Category Archives: Background Reading

Why we celebrate Kansas Day

This hangs in our dining room. Really.

This hangs in our dining room. Really.

So that there’s no confusion, Kansas Day is actually next week–January 29th, to be exact.

But I have a full week of posts about inequality scheduled for next week and, besides, Kansas deserves a whole birthday week, right?

I just finished reading For the Common Good (review coming before too long, once I get some other posts cleared out), and there’s a part in the very beginning that made it clear that this isn’t just a book about leadership.

It’s a book about leadership in Kansas, written by Kansans.

Because it’s different.

Those who aren’t from our state (and, I must admit, probably even some who are) are certainly forgiven for not knowing, but Kansas is sort of a big deal.

Historically, unlike Iowa, the Dakotas, Illinois, Indiana, and other states founded based on geography, “Kansas was founded for a cause: freedom” (p. 8). When Congress passed the Kansas and Nebraska Act in 1854, the choice between being a free state or a slave state was left to the residents of those territories. Abolitionists came from the Northeast and elsewhere to flood the Kansas Territory and influence it to enter as a free state. “Their success helped put Kansas on the right side of history.”

And, in my house and among many of my colleagues and friends, we take that very, very seriously.

Several of the proponents of our instate tuition legislation for immigrant youth referenced our anti-slavery background in their floor speeches; to them, standing up for equality now is more than just the right thing to do.

It’s our birthright as Kansans.

It’s who we are as a people, every bit as much as the sunflowers.

American historian Carl Becker described it in the way that my family still sees it, “The origin of Kansas must ever be associated with the struggle against slavery. Of this fact Kansans are well aware…It is a state with a past.” (cited p. 8, For the Common Good)

My oldest son and I spent a day at the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence this summer.

When we stop at Civil War cemeteries (which, yes, happens with some regularity around here), one of the boys usually wants to know if “someone made them fight for the confederacy”.

They just can’t contemplate willingly putting your life on the line for something so wrong.

I’m not naive about the state of Kansas politics today, and how far less than noble are many of our aspirations in 2014.

And I’m not even ignoring the injustices perpetrated in the name of ‘freedom’ then.

We were the Brown v. Board of Education state, after all; we certainly have known our share of racial and social injustice.

I don’t try to encourage my son’s animosity toward the University of Missouri; he comes by that all on his own.

But, I do think that keeping alive a sense of where we came from and why it matters is important, not just for a sort of ‘pride of place’, but also because it is the right side of history, and I want my children to know very clearly that there is always–alwaysa choice to stand there.

As one of my Facebook friends said at the time of the Quantrill commemoration, “the massacre of innocent civilians by Quantrill and his rebels, just because they stood for freedom and justice, is nothing that needs to be gotten over anytime soon.”

So we celebrate Kansas Day, and celebrate Kansas.

Ad astra per aspera–to the stars through difficulty–is a reminder of where we have been, and an exhortation about where we must go.

Coming out of our bunkers

Sometimes my students say things in class that just make me love them so much.

I try not to gush, because that’s a little strange; I mean, I cheerlead my own kids A LOT (“It’s a beautiful day to be these kids’ mom”, sung to the tune of the Mr. Rogers theme song, is one of my calling cards), but my students and I have a little different of a relationship.

But when they are so enthusiastic about policy practice, or so angry about an injustice they’ve witnessed at practicum, or just so curious about why things are the way they are, well, I just bubble over with affection for them.

And when they are so earnest and transparent and vulnerable, it touches my heart.

So this post is offered in that spirit, not in condemnation of the student who shared this reaction, nor, indeed, of the many who didn’t voice a similar response even if they feel it.

But in love and shared commitment to find ways to seek solace in coming together, rather than in hiding out.

It happened early in this fall semester, when I asked students to share their experiences trying to navigate information about policies and policy changes affecting their practices and their clients, and one student, somewhat hesitantly at first, shared that she really avoids paying attention to ‘anything political’, not because she doesn’t think it’s important, or doesn’t see the connection, but, really, because it just hurts too much.

