Tag Archives: history

Always worth a try

In Kansas these days, there’s a lot of resignation.

Our tax system has been denounced from all corners as the worst in the nation.

Nonprofit advocates perceive swift retribution from the Administration when they criticize state policy actions.

Our Attorney General has requested more than $1 million in supplemental appropriations to finance the defense of the unconstitutional bills (opting out of federal gun laws, anyone?) passed by the legislature last session.

I have heard more than a few times in the past few months:

“What’s the use?”

And, you know, I get it.

We have really important work to do, helping kids get ready for kindergarten and seniors find housing and parents get back to work.

If advocacy increasingly feels like yelling into the wind, maybe it’s a waste of our (very) precious time.

Until I read Auschwitz: A New History this summer and figured out that we have a lot to learn about seemingly-hopeless situations and how they aren’t, after all, so hopeless.

The book included several examples (see, for example, p. 139) of when Nazis were vulnerable to public protest, which begs the question: if more people and more governments had protested deportations and decried cruel treatment of Jews, what would have happened?

What are we missing out on, because we have convinced ourselves that it’s foolish to even try?

The book also relates stories of those who protested their own role in the killing but were seldom punished, reminding us that we often exaggerate the negative consequences for ourselves and minimize the likelihood of our advocacy success.

Again, if those lessons are true even in one of the darkest periods in all of human history, surely it’s true today, when what we’re dealing with is a failed economic policy and zealously ideological policymakers.

Righting wrongs is always, always worth a try.

And even yelling into the wind is better than nothing.

If it’s true in the shadow of Auschwitz, it’s true everywhere.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

I have spent much of my summer working on my advocacy around educational equities, particularly regarding policy innovations to improve post-secondary outcomes for low-income students.

It’s pretty clear that our educational system–from the expectations we set for children to the resources they encounter in the classroom to the incentives presented to their parents to how students fare once they leave school–works differently for disadvantaged students than for advantaged ones.

And the result is that, instead of being an equalizing agent in our society, education tends to reinforce patterns of relative privilege.

It works insidiously, of course, so that these mechanisms are nearly invisible.

We end up, then, with something that looks almost like a ‘natural’ phenomenon:

Low-income students of color just don’t do as well in school.

As if that is, somehow, just to be expected.

And that’s a theme–this idea that our policies can produce inequitable outcomes in a way that makes them look inevitable, instead of distinctly and unjustly orchestrated–that I reflected on during some of my non-professional reading this summer, too.

Like how, around the world today, many nations and cultures believe that girls don’t deserve an education, so they make it difficult or even impossible for girls to go to school…and then their relative lack of education is used as ‘evidence’ of the reality of girls’ inferior academic abilities.

Or, even more tragically, when Nazis did not permit Jews to work and then used their ‘idleness’ as part of the rationale for their subsequent deportation.

Of course, these beliefs and practices aren’t just found in literature.

What about when mothers receiving welfare do not receive enough financial support to provide well for their children, and then we point to their kids’ inadequate nutrition and ill-fitting clothes as ‘proof’ that they are not well cared for?

Or when we enact strict penalties for those who have disabilities and work (in many states, they can still lose their health care and benefits, if they earn too much money) and then lament their lack of ‘work initiative’?

Or when we forbid people from using SNAP benefits to buy diapers at the grocery store and then incarcerate a mom for stealing diapers for her baby (really), and cite that as, somehow ‘proving’ the inherent untrustworthiness of people in poverty?

Or, particularly perniciously, when we hold our elections on Tuesdays and cluck our tongues at the low voter turnout rates among low-income working people–those least in control of their time on any given work day?

Where our policies give credence to our worst instincts, we need policy change.

Where we build barriers and constrain people’s options to a series of bad choices and then cast judgment on their choice of one of those, we need policy change.

Where we force people to live out stereotypes that in no way reflect the reality of their lives absent these unnatural limitations, we need policy change.

Where our direst prophecies are being fulfilled, and then treated as though the march in this direction is unavoidable, even while lamentable…

We need policy change.

The dangers of mainstreaming hate

History repeating itself.


Some of the books about the Holocaust that I read this summer made the point that, in comparison with the really violent anti-Semitism pervasive in much of German culture during the 1920s and 1930s, the Nazis’ initial overtures into that crowded field seemed, well, rather ‘reasonable’.


And, yet, as outrageous as that sounds, with today’s benefit of hindsight, it’s a dynamic that repeats itself.

When there are really hateful and dangerous voices on the scene, even other, only slightly-less-hateful voices can sound, somehow, less so.

In immigrant rights, this is dramatic and visible and really concerning.

When one legislator is advocating shooting undocumented immigrants from helicopters like feral pigs, calls to ‘just’ kick immigrant students out of college seem almost tame.

