Tag Archives: history

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.

Borrowing from the kids: More Inspiration!


It’s still Inspiration Week here, before we turn our eyes to the serious challenges awaiting us in 2014 (and, yes, that’s coming–I’ve been working on posts for next week about inequality).

But, today, even though it’s not Thanksgiving and it’s not even Sarah Hale’s birthday, I’m writing about my favorite children’s book: Thank You, Sarah.

Because, see, I think we can all use some reminding in this new year, that these are not the first hard times. Instead, Sarah Hale did her advocacy during the period leading up to and during the Civil War–unarguably even more divisive than today’s budget battles.

And we are not the first to feel overburdened by life and inconvenienced by the need to advocate for our most cherished ideals. She had five children and no dishwasher, for crying out loud.

What she had was her ‘secret weapon’, a pen.

And being ‘bold and brave and stubborn and smart’, which I’m really, really hoping someone will put on my tombstone.

I love the pictures of Sarah writing letters by candlelight while her kids sleep.

And the part where my daughter always cheers, when “Lincoln said yes! Lincoln said yes!” (to making Thanksgiving a national holiday)

And how the book shows the waiting that is part of the advocacy process, too, an important reminder that we are not the first to struggle against our impatience, either.

If you need inspiration to face 2014’s problems, maybe it can be this: “never underestimate dainty little ladies”, with pens, and conviction.

Thank you, Sarah. We know we’re going to need it.

Inspiration from, and for, the commons

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

But, around this time of year, I always feel like I could use a little extra inspiration.

And, so, in the interest of finishing 2013 strong, I’m sharing some of my favorite social justice-related quotes, and hoping that you’ll share yours, too.

I was 7 years old when I received my first book of Bartlett’s quotations, as a birthday present, because I have always been fascinated by words–how they move people, and how we organize them.

I still collect them, not so much for who said a particular phrase, but for the glimpses of insight–new or just repackaged–that they offer.

Stay awhile, be inspired, and, then, leave your own mark.

  • “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine.” ― Ernesto Guevara
    This one reminds me of Sister Berta, the tireless advocate for children in poverty who started Operation Breakthrough, here in Kansas City. In a meeting earlier this year, she pounded the table and demanded to know why there isn’t more outrage about what poor children endure in our community. I didn’t have an answer, and I still don’t, but I know that she inspires me to get angry, all the time.

  • “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice…, the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt
    I posted a photo of this from the FDR Memorial this summer. It’s as true now as then.

  • “An educator should consider that he has failed in his job if he has not succeeded in instilling some trace of a divine dissatisfaction with our miserable social environment. ” ― Anthony Standen
    I discovered this one during an Internet search for something else, and I think it’s sort of my new professional mission statement. We cannot adjust to injustice.

  • “In the unceasing ebb and flow of justice and oppression we must all dig channels as best we may, that at the propitious moment somewhat of the swelling tide may be conducted to the barren places of life.” ― Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House
    I love this. I love the hopefulness of it, the resolute sense that we must persevere even when we don’t know when or how good may come. I love the recognition of the role of serendipity. I love that we are both social workers.

  • “Every good law or case you study was once a dream. Every good law or case you study was dismissed as impossible or impractical for decades before it was enacted. Give your creative thoughts free reign, for it is only in the hearts and dreams of people seeking a better world that true social justice has a chance. Finally, remember that we cannot give what we do not have. If we do not love ourselves, we will be hard pressed to love others. If we are not just with ourselves, we will find it very difficult to look for justice with others. In order to become and remain a social justice advocate, you must live a healthy life. Take care of yourself as well as others. Invest in yourself as well as in others. No one can build a house of justice on a foundation of injustice. Love yourself and be just to yourself and do the same with others. As you become a social justice advocate, you will experience joy, inspiration and love in abundant measure.” ― Bill Quigley
    I had to look him up, I liked this so much. The first part is my favorite: every social program we now take for granted first existed only in someone’s imagination. We should be dreaming bigger dreams, people.

What’s on a sticky note affixed to your computer? Or taped on the wall by your bed? Or on a magnet on your refrigerator?


…for summer vacations, for the legacy of those who have gone before, and for the opportunity to help raise the next generation of champions for justice.