She called it ‘self-preservation’ and said that, because she feels so emotionally overextended in her direct service provision, the only way that she can handle the emotional fallout of being a social worker is to focus narrowly on the immediate realm of her ‘control’ (even she acknowledged this control is elusive), closing her eyes to the world beyond her agency.

And, you know, I sort of get that.

My moments of greatest helplessness come when facing questions from my oldest son about why policies are the way they are–Why would Syria’s president hurt his own people and no one stops him? Why do so many states still ban gay marriage? Why would poor children lose preschool when the government shuts down (but Congress still gets paid)? Why is a teen mom separated from her baby so that her foster family can afford to take care of her, with the right level of reimbursement? Why do immigrants have to wait in Mexico for 10 years before they can be reunited with their families? Why?

Sometimes, when my mind is filled with regrets for the way that I spoke to his brother and mental to-do lists for work, I wish that he wouldn’t ask, “What happened in the world today, Mom, while I was at school?” Because it seems easier just to focus on dinner and our day and these four walls.

But his face, and his eagerness, and his whys, are my most poignant reminders of what’s at stake, and why hiding in a bunker isn’t safe for any of us.

Not when the world needs us out there.

So my response to my student was, in many respects, speaking to myself.

We talked about how joining with others to tackle root causes can combat burnout, and about humans’ greater ability to deal with that for which we feel prepared, rather than what blindsides us.

We talked about power, and vacuums, and about our responsibility to be at that metaphorical table when decisions are being made.

And we talked about Sam.

And about how, sometimes, when it seems like too much and I wish for the temporary solace of ignorance, I think about his wonderings.

And I take comfort in, at least, being able to tell him that I was paying attention. And that we tried. Together.

As we greet the new year, here’s to opening the door to the world, pulling the covers down, and facing our battles.

New hopes for the new year

These days, I run on academic time, which means that mid-December is, essentially, the end of the year.

I will have some posts next week before I take a holiday break, until the second week in January, to make cookies and wrap presents and volunteer and read and–I hope–spend some time in front of the fireplace reading juvenile fiction with some very special kiddos.

But, today, a sort-of tradition:

My hopes for the new year.

In the spirit of holiday giving, I hope you’ll share your hopes for the future, too. Good news on your horizon? Cherished dreams you’re clinging to? Promises of good things to come that you’re no longer keeping to yourself?

At the risk of sounding greedy, I want them all!

Here’s to a new year, a few weeks from now.

Together, let’s make it a great one.

What are you hoping for? What will you do to make those dreams come true?

Doing good for a living

MN 1026

Tomorrow is my birthday.

If you’re like me, birthdays mean a lot of self-reflection.

I find myself thinking about where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what’s next.

And I do a lot of pragmatic planning, prompted by the more existential reflections.

It was going through my calendar, for the mundane, that I came across a quote from one of my guest speakers from last spring’s class.

“I realized I could fight the good fight for a living.”

And that’s what I’m thinking about, during this birthday week:

How really, really, really lucky I am to get to make my living doing work that gives meaning to my life. Really, really lucky.

I mean, we all complain, sometimes, about having too much work or feeling under-appreciated. And I think that can be cathartic.

But I know that I never dreamed, when I thought about my career, that I could cobble together work that makes me feel connected and valuable, while still making it possible for me to dabble in lost causes and wrap up my kids in regular hugs.

So, I guess this is more of a birthday ‘cheers’, to those of you who have, similarly, found a way in this broken society to pay your bills while changing the world, and to those who are looking for a path through which to do the same.

They are good fights, and we need them, and you deserve to eat and rest and buy a new sweater or sit on the beach sometimes, while you fight them.

I vow to never stop being grateful that it’s possible.

Why be an organization when you could build a movement?

As I have posted before, the definition of advocacy that I use when talking with direct service organizations about how they can ease into it comes from the Latin root word, advocare, which means “to call to aid”.

It’s about how you build a constituency around your cause, even more broadly than around your organization.

It’s how we make our issue really our issue, so that others feel that they own the concerns that motivate our work, too.

It’s how we build a movement.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder’s way of talking about their work resonates with this inclusive definition of advocacy.

He says that he doesn’t want to be the one leader of an organization but, instead, one of many leaders of a global movement (p. 269).

