Tag Archives: human rights

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.

Suing the hand that (doesn’t) feed them: Nonprofit organizations and human rights

Do you ever have the experience of finding that someone else has been thinking something along the very same lines that you have, and you get excited? And then you find out that they were kidding?

Um, me neither?

So here’s my basic idea: there’s this whole industry, the social service sector, that gains its legitimacy and, indeed, its very existence, on the backs of the people it serves, really. It may sound ugly to say that, but it’s true. People (foundations, governments, individual donors) give us money because of what we say we’re going to do on behalf of, and for, our clients.

And sometimes we do. And sometimes we don’t.

And so, I’ve wondered for a long time, what if clients could sue social service providers for failing to provide the services/benefits/impact that they promise, implicitly or explicitly, to both donors and the clients themselves?

Now, I know, an attorney reading this will immediately point out that there’s no ground for a suit…

but that’s my whole point.

When what we’re providing is charity, the message we’re essentially sending to our clients is that they’re lucky to get what they get, and, if they don’t get what they were supposed to (because we don’t have a really good theory of change, or our methods are outdated, or our workers aren’t well-trained, or we’re cutting corners to cut costs), then, well, “social work isn’t an exact science”, or something like that.

If we used a more rights-based approach, perhaps not in the touchy-feely human rights sense (because I think that there are some legitimate concerns about that, as raised in the posts linked above), then in a more contractual one, then there would be, at least, an implied right to legal redress.

Because, really, in a way, that’s what we have in the human service arena–a compact between service providers and funders and clients, where only the clients lack a right to legal action if they don’t receive what it is that they were promised.

Sure, they can (and should!) sue if there’s actual malfeasance, unethical behavior, or real harm.

But what about the ‘softer’ harm that is leveled against people every day, in many small ways? The programs that are poorly designed, and the ones that come with far too many restrictions and requirements for anyone to succeed; the inexperienced staff who were hired to save money, or because of nepotism; the bigotry that, while perhaps never crossing a legal line, permeates so many organizations; the squandered resources, the missed opportunities, the slowly lost dreams?

I, for one, would love to see a class action suit, or at least the threat of one, against social service organizations who, despite perhaps being well-intentioned, have, perhaps unconsciously, settled into a lull of believing that those same good intentions are sufficient. Who buy into the idea that they’re saving the world just by showing up. Who think that ‘good enough’ really is. I’d love to see real accountability mean not just answering to those who write the checks, but those against whose lives those checks are leveraged, those who make the whole enterprise possible. Those who would, in an ideal world, really call the shots.

And I am not kidding.