Tag Archives: current issues

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.

Frightening beyond words

I know, I know.

I’ve heard all the arguments about how the Voting Rights Act isn’t dead, about how there are still lots of options for those alleging infringement of their civil rights, about how the Supreme Court’s June ruling really only tinkers with this fundamental human rights protection.

And, you know, standing on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma this summer,


What’s scary to me this Halloween?

That our Supreme Court could honestly think that, somehow, history couldn’t repeat itself. That racism is over. And that getting a lawyer to fight for your right to vote is anything like equal citizenship.

That’s just frightening.

I have often found myself wishing that those who, today, take their right to vote for granted would have to pass a citizenship test, witnessing what aspiring Americans go through for the same chance to help shape our democracy.

I’ve altered that: now I wish that we all had to walk in the steps of John Lewis and the freedom fighters whose steps marked a generation and threw down a gauntlet that changed us forever.

It was an incredibly powerful walk across that bridge, imagining the fear and remembering how, just a few weeks before, the highest court in the United States prematurely declared that the fight was won.

We must not only not forget. That suggests that this is, somehow, a relic of history.

We must, instead, keep walking.

To do otherwise is too scary to contemplate.

Beach 313sm
Ready to walk

Beach 317sm
Sobbing with every step

Beach 319sm
My husband knew I would want this picture

Beach 320sm
The church where courage was forged

Entering the false divide: social enterprise and ‘traditional’ nonprofits

A lot of the blogs that I follow (Tactical Philanthropy, Dan Pallotta, Acumen Fund, Social Velocity) deal with themes related to the changing nature of the nonprofit sector (there was even a rather heated discussion on another blog about what term to use in describing this sector–“community benefit organization”, anyone?), and about the power of social enterprise to change the world.

These conversations often take on a kind of back and forth. Those critical of the status quo in nonprofits argue that only market mechanisms have the power to produce real results, and that nonprofits’ failures are evidence that the ideologies that underlie them need to be scrapped (sometimes sounding straight from Wall Street); those who defend nonprofits point out (sometimes a bit self-righteously) that there are jobs that need to be done that markets don’t exactly embrace; and so it goes, on and on and on.

And I’ve been watching all of this, reading and thinking a lot about innovations in solving social problems, and finding myself swinging back and forth between the two pendulums.

And, then, some paragraphs in The Blue Sweater (written by the founder of the Acumen Fund, a very pro-social enterprise perspective) and a Facebook exchange with a former boss of mine have brought me to a point where I think that we’re really asking the wrong questions and focusing on the wrong variables in this debate.

Because, really, it’s not what your organization is called or even whether it makes a profit that matters most: it’s whether you solve problems, and, precisely, how well you solve the problems you set out to solve (which, to be fair, is really the premise behind Tactical Philanthropy). And both ‘traditional’ nonprofits and social businesses have proven that they can solve problems. And both have been proven not to be successful, too.

So, as my favorite part in The Blue Sweater highlights, we need to ask not whether we should employ X microlending or social marketing or social enterprise strategy; or whether a nonprofit is dedicating a high percentage of its revenues to programming or keeping costs down…but whether social justice is advancing, lives are being improved, problems are going away. And it’s not about what’s the best version of X program, either, because it just might be that what we need is Y. To the extent that social businesses can bring us these innovations, we should figure out ways to support their efforts–with what Acumen calls ‘patient capital’ and with a legal structure that accommodates their unique role. And to the extent that traditional nonprofits rally people around proven ways of helping, they should be celebrated.

And, ideally, we should focus this terrific energy among people who collectively care a lot about promoting justice and alleviating suffering to blending the best that both approaches have to offer: the built-in feedback of markets that make many social enterprises nimble and customer-focused, and the commitment to mission and spirit of solidarity that characterizes the best nonprofits.

As the author states in The Blue Sweater, “philanthropy alone lacks the feedback mechanisms of markets, which are the best listening devices we have; and yet markets alone too easily leave the more vulnerable behind” (p. 247).