Because it’s going to take movements to end the social problems that plague us.

But what does this mean, in terms of how we have to change what we do, in order to build this kind of cause identification and mobilize the latent constituencies around our issues so that they coalesce into a movement?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers to that question, but I spend quite a bit of time talking about this with nonprofits, and thinking about it besides, and I do have some ideas.

  • Movement building has to be our goal: We too seldom set our sights on this kind of deep engagement around a cause; sometimes we can’t really even articulate the root causes that motivate our work. Of course, we won’t get there if we don’t set out in that direction.
  • Similarly, we need visions, not just missions: The other day, I asked a group of hard-working nonprofit staff what change they would make if they had a magic wand to make one thing different in the lives of the families they serve. I got mostly blank looks, with some very concrete suggestions about how their organization needs to improve its communication channels. I find that stunning. If someone is giving me a magic wand, things are going to change. We need to know what we want the world to look like, because that’s a vision compelling enough to convince people to come along with us.
  • We have to share the credit: Movements are never animated by one person, even the ones you are picturing in your head that you think were driven by one person. Really, they aren’t. An organization can be run unilaterally by one strong person (although, honestly, probably not very well), but a movement? That will take a crowd.
  • We will have to risk to build: Organizations can plod. Movements have to be nimble and adaptive and daring. Movements have major setbacks. They wander in the wilderness for decades before reaching the promised land. They have to find ways to sustain themselves through periods of great darkness, and they have to fail. A lot.

Where and when are you movement-building? What does it look like? And where does our organization fit in?

Context matters: In defense of ‘wraparound’

One of the tensions in the nonprofit world today, especially around questions of scaling, relates to whether our needs are best served through the creation and maintenance of ‘niche’ nonprofits that provide a few core services and do so very well, versus the development of a smaller number of large institutions that are each capable of delivering holistic services in their respective fields.

Do we want many Davids or a few (well-intentioned, of course) Goliaths?

Do we get to scale more effectively by fostering many nimble, ’boutique’ nonprofits, or by directing resources to organizations more equal in size to the problems they confront?

I have thought, though, for awhile, that this might really be the wrong question. That maybe we should be spending more time thinking about whether our services–our response to the problems–are scaled correctly, not whether the particular vehicles through which we’re delivering them–our organizations–are.

Because, when it comes to tackling the big challenges plaguing our society–illiteracy, poverty, gender discrimination, racial injustice, obesity and ill health, growing educational disparities, pervasive underemployment, rampant incarceration–context really matters.

It’s not just that smaller nonprofits with a more narrow profile of services may be ‘outgunned’ in these battles, but that even the service models of bigger organizations, the way that they structure and understand their missions, may be missing some links, too.

But when organizations expand beyond their boundaries–regardless of their size–I often sense considerable pushback, around the idea of ‘mission drift’ or concerns about others’ turf or fear that ‘core’ services (however those are understood) will suffer as the service scope grows.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder describes a very different approach, one where the organization fairly quickly saw that achieving its goals of literacy, especially for girls around the world, would require far more than the initial objective of building schools and libraries. In order to succeed, Room to Read would have to look at the skills that girls need and the contexts in which they often fail to develop, the social supports that can help girls overcome cultural taboos against advanced education for females, and the tangible obstacles they face (including transportation, meals at school, and childcare for siblings).

Importantly, attending to this context doesn’t always mean adjusting the scale and size of the organization itself, since there are other ways to ‘scale up’, and it isn’t perceived as ‘Christmas-treeing’, tacking on anything that seems appealing, without thought as to the distraction that additional services may pose.

Instead, it’s about boxing in our problems in order to attack them.

It’s about wrapping those we’re concerned about in the mantle of all of the essential supports they say they need, and figuring out how to do that through a combination of service expansion internally, strategic partnerships, and advocacy with public institutions.

In essence, then, I guess that I’m more interested in the ‘what’, when it comes to scaling to match our challenges, than I am the ‘how’.

I don’t know that I care, all that much, if we pursue models of many small organizations, working collaboratively, or investments in large and robust responses.

What matters is that we go wide, with our lens, looking at the context in which problems flourish.

