Category Archives: Analysis and Commentary

Starting in the Classroom: Safe Spaces

One of the parts of my teaching that I take most seriously is my obligation to create a ‘safe space’ in which my students can grapple with their professional ethics and the conflicts between these ethical standards and students’ own personal values and beliefs.

This is true in most social work classes, I think, and there’s certainly a strong practice component of these concerns; students want to talk, for example, about what they’ll do if a client wants advice about getting an abortion, if they are opposed personally.

But there is an undeniable policy element here, too, as students grapple not just with how they feel about these ‘hot button’ issues, but how that needs to translate to their support or opposition for specific social policies, and, then, even for candidates.

As a professor, I struggle with the balance between making sure that students feel that they can authentically question the different venues through which to achieve given policy aims…and my desire to see the social work profession articulate a compelling, and even a commanding, commitment to policy ‘goods’, because that’s precisely what I believe our profession, and our social policy, needs.

And this means that, even within our classroom, different ethical principles can collide, particularly our desire to support the individual self-determination of all human beings (yes, including social work professionals) and our need to be a more effective voice for policies capable of delivering greater social justice, which demands a more unified front.

I don’t have the answers for this, but I hope that it’s a case of where being transparent and wrestling with these questions alongside my students gets us at least focused on the issue in a constructive way.

We have to come to terms, after all, with the messiness of trying to bring a diverse group of professionals to consensus on a variety of policy issues (and, surely, questions about taxation and criminal justice and foreign policy and public assistance are no less thorny than marriage equality or reproductive rights), but also with the real risk of our irrelevance if we conclude that we can’t deal with these divides and, so we must stay largely out of the political arena.

And that’s where I think my classroom comes in. I hope it can be a laboratory for democracy, a safe place to prepare ourselves for advocacy, which is inherently risky.

I hope that it can help my students to construct a mutual aid group, of sorts, as we navigate the policy arena together.

Because we can’t hide, within the four walls of our classrooms.

But hopefully we can sharpen our skills and focus on our values and gird ourselves for debate, here.

And then feel ready to engage. Where we need to be.

Together.

Leadership Crises and Temperature Failures

My thinking about leadership, sparked by the book For the Common Good, hasn’t just been limited to probing what leadership should look like in my own life.

I’ve also been thinking about our need for public leadership, on a grant scale, to confront the adaptive challenges we face.

Leadership requires choosing among competing values, and that’s hard for a lot of people to do, particularly when they are trying to simultaneously satisfy many different actors. I’m thinking about elected officials, obviously, but also nonprofit leaders and others to whom we look for leadership on the core problems plaguing our society.

For the Common Good talks about a ‘conspiracy to avoid’ dealing with our toughest issues and I thought, yeah, that’s a lot what Congress looks like these days. Or nonprofit staff meetings.

The parts of the book that I found the most profound, even revolutionary, are about the need for leadership equal to the hardest challenges we face. That means not just new learning and new application–thereby surpassing a technical challenge–but also shared responsibility.

We can only have a chance to solve these adaptive problems if we actively seek out tough interpretations of what we’re seeing, instead of defaulting to a search for benign explanations.

We can only bring enough people along with us if we raise the temperature so much that reluctant ‘followers’ feel compelled to act. That means organizing, since little can raise the heat like grassroots pressure.

And we can only hold ourselves together during the difficult work of meeting these adaptive problems head on if we have the ‘bridging social capital’ that can make adaptive change more palatable. This, of course, is another way that inequality hurts us.

A really cool thing for me was that the book featured David Toland, whose work with Thrive Allen County in southeast Kansas has been part of my evaluation work for the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, specifically on some of these points about the type of leadership that is needed for a community to embrace change in pursuit of progress around adaptive challenges (in this case, obesity rates and poor health outcomes in the community). He found data that reveal crisis, but a culture of complacency. So he faced a leadership task of galvanizing momentum and supporting people through change, before he could tackle the substance of the problem.

The question, then, is of course, “Where have all the leaders gone?”

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the loss of ‘statesmen’. I am not nostalgic for any particular time past, nor do I believe that any particular period or culture has a lock on this kind of courageous, visionary, public leadership.

No, I’m not thinking as much about the ‘who’–who will be the leaders ready and willing to carry the mantle–but, instead, about the ‘why’.

As in, why don’t we demand this of those who would be our leaders?

More Reviews, just in time for summer

It’s never too early to start planning out your reading calendar.

To help, I have some comments on books I have read recently, starting with a book by someone I am glad to call a friend and colleague, Kansas Leadership Center Director Ed O’Malley. The book, For the Common Good, is about civic leadership, and I have posts about it today and tomorrow: first, today, thoughts about how we understand–and misunderstand–leadership, and, tomorrow, a plea for the urgency of our need for civic leadership up to the challenges that confront us.

The central premise of the book, and core to the Leadership Center’s approach, is the contention that leadership is for everyone, an activity, not a position.

And, if everyone and anyone can lead, then the next step, clearly, is to think about what leadership looks like for us, in a very personal way.

I have never really considered myself much of a leader. Leadership is a force for change, and, while I am proud and committed to be part of movements for social change, I more often play the role of foot soldier, rather than marshal.

But this book has me thinking somewhat differently about that self-characterization, and about the extent to which I have been content to be led, rather than stepping up and stepping out as a leader myself.

In the midst of this soul-searching, some of the questions that I’m pondering:

  • For the Common Good exhorts all leaders to be aware of our ‘defaults’ and open to the potential that we may need to actively work against them. It’s conscious choices that make the difference between compelling, effective leadership and coasting, often, and the process of combating our own inertia begins with self-awareness. For me, this is thinking about how much I love living in the comfort of technical problems, where I can lull myself into thinking that I have some measure of control. I need to get more comfortable with chaos, which, for me, has become harder as I balance my public and private roles; since my home life can be somewhat chaotic, my public tolerance for the same has declined.
  • Related to this idea of resetting our defaults, we need to know the story others tell about us. I am acutely aware of how, in the roles I play now, I get less good feedback than I used to–my students have obvious incentives not to honestly confront me with my failings, and the consultant role distorts this feedback loop somewhat, too, particularly when someone else is paying the bill. But getting this perspective is critical, so I need to find ways to cultivate it.
  • Leaders have to attend to process, even when, like for me, we much prefer to focus on content. How people come together matters. How decisions are made matters. And how people are feeling about all of those things matters. We can’t navigate those realms without taking the time to ‘check’ our processes for change. For me, that means resetting my own default that tends to rush to decision point. Knowing that is the first step toward doing something about it.
  • A specific type of process-attending that is crucial is the ability to speak to loss. After all, if leadership is about sparking change, well, something is always lost in change. We have to resist the temptation to label as apathy what is more correctly understood as concern about the opportunity costs of change. Helping people to move past each requires very different interventions.

I know it’s not necessarily ‘beach reading’, but For the Common Good uses real stories of leaders (in Kansas) to illustrate leadership principles, and I found it very readable and, obviously, engaging. I’d love to hear from those who have worked with the Leadership Center, or Ed, or read the book, or who have other leadership recommendations for me, as I continue to think about how this particular journey unfolds in my own life.

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?