And, as promised, elusive photos of my incredible kids, here on the Internet. Spreading the thankfulness.

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On the capitol steps in Montgomery. It was here that a reporter who had been following Dr. King turned to his companion and said, “I really think they’re going to win this thing.”

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Timeline of the civil rights movement

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In front of Dr. King’s church in Montgomery

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And the Greyhound station where Freedom Riders were attacked

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On the Freedom Trail between Selma and Montgomery: grateful for a husband who stopped at every.single.marker

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16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. I’ve been before, but not as a mother. I cannot comprehend the agony of those parents.

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“We ain’t afraid of your jails.” And they weren’t. Incredible.

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Taking the time to be frightened, and to imagine their fear and appreciate their courage

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.

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Ready to walk

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Sobbing with every step

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My husband knew I would want this picture

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The church where courage was forged

Eisenhower and Opportunity Costs

I took the kids to Abilene this summer.

Because, you know, it’s where all the kids want to go.

Mainly, of course, it was for my oldest son.

Eisenhower isn’t Sam’s favorite, by far (he could give you the ordered list, if you’d like), but he is quite enamored of anything having to do with victory over the Nazis, plus, it’s a Presidential Library in Kansas, so you can’t miss it.

I had this quote, in Decisive, in my head when I was there:

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants each serving a town of 60,000 people. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people” (Eisenhower, 1953, on p. 45).

Set aside, for a moment, the obvious: Holy different Republican Party, no?

Because the point that Decisive was making, and that I am struck with, is that we must acknowledge opportunity costs in our advocacy.

We must account for them in weighing the policy options that we advocate, instead of (guilty as charged, here) pretending that our new policy innovations are all ‘upside’.

We must include them in our consideration about whether or not to even advocate in the first place, since there are obvious costs to directing our energy to these social change goals, sometimes including the expense of pulling us away from the provision of vital services.

We strengthen our case, I believe, when we demonstrate that we have accounted for the loss of these alternative activities, as valuable as they may be. And we can use opportunity costs to our advantage is pushing against proposed policies, too, sometimes by arguing that, as laudable as a particular objective may be, it may not be enough to be worth what we would have to give up in return.

When and where do you calculate opportunity costs in your organization? In your advocacy? What challenges do you face in this accounting? And, when you’re honest with yourself, what are the opportunity costs that haunt you the most?

Not mine alone

This Labor Day, I’m thinking about how easy it is to take credit for things we didn’t secure by ourselves.

To claim our employment successes, for example, when they come in significant measure because of educational advantages or accumulated privileges.

To pride ourselves on our initiative or hard work when–present though those attributes may be–there is ample evidence around the world that some economies reward them very differently, and that status still matters in determining how much our efforts will yield.

And I’m thinking about, in my own life, a perhaps trivial but, to me, still poignant example of this, nearly every day.

I have lost quite a bit of weight over the past few months, now that I’m done having babies. And often, especially when I haven’t seen people in awhile, they will remark about it. It’s usually along the lines of pointing out that I must be working hard, and, not infrequently, even making jabs at those who are overweight, something about “if you can find time to work out, so can they!”

And, to me, thinking about that invisible backpack of privilege that we carry around, that’s not a compliment.

It’s a teachable moment.

Because the truth is that our food system and our gender relations and our economy and our built environment and, indeed, our entire society, are wired for overweight. My successes in counteracting those currents stem not so much from my superior willpower (or, in all honesty, the fact that the treadmill at 5:15AM is one place where no one will interrupt me) but, again, from the scaffolding that places me at a distinct advantage in the quest to reach a healthy weight: adequate income to purchase more expensive, nutritious food; access to quality childcare so that I can exercise knowing my kids are taken care of; an education that positioned me to secure flexible employment; racial and economic privileges that allow me to purchase a home in a desirable neighborhood with ample access to recreation and physical activity…and so on.

It’s not that I mean to dismiss the influence of the individual. Social workers are PIE for a reason. It’s not all environment.

But when we ignore the power of the structures that shape our opportunities and our outcomes–at work, at home, in politics, even on the bathroom scale–we don’t just give ourselves too much credit.

We deny the contributions, and the sacrifices, and the disadvantages, of those who have gone before and those who struggle around us today.

