Tag Archives: clients

Awesome stories of awesomeness

Because, you know, it’s almost the end of the year–THIS year, of all things–and I feel like we could all use some awesomeness.

You’re welcome.

  • One of the organizations with which I have the distinct pleasure to work on advocacy is Harvesters, our regional food bank. They’re awesome in lots of ways–birthday parties to fight hunger, yes please!–but their public participation index is high on my list. They have developed concrete metrics by which they measure the extent to which their activities get people engaged in the cause of fighting hunger, in the firm belief that “you manage what you measure”. They do, and they do. And it’s awesome. They track volunteers responding to action alerts, people writing letters to the editor, pledge cards taken after public presentations, numbers of volunteer groups coming through, people sharing stories on their website. The bonus, of course, is that the process of collecting and sharing these data also encourages staff buy-in to the advocacy work, since they know that there will be monitoring and accountability. And celebration, because you have to applaud when you reach milestones like these!
  • Recently, the League of Women Voters in our community set up a meeting at Operation Breakthrough, a fantastic organization (another advocacy TA grantee with which I get to work!) that provides early childhood education to children and support to low-income families (mostly single parents, many of whom are homeless and/or on TANF and/or involved with the child welfare system). The League wanted to talk with moms about the issues that matter most to them, what they wish they knew about the political process, and what they want public officials to understand about their lives. And, then, the League offered to pay the membership dues for any Operation Breakthrough mom who wanted to join, and they offered to help with transportation to meetings, hold events onsite at OB, and provide childcare to facilitate the participation of any Operation Breakthrough parent in a League event. Yeah, talk about understanding that the personal is political and that the women’s movement needs to embrace solidarity across class divides. And walking your walk. Awesomeness, and nothing more than I’d expect from an organization with a long history of being on the right side.
  • An organization combating homelessness locally, and providing support to those experiencing it, took clients with them to lobby state legislators for increased funding for affordable housing initiatives. On the bus on the way to Jefferson City, reStart, Inc. staff gave clients copies of legislative bios, pulled from the state webpage, as sort of background information (and a way to kill the 2.5-hour drive). During one of the first visits, the Executive Director watched as a client smoothly shook hands with a state legislator with whom the organization has never had a great relationship, made some small talk, asked about his two children, and transitioned seamlessly into discussing the toll that being without permanent housing takes on child well-being. The legislator was animated, personable, and responsive. Because the client was authentic, warm, and very skilled. The Executive Director told this story recently with a bit of a chuckle. Because, she said, it just makes sense. If our clients are used to navigating systems to get their needs met every day, why do we think they’d be anything but excellent at making connections and getting what they want as lobbyists? Why, indeed. Awesome.

What is awesome in your world, today, or throughout this year?

What awesomeness can you share, as we face 2014?

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?


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.

Whose story is this, anyway?

This is the last of the pieces inspired by A Problem from Hell, and it’s a theme that I’ve touched on here before–how we respectfully tread into others’ lives, in our advocacy and our direct practice, and how we must honor the stories we are allowed to know.

I think there’s some intentional appropriation of others’ narratives, which came up in And Their Children After Them, too. Agee, the original author in whose footsteps the book follows, was described by the subjects of the book as though he “didn’t talk with them. He didn’t even talk down to them. He talked at them, as if they were objects” (p. 39). He never sent them a copy of the book, and it was a long time before they were even aware of its existence.

To protect themselves in an inherently exploitative relationship, the families hid much of themselves from the author and photographer. That way, they retained some ownership rights to their own stories. As the now-grown children explained, “There was a lot that they didn’t show and he never learned”. Largely derided by the author as simple-minded, their careful deceptions prove that they were considerably smarter than he assumed (p. 56). Still, as people in positions of relatively little power, in society, they had little recourse when a stranger wanted to tell their story.

And, of course, the terms of the telling were far from equitable. The author, while he didn’t get paid much for the work, got other rewards–prestige, attention…and those who laid out their lives and their hardship got nothing. As one family member recognized, “She went home to a job in a textile factory that does not pay in one month what the picture of her would sell for in that Birmingham gallery” (p. 175).