For social workers, I see parallels in all this to the debate over whether to call those with whom we work “customers” or “clients”. More than just semantics, this language reflects a difference in how we see these folks, and how we see ourselves. And so, for our profession, as we contemplate the changing shape of the organizations and fields in which we work, our challenge is to think of our clients/consumers as our allies in a shared struggle, those with whom we have to, together, figure out the best way to get to our shared vision of a better tomorrow, in whatever vehicle is going to take us there. And be ready to jump ship if we find a better way. And not worry too much about what it’s called.

On privilege and leadership: Que viva Kennedy

So, I know that blogs and traditional media outlets have been inundated with coverage of Senator Ted Kennedy’s life, public service, and death. Certainly many who knew his work and life much better than I have provided ample tribute and considerable analysis.

I just have two things to add.

I remember a rally for immigrant rights on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building, listening to him speak and then to the rather amazing (it still brings tears to my eyes) sound of thousands of immigrants, most of whom spoke English as their second language, shouting “Kennedy” in a dozen different accents. Most didn’t know much about his family, or his legacy, but they knew what they heard and what they sensed: that, here, was a public official who wasn’t talking about ‘touchbacks’ or ‘guest workers’. He was talking about ‘justice’ and ‘America’ and ‘rights.’ That’s my first reflection on his role; at least from my encounters with him and with his office, while he was quite a pragmatic politician, he also had an understanding of his power, his electoral invincibility, and the freedom and responsibility that they bestowed on them. It was the only speech I can remember during my campaigns with immigrants hearing a member of Congress speak (in English, at least) about immigrants the same way that immigrants speak about, and to, themselves. It was pretty uncensored, and, to a community deluged with negative attacks and half-hearted ‘help’, it was renewing, invigorating, and redeeming. It was like a gift that he knew he could give to us, one that we very much needed. He did it again, later, on a conference call during some of the ugly negotiations over legislation, negotiations in which he central. He reminded us of the horrible stories he heard during hours talking with survivors of the New Bedford, MA ICE raids, and reminded us that that’s why we were in this fight, and he pitched himself as our ally in that struggle. When he left the call, there was an audible exhale and some nervous laughter, letting off steam. We were restored to fight on. That, to me, is about understanding your power and privilege and using it for good. Unpacking it, so you can exploit it. And it’s inspiring.

My other memory of Senator Kennedy was in a town hall-type event on immigration. He made a point of shaking the hands of several of the immigrant kids who were there with us, including one that had come with me. She asked me about him later–who he was and why he cared. In talking to her, I was struck about how much his life was not about the American Dream of ‘anyone can be a leader’ but a lot more about the idea that some have special responsibility to lead, and what it means to live that weight. And we talked about the scandal that had touched his life and career, about how he had almost thrown away his place in politics. And she was quite comfortable with the idea that, as she put it, we’re all human, and it’s what we do to make up for our mistakes that distinguishes us much more than making them in the first place. And I thought about that this week, when he is remembered much more for the good that he has done with his legislative career than for the tragedy of Chappaquiddick, even though that tragedy echoes still. If we hold that only those public figures without flaw are worthy of revere, then we’re, by extension, excusing from courageous service all of us who are flawed. We can’t afford to bench that many of our allies. We need accountability, we need transparency, we need honesty, but we also need space for redemption. In my memory, the student’s brow furrowed for a minute upon hearing the story, and then she returned her gaze to watching Senator Kennedy embrace immigrant families, nodding as she watched good decisions atone for the past.

We obviously can’t all be Kennedys, but we can all leave our mark–using the power that we accummulate as a force for good, refusing to be sidelined by the mistakes we’ve made, living up to our destiny to lead even as we’re still creating it.

Courage of Conviction

I have been thinking A LOT about Dr. George Tiller since his assassination on May 31, 2009. I’ve had a lot of time to think about him, too, since I’ve been marathon-painting my daughter’s bedroom until the early hours every morning, after the kids go to bed. I can’t listen to my iPod or I won’t be able to hear the kids if they need something, so I paint and think. And paint and think.

I’ve thought about what his murder says about the state of the abortion battle today; how we have yet to hear a strong statement from the current Kansas Governor denouncing this political killing; how each side will or will not attempt to use his life and death to advance their cause; how the coverage (besides Barb Shelley) in the Kansas City Star reflects the cuts in investigative reporting at that paper and others (the statements that they let go unchallenged were apalling); how I’m glad that Lenny’s book is done so that he can draw attention to some of the linkages between the extreme anti-abortion groups and militias and white nationalists.