That five-day work week, those paid sick days, those accommodations for disabilities, my pounds lost…all are shared victories.

Not ours alone.

Acts of conscience and resistance

We need to find examples of humanity amidst suffering.

We need them.

That’s why I love the story, related in The Forger, about Christians who put their identity passes in the offering plates at church in Nazi Germany, which forgers then turned into lifesaving documents for Jews targeted for deportations (p. 98).

What I find so compelling about this particular story of resistance and acts of conscience, though, is how ordinary it is.

It illustrates what I believe is a critical point about these opportunities to exert moral courage:

We seldom have as much to lose as others have to gain.

Especially when we are willing to leverage our relative power–that afforded by our education, perhaps, or our social class, or even our race–we can often stand up with those threatened with comparably little at stake.

It makes all the more indefensible the many, many occasions when we fail to exercise even this limited risk, when we fail to look for opportunities to resist.

Last week, when I raised the uncomfortable issue of inequities in school finance among neighboring counties–a sensitive issue in my privileged district and one that usually doesn’t go over well with my peers–I thought of those identity passes in the collection plates.

Not flashy or particularly daring, but principled and, ultimately, collectively, huge.

What are your acts of conscience and resistance? How do you measure them, sustain them, multiply them?

How do they define you?

It only takes one

Helene Jacobs, from the German Resistance Memorial Center

Helene Jacobs, from the German Resistance Memorial Center

So, yes, I was that person reading about Nazi Germany at the beach.

It’s sort of how I roll.

Specifically, I read The Forger, a short memoir about a young Jewish man who survived in wartime Berlin in large part due to his skills as a graphic artist (he forged documents that helped to save the lives of other Jews, hence the title) and his brazen daring.

But also the kindness and courage and generosity of Helene Jacobs, now officially honored for her sacrifices, who gave up her engagement because her fiance supported the Nazis and then sheltered the protagonist, Cioma Schonhaus, during the war.

And afterwards, when his entire family had been slaughtered in Nazi camps, he reflected that he could still survive and, indeed, could still keep going every day largely because his relationship with this one German counteracted the brutality leveled by so many.

Knowing Helene Jacobs and seeing her goodness and selflessness inoculated him, in some ways, against the bitterness and hatred that would be–still today–so completely understandable.

And, so, while I’ve never been a ‘starfish’ person, never bought into the ‘power of one’, all that much, because I believe in building movements and changing systems…

it made me think.

When can we be that one?

Not trying to change the world on our own.

Not contenting ourselves with providing salves against the injustice and destruction that characterizes so much of our world.

But just interacting with others in such ways that we can restore their faith and hope, at the moments when they need it most, and being beacons of decency in a world that can use a lot more of it.

Because if Ms. Jacobs could single-handedly not only save a life but sustain that light, in the midst of so much darkness,

can’t we?

Blaming the Victim

I am obviously not the first person–nor even the first social worker–to observe and decry our tendency towards victim blaming.

We see it in nearly every field of social policymaking today.

In domestic violence: “Why doesn’t she leave?”

In substance abuse: “Why doesn’t he quit?”

In criminal justice: “Why can’t they go straight?”

In education: “Why do schools need more money?”

But victim-blaming isn’t a new phenomenon.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that, during and immediately following the Holocaust, voices within and beyond the Jewish community questioned why Jews had not ‘resisted sufficiently’.

In part, I think this exposes one of the motivations behind victim-blaming: self-preservation.

I think that, sometimes, when we shake our heads and tsk, tsk at those who we see as fallen, what we’re really trying to tell ourselves is that there must be something wrong with them, because we could never end up in that same situation.

You can hear that in the quotes of Jewish survivors who asserted that people should have run away from the trains and risen up in the camps. We want to believe that the world still basically works, and that what went wrong in this particular instance is that somebody didn’t [fill in the blank: make the right decision, try hard enough, listen to good advice].

That’s not meant to make excuses for victim-blaming.

We can’t let ourselves get comfortable projecting the actions that we think oppressed people should have taken, in the face of odds that we ourselves have not encountered.

It’s inexcusable.

But it is, I believe, when seen in the context of our desperate need to reconcile tremendous suffering with our need for order and control and predictability, understandable.