Category Archives: Analysis and Commentary

Are we aiming for the wrong goal? Culture change and social justice

One of the blogs I really enjoy, even though it’s very challenging, is White Courtesy Telephone. A post from their archives, which I recently found, has me thinking about cultural change efforts as essential to social and policy change, and what that understanding–that, to change the policies that impact our lives, we have to change how people feel, not just about those policies, but about the people we serve–would mean for the kind of advocacy campaigns I help organizations design and execute.

Do we need to make cultural change our goal, rather than policy change?

What kinds of strategies and inputs do we need to pull that off? And how well positioned are we to embark on that work, today?

This tension (not always that tense, but certainly there are currents there) is playing out today in the immigration policy world, where I still spend a fair amount of my time.

There are those who focus most of their efforts on promoting greater communication and mutual understanding between immigrants and others in the U.S. I have a ton of respect for their work and, indeed, I think that it can promote systems change (in schools, workplaces, local governments) directly connected to how immigrants experience social policies and, ultimately, to the quality of their lives.

And then there are those of us more explicitly focused on legislative change, in our state legislatures, where we’re mostly playing defense, and in Congress, where the ongoing battle for comprehensive immigration reform challenges our capacity.

And, really, it shouldn’t be ‘either/or’, of course.

We need better policies, yesterday.

And, to get there, we need to change the conversations about the issues we care about, and to engage and activate latent supporters by cultivating a culture of solidarity and a climate of urgency.


But, as the blog post points out, in a context of limited resources, this is often framed as a trade-off, with organizations and causes forced to choose between long-term changes in how people view their issues and more immediate (although still, often, long-term) gains in the structures that govern our lives.

Where I come down, then, isn’t so much that we should be doing one and not the other.

We need marriage equality, in law, and we also need to celebrate cultures of inclusion and equity. We need strong childcare supports for working mothers, and we also need new cultural agreements about the role of women in society. We need well-funded public schools and a commitment to the public sphere. We need workable gun laws and a culture of nonviolence.

Yes, and yes, and yes.

I think the bigger question is where we should be intentionally focusing our energies, which comes down to what we see as the causal chain.

Do we view policy change as creating the conditions in which culture change is more likely to happen–desegregation leads to greater racial understanding, stricter DUI laws lead to new social norms about drinking and driving?

Or do we believe that we have to change how people think before we can expect to win changes in the law?

Where’s our target, and, then, how do we craft our strategies accordingly?

What’s going to get us there, most surely, given our shoestring capacities and the odds we face?

What’s the right goal and the right metric to go along with it?

Adaptation is overrated

Yesterday I posted about One Nation Under Stress, and today’s post is sort of leftover thoughts that I wanted to share, about this concept of stress as a release valve, in our society–a substitute for the harder conversations that we really need to be having, about how to fix what’s ailing us, really.

The author asks, in different contexts, what it says about us as a society that we are more concerned about training our bodies not to respond to stressors with the ‘production of stress hormones’ than with the stressors to which we are subjected, in the first place.

Why are mothers encouraged to find hobbies or take ‘time outs’ to rejuvenate, instead of to demand more equitable distribution of household responsibilities? Why are children pushed to resist the stresses that accompany high-stakes testing, instead of to question the fundamental premise of the way that the U.S. education system is ordered, today?

Why are we more interested in emotions generated in our encounters with the environment, rather than the strains present in those interactions themselves?

This matters, because this emphasis on stress–and managing it–not only puts the burden on the individual to cope with strains that can take a toll.

It also diverts our eyes, and our energies.

The attention we direct to how we react to stresses is attention that is not spent addressing the conditions plaguing our lives.

The effort we exert to adapt (to unfair gender expectations, or violence in our neighborhoods, or profit-driven economic structures, or deprivation), is not available to create change.

And it’s not just incidental, this ‘taking our eyes off the ball’.

It’s sort of an epidemic.

The author “coined the phrase stressism to describe the current belief that the tensions of contemporary life are primarily individual lifestyle problems to be solved through managing stress, as opposed to the belief that these tensions are linked to social forces and need to be resolved primarily through social and political means” (p. 18).

Um, yeah.