But it’s not always about such opportunistic exploitation.

Sometimes, I think, it’s a neglect (not benign), born of paternalism, that, while perhaps more understandable, is no less harmful. Like the anecdote that the UN Press Office did not initially translate its press releases into Serbo-Croatian during The Hague proceedings following the Bosnian genocide (p. 497). So, in other words, that people were unable to understand the process that was supposed to bring restorative justice, for themselves and their people. Because it wasn’t a priority to make sure that they could.

I encountered this quite a bit in some work I did last summer, exploring the advocacy capacity of the ‘healthy eating/active living’ network in the Kansas City area. Some of the grassroots groups–neighborhood organizations working in communities of color, faith-based groups organizing African Americans, coalitions representing Latino immigrants–stated that they perceived that others wanted to claim that they were working with them, to be able to take credit for any advances made, or even just to give themselves additional credibility for trying to engage these priority populations. But, often, that doesn’t include really sharing power, or building structures that put affected individuals at the center. One neighborhood group told me that ‘on the grant applications, everyone’s our friend’, even if that doesn’t always yield fruitful partnerships.

Of course, our sincere hesitation about taking over others’ stories cannot mean that we cease to tell them. One organization I was working with was reluctant to use clients’ stories in their advocacy because they said it would feel like ‘using’ them…but, then, their advocacy freely incorporated composite stories (because all advocacy needs narrative), which can have the tendency to aggregate and distort individuals’ stories, in ways that are no less alienating.

The answer, instead of hiding behind a veil of anonymity, is to change our processes.

We need to make it clear that people continue to own their stories–and to receive proper credit flowing from them. People should be encouraged, and facilitated, to do their own tellingwe don’t need nearly as many ‘spokespeople’ as we think we do, on others’ behalf. And we need to respect, and acknowledge, people’s needs to be selective about which stories are told, and how, and why.

We need to treat stories as carefully as though they were our own.

While always–ALWAYS–remembering that they are not.

When our imaginations fail us

My children–and many children–have incredible imaginations.

My younger son is convinced that he has visited some canyon in South America with my mother-in-law. It sounds incredible, to hear him describe it.

My older son is petrified of the basement, because, in his mind, there are indescribable horrors down there.

They have little difficulty leaping immediately into the realm of the fantastic; indeed, I often feel like I’m running to keep up, struggling to figure out when to foster these incredible flights of fancy, and when to gently bring them back to reality.

We adults? Our imaginations get pretty rusty. We can easily fall into a habit of having to see anything, in order to believe it.

And that can be a big liability, when it comes to fighting injustice.

We have a hard time imagining that things could really be so bad. We assume that the forces against which we are arrayed are rational, and, therefore, constrained by reasonable boundaries of just and unjust.

We have a hard time contemplating irrational, capricious, ill-will, let alone horror.

And sometimes that stops us from intervening effectively.

That is certainly the case in something like genocide, as A Problem from Hell underscores repeatedly, with examples from history. People couldn’t believe survivors–they just couldn’t–because it was beyond the realm of their worst nightmares.

But our inadequate imaginations cripple us in other contexts, too.

We are prone to disbelieve the client who reports that a colleague was rude to her, because, surely, that can’t be true. We doubt a story of a system failure, because there’s no way that an organization would have a rule that illogical. We want to assume the best–in ourselves, our allies, our institutions, so we place the burden of proof on those who are asking us to suspend our disbelief.

That’s not to say that clients never get things wrong, or that some things that sound too far-fetched to be true might not, in fact, be false.

But it’s also true that history is replete with evidence that people do, in fact, act in ways contrary to their own interests, cruelly or insensibly (or both). It can happen. And those who fail to even consider that it might do so at their own peril, and the peril of others.

I met today with some advocates who told me about a story of a woman who came to ask for utility assistance who reported that she and her children had been living without any utilities for four months. Including, then, winter.

