that he was going to create t-shirts for me with the figure on the back and “It’s all about the orange” on the front.

Yes, I have really great students.

I have shown this chart every semester for the past three years (thanks to the folks at CBPP for updating it and permitting me to share it!), and my students often comment about how it makes them think differently about how we got in the mess we’re in today.

This post is about how I struggle, sometimes, to engage my students in discussing issues and realities that are, often, pretty new to them: the deficit, congressional gridlock, Kansas’ bleak fiscal future, the looming entitlement crises…

Without engendering a “it’s all hopeless and politicians are corrupt so I’m just going to focus on helping this client” reaction.

How do I spark anger, instead of cynicism?

How do I cultivate hope, even while alarming them to the point of action?

Because, the truth is, I believe these are solvable problems.

They are hard decisions, obviously–a cursory reading of the news underscores that people of good will have real differences of opinion about the best way to ‘bend the cost curve’ on entitlements, for example.

They are both technical and adaptive challenges, then: those that we don’t exactly know how to solve, and those for which we struggle to generate adequate political will to solve.

But the worst thing we can do, of course, is throw up our hands and abdicate the discussion to those who don’t share our social work values. Especially when some of the problems reveal stark choices about different paths, and we know that taking a given course would have significant implications for the individuals and communities we are called to serve.

So, I return to my dilemma of sorts.

A few weeks ago, after class, one of my students told me that “everyone should have to take this class” (I couldn’t agree more!) about budget policy and its impact on nonprofit organizations. But so often, I can see their fear, and disdain, and panic, and, in a blink, resignation.

What keeps you from turning away in disgust? Where is the line between alarm and alarmist? How do I balance outrage and uplift?

How do I light a fire without watching their commitment to engage in policy change go up in flames?

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