Prepare for the worst, and open your own window of opportunity


If I hear one more person say, “We just have to wait for the pendulum to swing back,” I think I might scream.

I know that I don’t have a long history in the struggle for social justice, despite the way that my houseful of young children can make me feel old sometimes, these days. I feel that we should all have learned, though, by now, that, while the arc of the universe may bend towards justice, we surely have nothing to lose by leaning on it…quite a bit.

We have to open our own political windows of opportunity, if we possibly can.

Sometimes that means trumpeting our successes and singing our own praises from the rooftops. Sometimes our work is so extraordinary that we can create momentum where there otherwise was none.

But, sometimes, advancing our cause has to mean being prepared for something bad to happen, because that can draw attention to the needs and galvanize action, sometimes even more surely than a promising development.

Some of the organizations with which I’m working on the advocacy technical assistance project in 2013 deal with child welfare, especially the prevention of and response to child abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

For them–and, I believe, for nonprofits working in every social sector–part of developing adaptive capacity, the ability to succeed in changing political, social, and economic contexts, is the creation of a critical incident response plan.

As we’re currently walking through it together, that’s a sort of ‘wonk-ish’ way of saying ‘plan for what to do if something bad happens, in order to take advantage of the fact that reporters, and maybe even policymakers, will be calling.’

It means that, while we hope against hope that no child–ever, anywhere–loses his or her life to abuse or neglect–ever again–we also prepare for what our response would be, and how we would insert the key messages about what contributes to maltreatment and what could really prevent it, in case it does happen.

It means that we are ready, with spokespeople identified, to talk about what moving towards policies of true child welfare, not just prevention of these horrific cases, would look like, and what difference that would make for all children.

It means that we can identify, for those who WILL ask, the 3-4 policy changes that we think (while being careful not to over-promise) could reduce the likelihood that something like this happens again.

It means that we have something to say other than just, “It’s awful.”

Or, “No comment.”

When I did immigrant rights work full-time, I had letters to the editor ready for the eventuality that there was another mass fatality of individuals crossing the border. When 19 people died in a tractor-trailer, we got great coverage about the need for compassionate and workable immigration reform.

We had a plan in case an undocumented, unlicensed driver was involved in a fatal accident. We had many opportunities to use messages we developed to respond to high-profile cases of individuals and businesses caught employing unauthorized immigrant workers.

It’s not the same thing as having soundbites to insert into every media interview.

It doesn’t replace the need to respond authentically, and with empathy, to the unique circumstances at hand.

But it’s also different from just waiting for the pendulum to swing, and failing to notice all of the times that the window of opportunity is cracked open…and we blow it.

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