Even they, seasoned advocates with years of experience working alongside mothers in poverty, doubted her at first. I mean, who can imagine? Surviving a winter with absolutely no electricity, no heat, no lights? For four months? In Kansas City?

Their imaginations get quite a bit of exercise, since the families with whom they work struggle at the edge of survival. Still, when they accompanied the woman to her home with the groceries and other assistance they had provided, they admitted that they checked, and, yes, she has been preparing her food on a propane grill in her backyard. For months. Without heat or lights.

In response to a question about why people are so slow to believe the eyewitness testimony of those who live through real suffering, Richard Holbrooke said, “Going to a refugee camp might help. But not having gone to a refugee camp is not an excuse for not having an imagination” (p. 405). Experience on the front lines, fighting genocide, leads one to the conclusion that it is “better to trust the unprovable and be proven wrong, than the reverse” (p. 450).

Why do we have so much trouble imagining? And how do our out-of-shape imaginations impede our empathy? Why is our first instinct so often, “really?” instead of “how horrible.” How much more easily might we be able to view the world from another’s shoes–and craft the policies that would work from where they stand–if we had the ready imaginations of my under-six set?


Mapping your service network

Every good direct-service social worker has go-to people for resources for clients. They used to be in Rolodexes. Now we have contacts in our phones and (if you’re like me) lists up on the walls around my desk, too.

These connections are essential, many times, for getting what our clients need, and they personify the truth that–in social work, as in advocacy and in life in general–relationships matter. A lot.

I have often thought that there should be a better way to share these resources. I mean, I know that some of the appeal is the whole ‘inside hook up’ angle, but that’s really not a very efficient or effective way to run a service delivery system.

And, oftentimes, there’s nothing intentionally opaque about these connections in the first place; we just don’t have a very good mechanism for communicating things like, “So-and-so in billing is really great about connecting clients to payment plans” or “XYZ agency has bus passes”.

In our community and in others around the country, nonprofit social service agencies have instituted computerized databases to coordinate information among organizations, but, in my experience, these are more commonly used to make sure that clients aren’t receiving duplicate services in multiple agencies, rather than to increase the number of linkages among the various hubs in a social service network.

And that’s what we need, stronger connections to bridge the gaps in a fragmented system–linkages strong enough to be bridges for the clients trying to navigate resources.

I think that network mapping holds a lot of promise for this challenge. Our ability to analyze and visualize how different ‘nodes’ are connected, how strongly they are linked, and where organizations are isolated within the network has improved dramatically in recent years, with both technological advances (there are free network mapping software add-ins that are really easy to use) and with evolving theoretical understanding of network function.

What if case managers and therapists and all who have responsibilities for navigating the service delivery system came together, not just to give program announcements, like at many coalition meetings, but to really map to whom they are connected, and how, and on whom they most commonly rely for help?

What if we pulled those go-to people out of our contact lists and mental Rolodexes and put them up on the wall, with sticky notes that show who’s central to the network, who’s on the periphery, and who connects us best?

What if we used that information not just to improve our referrals, highlight those individuals doing the best work to facilitate access to the system, and figure out ways to work around gaps and inadequacies in the network, but also to get a better sense of how these coalitions and loose affiliations could be leveraged for advocacy?

What if we could solve some of the problems–the gaps and the apparent duplication and the communication breakdowns–in our social service delivery system, without building new organizations or adding services, just by weaving a network that covers the chasms?

Building a better agenda: inclusive advocacy agenda processes

One of the most exciting parts of my advocacy technical assistance with these four organizations has been the work helping them to build (or, in two cases, rebuild) their advocacy agendas…starting from where their clients are.

Often, we build advocacy agendas for our organizations (those documents that get our Board of Directors’ official approval and signal to the world–or those who are watching–the issues on which we will take a stand, usually in the legislative session) by having someone sit down and craft a list of priorities, sometimes with some prior input from the Board (but usually not). These lists are often far too long, because we care about everything, somewhat less than aspirational (because we don’t want to set ourselves up to fail), and determinedly ‘relevant’ (in the eyes of policymakers and observers, not necessarily those we serve).