After all, it’s only mission drift if you’re moving away from what really matters, or if you’re focused more on the narrow provision of services than a compelling vision of the world as it should be.

Otherwise, it’s just approaching our challenges from different angles.

Until we have them surrounded.

Goal-setting like kids

It has been established that one of my favorite things about my kids, even when it’s simultaneously maddening, is their unreasonableness.

Because they are unreasonable.


Especially the youngest one, who has that toddler’s expectation that she can smack me in the face, pull my hair, and then sweetly sign “water”, and I’ll come running with it.

She dares to ask, and to anticipate, what most of us wouldn’t even dream.

And I think we need a lot more of that.

Not the smacking and hair-pulling, of course, but the rather outrageous demands: those we need more of.

What would a ridiculous goal look like in your area of work? For Room to Read, it’s every child (every) in the world learning to read. For one of my clients, it’s providing a service to every single person who contacts the organization, no exceptions. Some organizations working on homelessness have staked a claim to the goal of ending chronic homelessness, starting with specific cities.

I guess what I think, when I see my kids expecting that they can build a tower that will defy the laws of gravity or convince me to bring them yet another cup of water at 2AM, is that I’m tired of goals that are strategic, measurable, actionable, realistic, and targeted.

You know?

We need to end poverty and close gender pay gaps and ensure that every child starts school ready to learn.

And we need to do it soon.

So we don’t need more sophisticated ‘adult’ understanding of the constraints of reality.

Those voices are in our heads all the time already.

We need more outrageous goals, a focused determination to reach them no matter what, and the tenacious (read: stubborn) insistence of my children that other people drop everything and come along with us.

If you need any mentors in this field of audacious goal-setting, I have four experts in mind.

‘Balance’ and urgency

In a couple of places in Creating Room to Read, the founder/author emphasizes the need for urgent action.

“Every day we lose is a day we can’t get back” (p. 7).

It’s a feeling I share, a compulsion, really, that has prompted more than one person to tell me that I have a ‘savior complex’.

And it can be a very good thing, this urgency, if it pushes us to evaluate every organizational decision in light of the questions:

How can we reach more people, in more places, with more needs, more quickly? (p. 201)

How can we fill the vacuum around this issue before someone else–with a different agenda and different impacts on those we serve–does?

How can we do what needs to be done, as cheaply and quickly and well as is humanly possible, since the world really needed it metaphorically ‘yesterday’?

This almost-manic urgency applies, of course, to so many of the social problems on which we are working, not just to global literacy. Really, I would argue that everything worth fixing in today’s broken world is worth fixing now, and there’s always more work to be done than we can possibly clear off our desks before the end of the day.


How can we justify taking a break, even when we need one, when the need is already outpacing our abilities?

How can we care for ourselves, without using ‘self-care’ as an excuse to retreat from the desperately urgent work that needs us?

How can we prevent falling for the savior thing, when the truth is that the people we serve and assist aren’t waiting for us to swoop in and rescue anyone.

How can we approach that elusive ‘balance’ that seems to be so important for preventing burnout and sustaining our commitment–and our effectiveness–when every day that we take off is a day that we’re not getting closer to the world as it should be?

How do you answer these questions, in your own field, and in your own practice? How do you calibrate the pace of your life, given the urgency with which problems press? How do you surround yourself with a team, to prevent the temptation of thinking that we are one-person shows? How do you harness the passion and energy that comes with urgency, without slipping into the ‘busier-than-thou’ martyrdom that turns people off? How do you reflect strengths and possibility while convincing people that they need to be part of our cause–today?


Advocacy principles and core priorities

Photo credit, Michal Dubrawski, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

Photo credit, Michal Dubrawski, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

One of the first items of business, when I’m working with a new nonprofit organization around advocacy capacity-building, is to talk through their advocacy principles.

In our work, principles come before the development of an advocacy agenda. In some cases, they replace an agenda altogether, providing the general guideposts that organizations need to navigate decisions in an advocacy context, without pretending that we can predict today the circumstances we’ll face tomorrow, or how we’ll make those trade-offs once we get there.