Why, when faced with horror and sadness and wrong, do we seek ‘balance’, instead of justice?

Why do we find it “easier to talk about the stressed African American single mother, say, than to think about the effects of de facto school segregation in our cities, or the effects of discrimination on employment opportunities, or the shortage of affordable childcare?” (21).

Why are we so often quick to describe the conditions that we know are cruel and dangerous and scary as individual stressors, just so that we can hide our social responsibility to change them?

Why do we push coping as our ‘way out’ when adaptation to injustice, violence, and poverty doesn’t improve the human condition (p 63)?

Here’s to being maladjusted.

Unwilling to adapt to wrong.

Angry, not stressed.

Stressing about the small stuff

This week, I have a series of posts about the book One Nation Under Stress, by Dana Becker.

I have been talking about it almost incessantly since reading it, so I’m sure my friends and family will be glad that I’m getting some of it out of my system, to share here, with you all. My reaction to the text’s conclusions were personal as well as professional, and it has prompted me to try to start conversations about stress and what it looks like and means in our society, every chance I get (and, truly, some that I just sort of create).

Because, while we talk about stress a lot, as a culture and as a nation, I don’t think we’re having the right dialogue about it, yet.

And I am more convinced than ever that it’s hurting us.

But not in the way we think.

Reviewing the popular and academic literature, there has been an exponential growth in attention to the idea of ‘stress’ as a precursor of disease, a corrosive force on our individual lives, and a public health threat.

It is taken, at face value, as a necessarily dangerous and scary thing.

But, alarmingly, there has not been nearly as much attention to the societal conditions that cause that stress.

It’s like we have skipped right over the obvious questions about why people are feeling so much stress and, indeed, whether that’s necessarily an ill in and of itself, and gone straight to the prescription:

retreat and rejuvenate.

Cut back.

Cope better.

Not, notably, join together for collective action to address the root causes of the strains we feel.

So, as the book emphasizes, we wring our hands about the stresses of middle-class life but say little about the need to eradicate poverty, an undeniably more ‘stressful’ state.

We talk about the occupational hazards of busy calendars or buzzing Blackberries, when it’s our unhealthy economy that is really a threat.

We talk about how poor women are depressed, but gloss over research suggesting that just making sure their households have enough food would alleviate considerably their mental distress (p. 91).

We talk about how low-income children can increase their resilience and improve their coping, instead of focusing on their chronic exposure to deprived environments. After all, we don’t talk about how advantaged people are ‘coping’ with well-equipped schools, privileged social stations, and adequate financial resources. Their stresses, presumably, come from some of the trappings of those advantages, and we pretend that they are commensurate with the strains that accompany real threat.

The end result, then, is this: “the stress concept performs ideological work for us by managing much of our uneasiness about social change…” (p. 17).

We can talk about poverty’s ill effects by linking economic need to stress to the immune system.

Somehow, that sounds less threatening to our social system than baldly stating the truth: poverty kills (p. 61). Studies have attributed 176,000 deaths to racial segregation and 133,000 to personal poverty, per year, compared to 156,000 to lung cancer (p. 73). It’s not ‘stress’, of course, that’s killing poor people, per se; it’s inadequate nutrition, violence, untreated chronic diseases, unsafe jobs, substance abuse.

But we can use stress as a mediating concept, simultaneously glossing over the inequities (because we’re ‘all stressed, just in different ways’) and placing the onus back on the individual (for failing to ‘manage’ his/her stress).

We’re not only mistaking consequence for cause, in this preoccupation with stress, but we’re also confusing victims and perpetrators, focusing on lifestyles instead of structural failings.

In the process, we’re spending a lot of time looking at and worrying about the vestiges of injustice–this ill-defined anxiety and unease and pressure, but precious little time talking about fixing it, at the root.

That is stressing me out.

Scaling for impact, beyond our walls

Yesterday’s post was about questions of scale, and whether we’re really asking the right question when we ask whether large or small nonprofit organizations are best-situated to deliver the impact we seek.

Today, I’m thinking about another piece of Creating Room to Read, questioning whether–if real scale is what we’re after–the nonprofit sector is even the right place to be looking.

It’s a sort of stunning disparity, really:

90% of nonprofits in the US have budgets of less than $300,000/year.