I know, because I have crafted more than a dozen of these agendas, over the years.

It’s not a fruitless exercise; we know that having a formalized advocacy agenda is associated with significantly higher expenditure of organizational ‘effort’ towards policy change, and, in turn, correlates with greater advocacy capacity.

But I think we can do it better.

Because, if we think about our reasons for advocating in the first place as stemming from our desire to see the brick walls we encounter taken down, we have to truly understand the nature of the obstacles our clients encounter, and how we can address them through policy.

And, if we hope to engage all of our organizational assets–including our clients and our staff–in our advocacy, that task will be a whole lot easier if we’re asking them to help us move their priorities, instead of ours.

This certainly isn’t rocket science. Mostly, I work with staff to create some surveys for staff members to think through how they would prioritize the issues that might command the organization’s attention, and to rate them based on mission congruence, the likelihood that the organization could make a real difference in that area, and overall importance.

And, the most fun for me, I sit down and talk with clients and staff (usually separately) about the organization, the challenges they encounter, what would make the biggest difference in their lives, and how they would like to play a role in advancing these issues.

I’m careful to frame this as only the beginning of a process of engagement; we can’t make the mistake of assuming that once we’ve asked people their opinion once, we’re good. Nor can we expect that any one group of clients ‘speaks’ for any other, or that staff members will participate across the board, at least not in the way we might hope.

But the act of asking, and of acting on the insights shared, is yielding some distinct differences, and the process has made me even more convinced that our advocacy agendas can be far more than signals to our elected officials about the changes we hope they’ll make.

They can be tools that we use, internally, to make it more likely that those changes are realized.

What I’ve seen:

  • Some of the policy priorities clients identify are obvious, and, so, often overlooked. One homeless youth identified a need for the SNAP eligibility process to change, so that youth don’t have the responsibility to prove that they are no longer considered part of their parents’ households; the onus should be on the parent receiving SNAP on behalf of that child. When this was presented to representatives of congressional offices, they reacted in surprise, and said, “I think we can make that happen.”
  • The priorities often align considerably. In one community mental health center, the CEO had been talking about housing for months, and then, when I sat down with several groups of clients, ‘housing’ was the first need they emphasized. They had stirring stories about how lack of appropriate housing options results in unnecessary institutionalization, and they identified policy and programming changes that could make a difference.
  • And, sometimes, they don’t. Clients at several different organizations stressed the need for access to identification, as a foundation of access to other services. None of the organizational leaders had identified this as a priority, though, and, indeed, resisted somewhat, primarily since figuring out the levers to push for those changes is somewhat elusive.
  • Some of the policy changes identified will be internal agency policies, and, if organizations are going to really live values of empowerment and communicate to clients that their opinions are not mere tokens, these have to be at least somewhat openly received. One organization’s clients took issue with the smoking policy and the practice of handling Medicaid spend-down regulations. I believe that the leadership’s willingness to hear people out on these pieces is tangibly impacting how willing clients are to advocate moving forward.
  • There has to be a ‘so what’. We know that we do more damage than good if we unintentionally send people the message that we asked them for their stories, and for their insights, and then just filed them away somewhere. Organizations should be clear about the purpose of the information-gathering, about the opportunities for people to continue to engage in the process, and about the anticipated timeline. This is also a great chance to help people understand the other factors that go into setting an advocacy agenda, including a power analysis and assessment of the advocacy landscape.

How do you build your advocacy agendas? What role do all of your organizational stakeholders play? How do you structure the process? And what product do you receive in return?

I’ve never really bought Maslow

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll cop to it right from the start: I was that student (in the front of the class, usually, which is probably even worse) rolling my eyes at some of the human development content in every practice/human behavior/child development class in my undergraduate social work education. My fellow instructors, you probably know the type–member of the Democratic Socialist Party, organizing a protest for just about everything, not totally grasping the intense privilege she enjoys in higher education?