When some national political figures calls for mass deportations, plans to make life so miserable for immigrants that they will ‘self-deport’ back to their countries of origin seem like novel ideas worth exploring. Sort of.

When one anti-immigrant organization alleges that Mexicans are having babies in order to ‘reconquer’ U.S. territory, others’ pseudo-academic ‘studies’ about the negative environmental impact of immigration actually get included in congressional testimony.

Oh, actually, those are both part of the same organization, a twist on the ‘moderate by comparison’ approach.

And this is part of why paying attention to the margins matters so much: they’re not really marginal, because they drive not only what happens on the edges but also what ends up in the middle.

Then, and now.

Products of our environment

There are few things more paralyzingly frightening to me than the responsibility of raising good moral citizens.

Every time I hear about a horrible crime or some terrible perpetrator, I think not just of the victims but also of the offender’s parents.

Because, sometimes, parents really try, and still fail, at this whole ‘nurture’ thing.

It’s really, really, really scary.

I’m thinking a lot, this week, about the impact of the environment on human behavior, because my oldest son started school for the fall yesterday. And, while my influence on him, still, weighs heavily on my mind and heart, even during the school year, I am also conscious of how much who he is will be shaped by the context in which he spends a majority of his waking hours, August through May.

Maybe I really shouldn’t have spent so much time reading about Auschwitz this summer.

One of the major lessons of Auschwitz’s history, as related in the book, is shared in the first few pages: “Human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation” (xx).

This is seen in the ghettos, where corruption flourished among people completely ethical before their deprivation (p. 70). It is evident in the experiences of different nations during Nazi occupation, where those with cultures amenable to prejudice saw anti-Semitism take root quickly, because there was already fertile soil for these perverse values.

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that we don’t have choices about how we behave.

We do. And the Holocaust also proves that point, as there are certainly examples of those who transcended their circumstances, defied expectations, and lived their free will.


But it’s also a story about how our choices are constrained by our context, and about how important it is to create a culture that affirms our core values–not just social work values, but values of human rights and basic dignity–so that individuals desiring to live those commitments won’t have to swim upstream so much.

We have to build environments that reward justice and provide incentives for compassion.

So that we will grow up just and compassionate.

And, we hope, stay that way.

Messaging like a convoy

Image from Flickr, Creative Commons license

Image from Flickr, Creative Commons license

I read A LOT this summer, and I have notes about some of my insights from that reading all over my desk.

In an effort to clean off my workspace and clean out some of the thoughts swirling around my head, the next several weeks will be sort of ‘book review’ time at Classroom to Capitol. I hope that you add some new titles to your ‘to-read’ lists (mine are SO long!) and find some new ideas to seed your own thinking, as we head into fall.

Reading about Auschwitz on vacation prompts some strange looks, I’ll admit.

But it’s good mental exercise, and I found myself reflecting on more than just the obvious horror of the Holocaust, although that’s what kept me up some nights.

But this quote from Goebbels was one of the first pieces that struck me.

He described his communication efforts as relying on repetition and constant, only somewhat varied, reiteration. His technique was to ‘move like a convoy–always at the speed of the slowest vessel’ (p. xvi).

I’m not, I promise, suggesting that we strive to emulate the Nazi propagandist, it is an undeniably poignant example of the power of communication.

But that idea, that we need to be always aware of how we’re bringing people along with us, as we’re messaging, is incredibly important.

It means that racing along at our preferred speed won’t work, when what we’re trying to do is get people to adopt our lens to see the world. It means that we will leave people behind unless we’re not only scanning the horizon but also looking in the rearview mirror. It means that we can’t be afraid of saying the same thing over and over again, because that’s how we give people a chance to connect to our messages, at whatever point they encounter them.

It means that we never lose sight of the purpose of our communication, at least in an advocacy context: to share a vision of the world as it should be, and to invite others to be part of it, too.

Crowdsourcing Week: How do you teach advocates history?

It’s summer.

I’m dividing my time between the pool with my 4 kids, shuttling said children to dozens of activities, teaching intense summer courses, and managing my nonprofit consulting responsibilities, which honestly get a little more challenging in the summer, since coordinating with several agencies’ vacation schedules is a bit difficult.

All of which is a long introduction to this week’s theme:


I love crowdsourcing, it is well-established. I love the idea of it, since I believe that people already possess much of what we, collectively, need to know. It’s just a matter of harnessing it.

I love it in practicality, since it is a really terrific way to get good ideas without having to do a lot of work. See above, re: it’s summer.

And I love it here, since I learn something from my readers and our conversations every single day.

So, this week, I’m turning the tables. I don’t have much to bring to these posts. I mostly have my hands out, hoping for some pearls of wisdom.

Just like Ms. Crystal Smith says in the best. podcast. ever: “I appreciate you in advance.”