I mean, yes, there are a lot of them, but think about $300,000/year compared to the challenges we face–enormous, complex, entrenched, interconnected.

Can we ever expect nonprofit organizations to attract enough resources and build enough momentum (as individual organizations or even as fields) to meet the huge and urgently pressing problems against which we are arrayed, given that as our starting point?

I doubt it.

And, so, instead, how might we scale for impact beyond our own organizational capacity?

How, in particular, might advocacy be part of how organizations expand their reach?

How might we invest in government capacity–as in Room to Read’s efforts to work with education ministries, sharing best practices and highlighting their strides forward–or, in our own context, focusing government attention to promising approaches or particular aspects of critical issues and developing collaborations–in order to expand our reach?

How might we even direct, in some cases, some of our hard-fought funds, so obviously in short supply, to advocacy, in the recognition that no nongovernmental organization activity can replace the capacity of, in particular, the federal government?

When and how might advocacy yield the greatest dividends, for taking efforts to scale?

Philanthropy, in large part, is recognizing this, encouraging grantees to prioritize efforts to ‘institutionalize’ their approaches through advocacy with governmental actors.

Some nonprofits are considering factors of public capacity in their own program planning, as in Room to Read’s inclusion of provincial government functioning as a criterion for their investment decisions in a particular country, out of recognition that how well a government does in training teachers and paving roads will matter in determining the likelihood that the organization’s own investments encounter a climate conditioned for success.

All of this is not to say that I think that advocacy is best directed at getting government resources for a particular organization; indeed, I think that that more narrow frame of ‘advocacy’ can compromise some of nonprofits’ most valuable assets in the policy arena, including our issue expertise and perception of public interest.

Instead, I’m thinking about sort of ‘borrowing’ government capacity, by figuring out how advocacy can direct government resources and attention to the same problems we’re focused on, or, at least, stop creating additional barriers to which our organizations have to respond, such that we are working in tandem or on parallel tracks, with the end result of greater impact.

So, again, the most important questions for going to scale may not be “How big does our organization need to be?” or “How can we get bigger?” but, instead, “How can we use our capacity as leverage to get the elephant in the room–the government–on our side?”

Walking in their shoes, going to the ‘genba’

Photo credit Seite-3, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

One of the questions that I frequently ask clients of the social service organizations with which I’m working on advocacy is: “What do you wish that policymakers understood about your life?”

I ask something similar of staff, about what they think that policymakers need to understand about the challenges facing their clients, in order to craft effective policy responses.

And, most of the time, I get somewhat vague answers.

Because what clients want, and what staff want for them, is just for those with power over the systems that affect their lives to know what their lives are really like.

Even if they can’t imagine how that would really happen.

They usually say something about wishing that members of Congress just had to live in their shoes for a few days, to see what it’s like to find childcare that fits the work schedule of a single mom on an odd shift, or to live in a nursing home just because you can’t find affordable housing with services to meet your mental health needs, or to ride the bus in the snow home from the grocery store with 2 kids in strollers and a 2-bag limit (really).

Remember the mental health center client who made the connection to her time as a production supervisor, and how she never could have overseen the factory operations if she wasn’t spending time on the floor?

In Creating Room to Read, I learned a new phrase for this: ‘going to the genba‘ (sometimes seen as ‘gemba’–sources are contradictory). It’s a concept from manufacturing, fittingly enough, and it means ‘the real place’–the idea that problems are visible, when we connect at the place where they happen. It captures this idea, translated in policy terms, that policymakers need to really see and live the situations in which social problems exist, if we are to have our best chance of solving them (131).

And, yet, that kind of authentic interaction is elusive, especially when we’re talking about powerful political actors and some of the most marginalized populations in our society.

Even when we bring policymakers to our organizations to talk with clients, the conversations are stilted, even scripted, and there’s certainly no true parallel to the grinding pressures of living in deprivation day in and day out, without an escape hatch.

At best, there are a few new insights, and some greater mutual understanding, and maybe some concrete ideas about ways that policies need to be changed, for them to really work on the ground.

At worst, clients feel ‘on display’, as though policymakers are using them to pretend that they are ‘close to the people’, before they go back to their comfortable lives.

