Author Archives: melindaklewis

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.

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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.

A movement is a movement is a movement

Yesterday, my reflections on Generation Roe centered on three ‘takeaways’ that I believe apply to other advocacy and social change efforts.

Today is really a continuation of that theme, with more insights into just how universal some of the core ‘movement tasks’ are…and how much involvement in one movement, then, can prime activists to be effective operatives in another. In some cases, these points bring to mind specific issues/campaigns where I see them as particularly relevant; in others, it’s really hard to think of any current social change movement that does not evoke these tensions.

In no particular order:

  • It’s hard to be appropriately nuanced, even authentically so, when under attack (p. 21). Like, it’s hard to find a place to talk about the ways in which welfare policy can sometimes work against supporting employment, when we’re afraid of falling into the ‘dependency’ trap. It’s hard to start conversations about the level of immigration that make sense for sending as well as receiving nations, when we are fighting to claim moral ground for immigration as a human rights issue. We don’t help anyone, least of all our cause, when we narrowly assert only one dimension of it, but it’s understandable that we feel less than comfortable with transparency when under siege.
  • There is a very real divide, in many movements, between those for whom today’s context is a dramatic improvement over prior injustices, and those who take the current landscape as a given backdrop (p. 164). For the most part, this is a generational gap, but I see it, too, in the immigrant rights struggle, between those without immigration status and those who have secured this protection (or been given it!), and in other campaigns on lines of class, too. Fundamentally, the inability to bridge this gap reflects insufficient imagination and empathy, which bode poorly for the movement’s progress, even beyond the immediate divides.
  • Organizations have to get beyond insisting that only one person be the spokesperson, no matter how nervous they are with ‘free agents’ (p. 215). It really baffles me, truly, when organizations think that they can control what people say about and for them, as though muzzling your advocates was EVER a good idea. In some ways, I guess, it makes me feel better to see really well-established advocacy organizations make this same mistake. But, then, not, because it’s super alarming and quite destructive.
  • The line between pragmatic compromise and opportunism that erodes fundamental rights is not nearly as hard and fast as we like to pretend (p. 209). There is real risk that we cross it, every day, and national advocacy organizations, particularly those based in DC, are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this temptation, as they try to ‘be players’ in policy debates. We must not give away the farm. We must not accept Pyrrhic victories.
  • The strategy most likely to lead to (relatively) quick victory is not always the best bet. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but just as pursuing legal action may not be the best use of resources (p. 143), as compared to grassroots action, so, too, must movements evaluate their options with an eye not just towards most immediate payoff, but also the movement building that, after all, is all that will help them survive to fight another day, on another front.
  • I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: every movement needs to triangulate (p. 226), developing and actively encouraging a radical left flank that can create some space for more moderate organizations to maneuver. If we’re all on the ‘same page’ when we start to push and negotiate, we have essentially ensured that what we’ll end up with will be somewhere between what we all agreed to and what someone else is willing to give us. That’s not a recipe for strength. Someone needs to ask for the moon and stars. So maybe we can get refundable tax credits.

Review Week: Generation Roe

I reviewed the book Generation Roe last fall, and there were several places where I found parallels to other struggles, in other contexts and other issues.

That has made me think more about the interconnections between causes and campaigns, what silos we need to break down in order to optimally learn from each other, and how our parochial concerns can lead to thinking that no issue is as challenging as ours and, thus, that no one can offer us anything of value.

So, in the interest of helping us get beyond our own, more narrow, ways of seeing our advocacy work, this week I have some reflections on the reproductive rights battle. My focus is not on the substance, here, nearly as much as the process, and the insights to be gleaned from these seemingly divergent issues.

Today: authentically rooting your issue in clients’ lived experiences

One of the emphases in Generation Roe was about the importance of systems thinking, and the problems that arise from practitioners and advocates looking at a client’s–or a larger group of women’s–abortion decision decision in isolation, rather than examining the interlocking systems that work to shape perceived choices…and constrains options.

I think this same tendency plays out in other arenas, too, such as in the evolving understanding about the role of trauma in shaping later well-being, and in the practice to refer clients to different systems when they need other types of help, rather than surrounding them with all of the supports they need. We know, in our own lives, that we can’t neatly compartmentalize our challenges–our worries about our ailing parents spill over into our decision about accepting the promotion we’ve been working towards, or our anxieties about our marriage keep us from scheduling that long-delayed doctor’s appointment–but we often expect clients to focus on whatever is the priority for our ‘slice’ of work with them, sometimes in willful ignorance of the messiness that is reality.