We talk through how the organization’s core values translate into an advocacy context. We discuss their preferences in public policy development. We discuss how having advocacy principles not only helps the organization stay true to its greatest goods in the event of conflict, but also serves as protection against the intrusive interests of others, by providing some parameters about the types of issues the organization does not take on, in addition to those that it does.

In my experience, organizational mission statements are often too broad to serve this purpose; they tend to be statements that absolutely no one could disagree with, but also that fail to really distinguish one organization from another (aren’t we all interested in ‘strengthening families’, really?).

What we need are guides that help us decide between two goods (Do we prioritize money for prevention or for rapid response? Do we emphasize children’s services or community-level interventions?) or, more often in a policy world, two rather poor compromises (Are we going to put more energy into fighting the repeal of the Earned Income Tax Credit or drug-testing in TANF?).

Done correctly, these advocacy principles also help nonprofits to articulate why they have ‘ranked’ particular policy outcomes as they have, which is incredibly important as we endeavor to preserve relationships in the conflictual climate of policymaking.

They are navigational tools, important symbols of organizational culture and decision-making, and guideposts–not prescriptions–for helping leaders maneuver through difficult choices.

I particularly appreciated this description of core priorities, a similar context somewhat removed from the advocacy context, in Decisive: “guardrails that are wide enough to empower but narrow enough to guide” (185).

That’s what we’re aiming for, when we work through the often-laborious process of settling on advocacy principles as the starting point for our advocacy work.

And, like so many other exercises in ‘centering’ ourselves and clarifying our deepest purpose, once we get that right, the rest of our decisions are, while not ‘easy’, at least easier.

Exposure and comfort

One of the psychological studies that the authors of Decisive reviewed for their commentary of how we make decisions (and how we can improve that process) related to findings that the most-viewed words are the best-liked, which provides some powerful evidence of the ‘familiarity breeds more contentment’ idea (p. 164).

This aligns with other findings that confirm the ‘mere exposure’ principle, which affirms that human beings have a strong preference for things that are familiar.

This gets at what I wrote about yesterday–the need for policymakers to really understand the realities of the lives of those who will be most affected by their policy changes and, indeed, the need to flip that ‘exchange’ idea on its head, so that clients are the ones coming closer to the seats of power.

In a way, what some of these studies about the effects of exposure suggest is that, on one level, it may not matter so much where and how we’re bringing disparate populations together, only that we are.

It gets at the idea that maybe culture change has to happen before, or at least alongside, policy change, and that changing people’s hearts and minds matters a lot in promoting the kind of justice we crave.

I struggle with that, as you know. I tend to come down more on the side of ‘get power so you can dictate the terms of the debate’ rather than ‘engage in mutual dialogue’.

Not very social work-y of me, I know.

And findings like this remind me:

There are people of good will whose attitudes and beliefs about the populations I so firmly believe are getting a raw deal in this society are shaped, in large part, by the same structures that lock people into strata.

It is a form of privilege, I believe, the exposure to injustice and to diversity afforded to me by my parents, my education, and my social networks.

We have, then, an obligation to share that access with others, for the transformational effects it can bring.

And there are examples of this everywhere: in the spring break trips that students at my alma mater take to work in disadvantaged communities, which move them to the point of tears, even 10 years later; in the ways that social work students find themselves dedicating their careers to populations they previously thought they could ‘never work with’; in the way that my grandparents discovered upon moving to the U.S./Mexico border that they actually really like Mexican people; in the way that even people with entrenched heterosexist beliefs find themselves championing the rights of the particular gay people they have come to know.

And so, I wonder, armed with evidence about how (and some of why) this proximity effect works, how we might use it in our advocacy.

How can we structure our services so that we break down barriers between populations, perhaps through developing intentional volunteer efforts, increasing the profile of our clients, and targeting outreach at influential community leaders?

How can we organize issue campaigns so that they reduce negative emotions about the populations with which we work and help targets to identify with our clients?

How can we, on the flip side, increase clients’ exposure to policymakers and advocacy arenas, in order to help them feel more comfortable advocating, too?

How can we consciously, deliberately, and repeatedly position our work so as to build exposure and familiarity…with an eye towards how that engagement can change how people think and interact and, ultimately, legislate?