So, I’m thinking, maybe we’re thinking about the wrong feet walking in the wrong shoes.

Maybe the people who need to get to the source of the problem aren’t the policymakers coming to glean wisdom from clients, in their world, but the other way around.

Maybe what we need is to help clients build the kind of power that would give them greater access to policymaking worlds, a chance to walk in those shoes for awhile, and the opportunity to see the ‘factory floor’ of policymaking and where the processes are breaking down there.

If these ‘gemba walks’ are about actually seeing the process, asking questions, and understanding the work, maybe the work that needs to be observed is that of crafting the constraints that either hinder or facilitate people’s success, not the more obvious truth: being poor, or mentally ill, or without health insurance is…hard.

Maybe instead of asking what policymakers need to understand about the lives of our clients, we should be asking what clients need to understand about policymaking, in order to shape it.

To fit their own shoes.

Devils and good decisions

One of my favorite insights from Decisive relates to the importance of diverging opinions in crafting good decisions.

I think this is incredibly important, perhaps especially when organizations–like the nonprofits with which I normally work–are embarking on new journeys, including the effort to integrate advocacy into their work. I would much rather have someone asking critical questions, even really difficult ones, than have the organization coast along, having failed to adequately account for the potential risks of their positions and to prepare to articulate the rationale behind the transition.

I think ‘devil’s advocate’ role is a good fit for social workers, in particular.

  • We tend to care deeply about our organizations and its purpose, which is essential; someone who wants to see the organization fail, or who just delights in ‘blowing stuff up’ cannot possibly play the same productive role.
  • Our excellent communications skills can help us to articulate our concerns within the context of a desire to serve the organization, with attention to the socio-emotional consequences of challenging people’s ideas.
  • Our relationships with peers can help us to surface others’ contrary arguments, too, when they may not be willing or able to voice them themselves, enriching the process.

But although criticism is a ‘noble function’ (p. 97), it’s one that can’t be filled regularly by the same person, if the process is to work well.

If someone always plays the ‘no’ card, that person will be marginalized within the organization. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on one person, too, especially given the reality of power imbalances within any organization.

What we need, instead, are structures that create space for devil’s advocates to work, and, indeed, that encourage them.

I’ve seen this in some of the organizations with which I work: the nonprofit whose staff surfaced an internal agency policy as the first target of their advocacy agenda, and got an encouraging ‘go ahead’ from the leadership, who acknowledged that there was an authentic interest in finding better solutions than what they had initially crafted; the agency whose practicum students are invited to share candid feedback about the organization after grades have been posted and recommendations written; the organization that started our advocacy TA process with meetings with every departmental team, sharing the proposed work plan and giving people a chance to veto particular projects and suggest new directions (time-consuming, yes, but buy-in afterwards was through the roof).

These organizational practices–and, indeed, they have to be practiced to become ingrained–take the onus of being the ‘devil’ off any one person or even department (even we skilled social workers who are a bit less conflict-averse, I think, than many professions) and, instead, enshrine it in the agency’s operations.

We invite the ‘devil’ to sit down at the decision-making table with us…and we are the better for it.

Better budget cutting

One of the most unnecessarily obvious things I’ve ever said here:

We’re in budget-cutting mode.

In Congress and in state legislatures and in local and county government and in nonprofit organizations.

And these exercises in austerity tend, for the most part, to follow the same script:

Cut, with only superficial attention to the acknowledged impact of the cuts, even when they are dire. Cuts, without considering other options to deal with deficits. Cuts, without much consideration of the long-term consequences.

Cuts, sometimes, just for cuts’ sake.

In Decisive, the discussion about how corporations should approach decision-making around budgets holds a lot of lessons for these budget-cutting frenzies, too.

And it makes me feel less alone, because I’ve been making some of these points for a long time.

  • We need to widen our options, including looking to other sources of revenue as a way out. As my students and I discuss every semester, and as families everywhere know from their own budgets (the only extent of the valid comparison between government budgets and household budgets, in my opinion): there are two ways to fill budget gaps, either by cutting expenses or by increasing income (or both).
  • We need to be strategic with cuts, where they must be made, instead of just making cuts across the board. All cuts are not created equal, and the ones that can be made with less infliction of pain are, in real ways, better than others.
  • And, the piece that I think is the most promising, applied to government budgets: we need to consider where we might cut even more deeply than we would otherwise need to in order to free up funds to invest in exciting new opportunities, including, of course, those that could generate better revenue potential (in government terms, economic growth).