But mostly, I have thought about courage. I have thought about how Dr. Tiller went to work every single day knowing that many, many people in this country wanted him dead for doing what he believed to be right. And I’ve wondered if I would have the courage to do the same.

I’m no stranger to harassment for my beliefs. When I was a leading advocate on behalf of immigrant rights, I received dozens of nasty emails and phone calls, and a few long-winded hand-written letters, calling me all manner of ugly names (“Communist Mexican-lover” was one of the more colorful, non-profane ones). People told me to go back to Mexico, which was a little funny. They called my office late at night, intending to leave a mean message on my machine, and hung up when I answered at 10:30PM. They called my answering machine at home and hung up, sometimes 20 or more times a day. Occasionally, they even made some vague threats, which prompted Lenny to give me instructions on how to handle threatening mail (he made me keep Zip-lock bags in my desk) and worried my police chief friends. Once I was listed on a website that was something about ‘enemies of America’, and it even gave my address, which was kind of scary.

And none of that made me even think about stopping. My husband used to laugh at the idea that having to delete a bunch of hang-ups on our answering machine would somehow make me quit (“that’s the last straw,” he’d laugh). Mostly I was annoyed, sometimes sad, only occasionally a little scared. I was never singled out, and I was never really threatened. I was always, honestly, glad to receive any of the negative attention, because I figured that it was better for me to be the target than immigrants who lacked the security and protection that I have as a citizen of this country.

But since May 31st, I’ve been wondering, what if. What if I had been threatened more directly? What if I had actually been targeted? Would I have had the strength, the courage, the moral outrage in me to be ever-emboldened by that hatred to continue my life’s work? I honestly doubt it, and that realization has been the focus of my ruminations these weeks while I paint and think.

I didn’t know Dr. Tiller. I don’t even know a lot about the procedures he performed, and this isn’t a post about abortion politics, anyway. But what is obvious is that he understood the risks, lived with them every moment, and had long ago made peace with the idea of sacrificing himself for a cause in which he very much believed. He did so consciously and very, very bravely. While I don’t believe there’s evidence that he considered himself a martyr, and I certainly don’t think he wanted to die for this cause, he was willing to do so if that’s what it took…or, maybe more accurately, he was just unwilling to let his opponents intimidate or silence him. And that’s a powerful witness. One to which I (and maybe you, too?) can only hope to aspire. And that’s a lot to think about.

Demographics are not Destiny

One of my students sent me this article after a class discussion on organizing. I had referred to one of my greatest frustrations as an organizer and advocate working in the Latino immigrant community–so many of those with whom I was organizing (not immigrants themselves, actually, but other ‘professionals’) seemed to think that, if we just waited long enough, the inexorable increase in the size of the Latino population would spell victory on our public policy struggles. I got into many debates with them about the fallacy of this argument; one need only look to apartheid South Africa and, indeed, the American South for examples of when demographic strength has failed to translate into political power. Conversely, there are inspiring examples of relatively small groups that, through shrewd organizing and smart media work, have commanded far more attention and respect than their numbers would demand.
This article touches on only one of the ways in which there can arise a disconnect between the size of an affected group and its prominence on the social problem agenda–lack of cohesion or collective identity. One of the difficulties of organizing in a Western context is the tendency to see all problems as personal problems, and, indeed, social workers’ first recourse is often to try to ‘solve’ a problem for a given individual or family, rather than consciousness-raising that would help that individual to see him/herself as connected to a larger class that, together, must agitate for attention and change.
Today’s economic crises have certainly made it clear that lack of health insurance (or a job) is not a personal problem but rather an endemic failure of our economy. And there are certainly enough people here to make elected officials very uncomfortable about continuing to dance around this fundamental issue. However, just like those who are waiting until 2050 so that people of color can exert their demographic dominance on the powers that be, the silent majorities who are victims of economic injustice need some good organizing to ensure that their size is actually worth something.

Organizing the Uninsured