A few months ago, I read this great article about the women’s suffrage movement. What is so powerful about it is that it isn’t just a history lesson, in the ‘what happened, to whom, and when’ vein. It is, instead, several lessons from history, applied to struggles for social justice today.

But, without the historical context, an article like this would have been just another list of pieces of advocacy advice–helpful, but not with the same weight and resonance. Because the truth is, we need to learn our history, as advocates for social justice, if we are to root our efforts today in the collective wisdom and experiences of movements past.

And yet, I see, with my students and with my colleagues, a relative lack of historical perspective. In some ways, this advocacy ‘amnesia’ reflects the uncritical teaching of history in our formal education system, and the ways in which marginalized voices have been excised from much of the historical record. And it’s also, I think, partly our own faults. It is easy to think that this particular time is so unique that the past cannot possibly hold any truths relevant for today. Especially with the ascendance of technology in organizing, it seems like organizations’ campaigns from a century ago can’t possibly inform our actions tomorrow.

But. We need to learn our history. It is part of who we are, and it shapes the context in which we advocate today. As this year’s inaugural address reminded us, we are still a part of the thread of continual striving for perfection of democracy, a thread that has Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall woven through it.

So, the crowdsourcing.

How do we incorporate social justice history into nonprofit advocacy? Given that I can’t pack up a group of advocates against child abuse, or for ending the stigma of mental illness, or campaigning against hunger, for a semester-long course on movement history, how do we approach their work today with an eye towards yesterday’s victories and defeats? Where do you get inspiration from the past? What are your favorite sources of historical perspective? How do you weave them into your life in small-enough doses to be manageable? What tactics work best, for taking this long view?

How do you teach advocates history, so that we can repeat the lessons we should be learning and avoid the mistakes from which we must have already learned?

What does the crowd say?

The What: We Still Need Voting Rights

More ‘whats’, in policy change.

Or, in this case, policy not-change.

Because, let’s be real:

We still need The Voting Rights Act.

We’re in the era of evidence-based policymaking, right?

Has there ever been a more successful piece of civil rights legislation in the history of the U.S.? No, really?

And so the idea that its very effectiveness is reason to scrap it is not just offensive (and it is; I am fairly chilled by hearing an Alabama official refer to ‘state sovereignty’ as reason to oppose a federal civil rights law). It’s dangerous.

I’m all for the role of the courts in policymaking (more on that tomorrow).

I just think that the U.S. Supreme Court should rule that the Voting Rights Act stands.

I’m glad that there’s a tremendous amount of advocacy going on, even while the Court deliberates.

If you haven’t already checked out these compelling videos showing how VRA provisions in various affected states are making a difference in how people can exercise their civic rights, check them out.

Look at this really great (although, again, disturbing) infographic on why we still need the Voting Rights Act.

You can’t call Antonin Scalia to point out that, Mr. Justice Sir, the right to vote is not a “racial entitlement”, because, um, voting isn’t an entitlement. That’s why it’s called the Voting Rights Act (He, of course, took objection to that, too, supposedly because it makes the legislation too popular for members of Congress to vote against? Como on, two members of the Kansas congressional delegation voted against the Violence Against Women Act, for crying out loud. These people are not afraid of catchy names.)

But you can tell everyone who will listen (friends, family, neighbors, the guy waiting at the post office) that, yes, we still need the VRA. We still need voting rights, in this age of photo identification and proof of citizenship and long lines at fewer polling places.

People bled for the right to vote in Alabama. That history leaves scars, not just on individual psyches but on institutions and ways of doing business.

That is why we need the Voting Rights Act.


Blind Spots and Grave Errors: Why do we think we’re immune today?

My oldest son is prone to getting really (REALLY) into something, for a brief period of time, and then moving quickly on. As parents, we try to keep up, encouraging his inquiry and trying not to reel too much when he abandons one topic for another.

For awhile, this winter, it was cholera.

As in, specifically, the cholera outbreak in Victorian London, and its contributions to the study of epidemiology and the development of modern sanitation.

He made a ‘ghost map’ showing how a cold outbreak could travel through his school, modeled after the map that Dr. John Snow made to finally prove that cholera resulted from contaminated water and not from bad smells.

And I, to make sure I could understand what he was talking about (and because most of his interests are, actually, quite interesting), read The Ghost Map myself.

And one part that stuck with me was how absolutely certain the best minds of the day were, at the time, that the deadly diseases they confronted must come from the smells of the sewers and of the decay with which they were surrounded. It made so much sense. London smelled really bad, according to almost all contemporary sources, and people were frequently ill, so, then, it made sense that the two would be related. They kept on believing this, even when houses with worse sanitation suffered lower death rates than the richer houses that happened to be downstream. They believed it because it seemed so right, even when data suggested that it wasn’t. At all. They believed it even when believing meant studiously ignoring countervailing facts, and even when believing one way led to behaviors significantly more likely to result in their deaths. They took clear action based on these flawed beliefs, never apologizing for or even seeming to doubt the veracity of beliefs based on no sound science at all.