What would that look like, in the context of government budget cutting, if we were thinking about growth and investment even alongside preparing for retrenchment and reduction? And what might be the economic impact, especially over the long haul, of that kind of foresight? And how could approaching budget cutting (and, for social workers, the critical task of staying at the table during the budget cutting negotiations, even when we loathe the process and the outcome) with this more intentional and strategic thinking?

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever like the idea of retreating from our public commitments to the common welfare.

But maybe budget cutting can be better.

Advocacy in light of confirmation bias

We have the best ideas.

I mean, okay, actually, I have the best ideas.


Unfortunately, that’s sort of the way our minds work: when we believe ourselves to be right, we seek out information that, consciously or not, affirms our ‘rightness’, even when our failure to check that reality could be, in an advocacy arena, fairly epically bad.

That’s one of the most alarming insights I gleaned from Decisive: confirmation bias means that even our most diligent research may fail to illuminate weaknesses in our proposed policy solutions, or even our framing of the problem, because we’re wired to discount that which disagrees with our way of seeing the world, and to hone in on anything that affirms it.

Today’s patterns of media consumption, of course, accelerate and exacerbate this.

In my own life, I start my mornings with NPR streaming on the treadmill, see print stories specifically selected by my Facebook friends over breakfast, and scan through blog posts highlighted by my Twitter followers, all sources explicitly selected by me because they echo my concerns.

I think we mostly know this, by now, but what struck me from Decisive is that, even when we think that we are intentionally accounting for this, we’re still not very good at overcoming confirmation bias.

Just knowing that we have this tendency does not, in other words, protect us.

And, of course, we’re not the only ones thus susceptible; those we are trying to convince/lobby have their own confirmation bias at work, and it influences how they experience the arguments we present, as well.

Not incidentally, confirmation bias is particularly a concern for folks like us, since it tends to be the strongest in emotion-laden spheres, including politics (p. 95), although, certainly, some high-profile failures suggest that even such ‘technical’ fields as engineering are not immune to the dangers of seeing things as you believe them to be, instead of how they really are.

But all is not lost.

What we need, in addition to this basic awareness of our vulnerability to confirmation bias and the importance of accounting for it (because it’s really not enough for us to just believe that we are right, even when we believe it so sincerely and vehemently), are concrete steps to counteract it, and to shape our advocacy so as to help overcome others’ confirmation biases, too.

Some ideas from Decisive that I think apply particularly well to policy advocacy:

  • Intentionally reality-test our assumptions, ideally with some small-scale experiments
  • Seek out partnerships and mentors with decidedly different ways of seeing the world, explicitly to challenge our thinking when necessary–I have seen, in my own advocacy, how important this is in the field of immigration advocacy, where our messages and tactics are decidedly improved through our collaborations (delicate as they are) with business groups and others who approach immigration reform slightly (or more than slightly) differently
  • Develop processes designed to lead us to the right questions–one of my favorites is a sort of counter-factual that asks ‘what would have to be true?’ for a given position to be true, or for a particular approach to be desirable. This can help us to explore alternative possibilities and test our own assumptions, but it can also expose ways in which slight changes in the fact assumptions could surface some new options from which we can then choose (p. 100). For example, prior to the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illnesses, what would have to be true for it to be possible to close most of the institutions providing them with service? It would have to be possible for people to manage their symptoms effectively with outpatient treatment. With the arrival of sophisticated pharmaceuticals, this set of facts emerged, and a radically new option became viable, in ways unimagined by those closest to the issue.
  • Doubt your own knowledge and question your own process–what if we asked, as a part of any policy research, “What’s the most likely way I could fail to get the right information in this situation?” What if we used this same thinking to point out to policymakers (gently) that they may not be getting the information they need, either, as a way of easing the path towards their acceptance of some of our information, over the objections of their own confirmation bias?