I came, relatively quickly, to appreciate much of the clinical wisdom that seemed not-quite-radical-enough to me in those heady days before I actually did any practicing. Certainly I am glad that I had to learn how to listen actively, how to reframe, how to tap into people’s inherent motivations, how to identify hurt and accompany people through it.

In other words, I was (mostly) totally wrong, inexcusably impatient, and terribly naive.


I never really bought into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and, unlike most of the rest of what I was so eager to gloss over, my skepticism when it comes to Maslow has only increased.

Because, really, I just don’t believe that we need shelter or employment, or even health or food, more than we need to feel that we belong, that we are respected, and that our lives have meaning.

My work, especially that which happens alongside people who are experiencing tremendous need in those first 2 or 3 tiers of the hierarchy, has only confirmed my sense that the pyramid is fairly paternalistic, and that people’s real search for ‘quality of life’ proceeds in a far different manner than this ladder would have us believe.

I see it in the individuals with severe mental illness who, despite insecurity in their housing and distance from their family members, root themselves in the community created at their community mental health center and find ways to creatively tell their stories in pursuit of greater justice.

I see it in the individuals experiencing homelessness, who, major needs in that bottom tier notwithstanding, tell me that their primary advocacy objective is to address stigma, because what hurts even more than being homeless is being hated for being homeless.

And I see it, and have seen it, over and over again in the individuals with significant challenges–big gaps, sometimes, in their ‘hierarchy of needs’, who only need to be asked to join with their peers and fight for their rights.

They aren’t waiting until they have enough to eat and a good place to live and a decent job.

They are craving, just like we all crave, an opportunity to earn respect and build community and experience purpose…

knowing that, in our society, those ‘higher order’ tiers can be the foundation from which the initial levels of the hierarchy are secured.

We–our profession, our society, our organizations–do ourselves and those we serve (none of whom, including myself, I’d really consider at Maslow’s ‘self-actualization’ level!) a great disservice when we assume that the best that we can collectively accomplish (empowerment and respect and purpose and community) is, quite visually, ‘beyond’ those to whom structures have denied the basics of life.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that food and shelter and clothing aren’t important. Or that we can pretend as such when we’re getting folks engaged in collective action. That’s a mistake, and it’s alienating and harmful and offensive.

But life doesn’t happen in neat stages. And we could do with quite a bit less hierarchy, I think.

Long John Silver’s and Social Service Advocacy

One of my favorite people I get to work with–an awesome organizer and truly terrific person–is Jake Lowen, senior partner at Kansas Grassroots (which you should totally hire if you need a grassroots strategy for your social change goals, which you probably do).

And he told a story during a training a few months ago that has stuck with me, maybe because my husband worked at Long John Silver’s during high school for awhile, and I’ll never forget how truly crazy people get about their fish on Fridays during Lent.

But Jake’s story was about how Long John Silver’s has customers ring a bell on the way out the door, and his question was about how we capture that same energy from those that we serve, on their way out.

He was talking about how organizations collect (and, often, don’t) stories about those they serve, in order to deploy those narratives in social change campaigns. And his point was that we need to develop systems that, before we spend much energy going out to find and engage new advocates, ‘plug the holes’ so that we’re not losing the evidence of the impact we have, as it literally walks away from us.

And I have been thinking about that, since, in reference to organizations’ hesitancy to look to their clients first, when they’re seeking out advocates. I mean, why would we not consider those who have just been helped by our work, those whose fates are most inextricably connected to our own, those who are the greatest experts in the situations they face, as our first and greatest hopes for social change?

Why do we spend so much more energy (and even money) coming up with messages that we think can convince others to care about our issues, instead of first investing in the advocacy capacity of those who already care, very much?

Why do we have systems (sometimes elaborate and expensive ones) to figure out how the ‘general public’ feels about our work, and about us, but have seldom institutionalized a culture that moves people from clients to constituents to stakeholders?

What would it take to make sure that our clients are ‘ringing the bell’ every time they leave, telling us their story and capturing the impact that our services have had on their lives?

And what difference could it make, if there was that much bell ringing going on?