Many of the providers interviewed in Generation Roe talked about the difficulty of being face-to-face with desperation. It is harrowing, is it not, to really accompany someone through tremendous pain. So we build walls to protect ourselves from a visceral reaction, not because we don’t care, but because we do…so much.

The tragedy, here, is that this reaction neither protects our hearts nor aids our analysis. Instead, we can more easily become bitter and hopeless, cutting ourselves off from the human connections–painful though they often are–that were, for most of us, our motivation for entering social work in the first place.

And, finally, the most poignant passage for me was about questioning our right and responsibility to urge our clients to speak out, even when they might prefer to be silent, if such visibility and vocalization are the only ways that we can humanize the issues on which we are working (p. 174).

This evokes, for me, a lot of reflection about the immigrant rights movement, particularly the organizing of undocumented youth, and the way in which their ‘coming out’ has galvanized a generation of immigrants and their allies, even though many of us were hesitant to see them play this public role. What about when the tables are turned, and clients may not want to self-identify? Clearly we have an obligation to preserve their privacy, but do we have a role to play in encouraging them to drop those barriers on their own? If so, where is the line?

Where do you see yourself turning to campaigns and movements, even far afield of your own work, for inspiration or caution? What makes it hard to generalize from these seemingly parallel efforts? How can we bridge the gaps for greater collective force? How can we be better students of movements?

Taking some things ‘off the battlefield’

I am not afraid of controversy.

Really.

But I will admit to being tired of having to contest EVERYTHING.

It seems like we should be able to agree that some things are, if not sacred, at least accepted, so that we can sort of collectively move on.

No?

I mean, the issue of whether and how to fund legal services for those in poverty is highly contested, even when that results in a complete breakdown of our legal system. One of my students created a policy brief last semester about Missouri’s practice of requiring attorneys to serve as pro bono lawyers in family court, and how all sides acknowledge that this ‘compromise’ is a mess: unprepared attorneys, unrepresented families, unhappy judges.

And there’s of course tremendous disagreement about the value of early childhood education, even though an approach like Head Start was, when it was created, understood as a political compromise, bridging liberal emphasis on helping the poor with more conservative preferences for investing in human capital, instead of direct transfers.

But not now.

I recognize that this whole lament risks me sounding like a hopeless romantic, wistfully wishing for more ‘civil’ debate.

But that’s not really what I mean.

What I mean, and what I hope, is some concession on established fact–specifically, on delivered outcomes–and some common understanding about what our aims should be.

I want to draw some parameters around what is up for negotiation, and what should not, especially where there are decades of accumulated evidence and/or broad consensus on the unworkability of the status quo.

I want a sort of ceasefire, not across the board, but on at least some things, so that, respectively, we can dedicate our political and, more importantly, analytical ‘ammunition’ to those remaining contests.

What are you tired of debating? What do you want to see ‘come off the battlefield’? Where do you think there really is more agreement, perhaps, than we’re willing to concede?

The Poor Will Always Be With Us

This might not be an April Fool’s Day post like I’ve done some years, but there’s definitely a trick.

Because, really?

Are we going to allow ourselves to believe that ‘nothing works’ in combating poverty, and, so, resign ourselves to a large population of those without, when there is evidence all around us that policy makes a huge difference in the lives of vulnerable people?

We must not.

When I talk in class about how reductions in poverty among older adults serve as evidence that policy can fight poverty, and, then, that it’s our failure to invest similarly in other populations, not lack of any ideas about what might help, that explains the perpetuation of poverty among, say, single-female headed households, I can almost see the lightbulbs going off.

Similarly, the economic expansion of the late 1990s, fueled in part by deliberate policy changes, showed that even child poverty is amenable to targeted intervention. Improving the Earned Income Tax Credit (lowering the eligibility age, providing a more adequate benefit to childless workers) would reduce poverty among working Americans whose economic instability has significant ripples in our social conditions.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits lifted 4 million Americans out of poverty in 2012; cuts to eligibility in many states will have a direct effect on poverty rates.

Social Security keeps more than 12 million Americans out of poverty each year, and there’s no reason we can’t see similar outcomes from investing in a concerted anti-poverty approach for younger Americans, too.

This is an adaptive problem, not a technical one.

We need political will far more than new ideas.

And we need to stop ignoring problems and then concluding–when we turn around to see the mess we’ve created–that these problems are intractable, instead of very definitely human-made.

If we don’t, we’re being made fools of.

And not just today.