Where do you see, once you’re looking for it, confirmation bias in your own policy advocacy? What alternatives do you disregard out of hand, because they don’t fit your way of seeing the world, or at least your issue? How do you account for this tendency in your own analysis? How do you break through others’ confirmation bias, in your advocacy?

More ‘ands’

It seems like everywhere I go, I am encouraged to ‘say no’.

Setting boundaries for my kids, paring down my to-do list, retreating from commitments in order to reduce my stress.

But I’m just not sure it’s for me.

I think that some of my greatest distress comes from not saying ‘yes’ enough.

The guilt I feel while working at night, remembering when my kids wanted to get all their swim stuff down in the garage (for some reason) and I didn’t stop what I was doing to make it happen. Hearing about the political discussion that I didn’t attend and wishing I had been there. Missing friends I haven’t seen. Wondering if I wouldn’t have been better off pushing a little harder, to do a little more.

Because less sometimes means missing out on valuable opportunities. Sometimes what we’re saving ourselves from is perceived strain, and what we’re really denying ourselves are exciting options.

I think this is true from our nonprofit organizations, too.

I’m not denying that organizations can’t get overburdened, or that mission drift isn’t real, or that nonprofit leadership doesn’t need to be sensitive to reasonable workloads and meaningful investment in staff well-being.

But we tend to operate from a scarcity mentality, assuming that any new thing we take on has to mean giving something else up, despite evidence that, for example, expanding services to a new area can mean new donors and new volunteers, such that overall capacity is enhanced, or that adding critical services in one area can improve outcomes of another service, rendered somewhere else.

We almost always ask, when faced with choices about how to proceed, “Should we do this OR that?” when the best question may be “How can we position ourselves to do both?”

We almost always assume that every resource we possess is finite, despite knowing in our core that human potential is anything but.

And, in an effort to ensure that we aren’t taking on too much, we may end up doing too little, and denying ourselves the chance to say ‘and’.

Attention to process

I will have several posts in the next few weeks with insights from Decisive, a book that had so many sticky notes in it when I was finished that it would have been easier, probably, to mark the pages that I didn’t think I needed to highlight.

I’m starting with this, a finding from some of the academic literature (mostly from the business world) reviewed in the book:

When it comes to producing solid decisions, process matters more than analysis, by a factor of six, in influencing the quality of the outcome (p. 5).

Essentially, how much we know–about the issue at hand, and even about ourselves and our own biases–does not matter nearly as much as the process we develop to guide us towards our conclusions. In part, this is because even knowing our limitations isn’t enough to correct for them, and because we can never know everything that we need to know, in order to independently arrive at the best result.

Process matters, for helping us to identify the range of best options, for ensuring that we incorporate others’ perspectives as needed, for encouraging small failures that facilitate innovation while minimizing risk.

We get better decisions, all else held constant, if we work those decisions through a better decision-making process.

And that, I believe, has profound implications for government policymaking.

The fall semester just started, which means that I’m teaching policy classes again, charged with helping social work students to not only understand how policy is made in this country, but, at least on some level, to believe in that process, at least enough to want to work through it, and to improve it.

But the truth is that much of my students’ impressions about our policymaking structure is correct: we really shouldn’t leave the most important decisions about how we want to live and what we want to value, as a nation, to a process that we jokingly refer to as ‘like watching sausage being made’.

We shouldn’t be surprised, after all, to so often get bad results from such a bad (read: too much influence of money, too short a timeline of measuring impacts, too polarized in terms of district boundaries) process.

But, and I think this is fundamentally important, too:

Process matters not just for shaping the kinds of outcomes that result, but also for influencing how people feel about a decision.

We call it “procedural justice” for a reason and, when people perceive that a process is bad/unfair/illogical, they don’t feel as good about the decision that results, even if they would otherwise prefer it.

And that makes me wonder, could we restore engagement in government, even if people disagree with the outcomes, by improving the process through which those decisions are arrived?

Could that motivation be enough to compel some critical changes (maybe changes to Senate rules, certainly campaign finance, districting), in ways that more base desires to shift advantage to one side or another have failed?

We’re social workers. We ‘get’ process.

What would it take for us to have a policymaking process worthy of our democratic ideals?

And what difference would it make?