The author asks, and we must ask ourselves, “How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline–the sociology of error” (15).

Because, of course, this wasn’t the first time in history when powerful beliefs that defy truth have led to grave errors. During one outbreak of plague, a belief that the disease was spread by dogs and cats led to mass extermination which, of course, increased the plague, since it was actually spread by rats formerly kept in check by the dogs and cats (120).

And it wasn’t the last.

We have, with a greater or lesser degree of consensus, believed that interning Japanese-Americans would keep us safer; that cigarettes have no ill health effects; that people with mental illnesses belong in institutions; that nuclear power is infallibly safe…

We console ourselves that that was then, before we knew, because we don’t want to contemplate the very finite limits of the knowledge we have today.

And that’s our blind spot, this idea that we could be just as wrong now, about something else, as we recognize in hindsight. We could be ignoring just as many warning signs, about what’s wrong with our economic structure, or what it will take to really make schools work, or what supports young families need to thrive.

We could be just as wrong. And the consequences could be just as tragic.

If we don’t keep asking, why? And wondering, maybe?

How they will know history

Sam and I reading our favorite quote at the Dr. King Memorial

I interrupt September’s “reflections on my practice” theme, today, not for a “I remember where I was on Tuesday, September 11th, 11 years ago”, even though I do.

On this day, as I answer Sam’s questions about what happened then, I am struck by how much responsibility I have, as his Mom, to shape how he sees a past he will never know first-hand.

And that’s a really big deal.

Today, he asked the hard questions, about why someone would attack the United States when we weren’t at war. About why people who weren’t soldiers were the ones targeted. About why we responded by attacking a country.

Today isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this.

When we were at Legoland a month ago, for his birthday, he said that what he wanted to build on the ‘earthquake’ table was “Kris Kobach’s office.” (For the record, I did NOT condone this.)

He also called Kobach the “Voldemort of Kansas”. (Full disclosure: I thought that was pretty funny. And kind of accurate.)

So, obviously, he listens when Mommy talks, even if it’s not directly to him, and it shapes how he sees things that even he–who understands so much–can’t totally comprehend.

He knows that Mommy has a soft spot for LBJ, his obvious failings notwithstanding.

He knows that, in our family, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a big deal, not just a Monday off work in January.

He knows that the FDR Memorial in DC is my favorite, and he knows why.

And I don’t regret this, this passing on of what matters to me, and some of the values I hold most sacred.

This summer, when we were at the MLK Memorial in DC, I read him one of Dr. King’s quotes, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Sam looked at me and said, “Like Abraham Lincoln.”

How could I not be proud?

But how can I–collectively, how can we–teach our children about the past while creating a space for them to shape their own beliefs? How can I encourage him to conduct his own analysis and reach his own conclusions? How can I impart knowledge, and core values, and give him reign to think through the spaces himself?

Because I care about how he sees our history.

But his ability to craft his own lens, and to accommodate the views of others as he comes to know his core principles?

That matters far more, for our future.

Is social work an anachronistic profession?

In this final post taken from the ideas of The Spirit Level, I’ve been thinking about the evidence from past societies about greater equality, and about how social work values are often in tension, if not outright conflict, with societal ones, and, I guess, about what that says about our profession, and where we fit.

See, if societies grow progressively (no pun intended) less egalitarian as they develop, and if social work’s collective beliefs about the distribution of resources more closely mirror those of the past than today, then what’s the future for our profession? And, of course, for society too?

Evidence suggests that hunter/gatherer societies were more cooperative and less hierarchical because of a clearer sense of interdependence; as natural resources are depleted, will we regain an understanding of just how much we need each other? Will social work values, then, that are obviously more well-suited to ‘flatter’ societal power structures, come back in style?

Or are social workers destined to cope within a dominant value structure that doesn’t reflect our understanding about the way that wealth should be distributed or, perhaps more importantly, about the negative consequences of tremendous inequality?

If that’s the case, then how will we, as social workers, respond? Will we cave to societal norms that devalue redistribution? Will we seek status in order to thrive within that power dynamic, rather than resisting it? Will we spend increasing professional energy dealing with the symptoms of inequality?

Or will we rise to the challenge of turning the tide?

Does it matter, I guess, if we’re ‘out of touch’, if we are true to our value code? Do we, in fact, gain some maneuvering room if we’re operating a bit outside the system? Is there some advantage in being seen, in fact, as distinct, because it helps us to attract social workers who are not only clear about the mandates of the profession with which they are affiliating, but also obviously comfortable with the idea of standing apart?

Will history come around to us, again?

Will we concede?

Or are we content to be anachronistic, since we believe it to be right?