Tag Archives: Kansas

Framework for a strong foundation

About a month ago, I posted about this framework for advocacy from the inimitable Tanya Beer with the Center for Evaluation Innovation.

I have used it several times since, to talk with organizations about how they conceptualize their advocacy–the targets towards which they are directed, the tactics they deploy, and the outcomes they can expect.

This week, then, I have three different (for me–hopefully they’ll translate for some of you!) epiphanies connected to this framework, one of which I owe directly to my good friend and awesome organizer Jake Lowen, of Kansas Grassroots.

When Jake and I were discussing this framework with some organizations, someone asked whether it is like a menu that organizations can choose from.

After listening and thinking (both things he does very well), Jake responded with a reference to (seriously) an obscure book about architectural theory, relating to the idea that, theoretically, the only factor that limits how tall a skyscraper can be is how wide you can build the base. He suggested, then, that we think about the different elements of this framework, or of our advocacy efforts, not as discrete items to be selected from a menu and cobbled together, but, instead, as bricks in a strong foundation. In this analogy, then, all of the ways in which we advance our issues–policy and research, community organizing, champion development–are essential, although we might emphasize one or another at different points.

And, extending this architectural reference to the current political environment, in Kansas and many parts of the country, our discussion raised the question that, since we essentially have a need for taller buildings today–the ‘shortcuts’ that were more possible in advocacy when the climate was more favorable and we had more champions on the inside to carry our messages–we need, then, an even stronger foundation.

Hence, more bricks.

That means, in applied advocacy language (since my knowledge of architectural theory is now, officially, exhausted), I think this means that we have to stretch ourselves into areas of the framework that might be less comfortable for us, in order to weather the storms that are undeniably part of the advocacy reality today. In some cases, we might be slowly approaching from one corner, in order to ease into policy change. In other cases, we might be surrounding our decision maker targets with information, public will, and pressure from influentials.

In essence, while we can’t ignore the poetic necessity to, sometimes, just speak truth to power and bang our heads against brick walls, there are often ways over and around the obstacles that we confront in one quadrant…

If we are nimble enough to build in another.

Where, and how, are you building advocacy strategies in this political reality that might differ from years past? How are these other efforts complementing your direct lobbying? How do they build you a stronger foundation?

Voting, and “our interests”

In class a few weeks ago, I acknowledged, in a discussion about the massive tax cuts enacted in Kansas this year, that my family’s own tax bill will be reduced–probably pretty considerably–under the new legislation. Combined, we make enough to be in an upper-income bracket, and what we pay each April will drop.

One of my students, then, asked, “So why don’t you support the tax change, if it’s going to mean more money for your family?”

I started to answer my student with a somewhat reflexive response about the importance of the infrastructure, and why I am ideologically committed to public education, and even what the erosion of public support for higher education would mean for a sizable piece of my employment.

But then I stopped.

And thought.

About economic ‘self-interest’. And social work values. And why I vote the way I do.

And, really, it’s about this:

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Jane Addams).

I chose it as the header for this blog for a reason.

I don’t believe in a ‘last one in shut the door behind you mentality”.

I don’t think that providing a ‘good quality-of-life’ for my kids is just about making sure they have money in the bank. Or even food on the table.

It’s about what we stand for together, what we consider ‘ours’, and who we consider to be part of our ‘we’.

It’s about what we’re willing to give up, in order to help others get what they need.

Not because we want to be ‘nice’ or generous, not really.

But because I believe that’s where real security and comfort and health come from.

Even if it costs me.

Pendulums, and giving them a nudge

Kansas’ political situation today can practically be described as ‘apocalyptic’.

After the August 7, 2012 primaries (a date that will be burned in my brain forever, I think), the Kansas Senate, long a moderate chamber, is now overwhelmingly (their phrase, not mine) “ultra-conservative”. Several moderate Republicans were defeated in the House, too, but it’s the Senate that was completely dramatic, nearly revolutionary.

And the reverberations will be felt for a long time.

While there are those who describe the outcome of the election as a ‘mandate’ for conservatism, it was mainly the old story of very low turnout in a closed primary, such that a pretty small percentage of Kansans are responsible for the dramatic shift.

And advocates–in healthy care, child welfare, immigrant rights, housing, civil rights, women’s issues, just about everything–are scrambling to figure out what this means, how we cope, and what the fallout will be.

In a discussion with some nonprofit advocates a few weeks ago, the talk turned immediately to the (pretty euphemistically titled) “new landscape”. (The term makes me think of a post-zombie attack New York City or a desolate wasteland.)

One of my colleagues, who has a long career in and around public health and government service, as well as advocacy, referenced Schlesinger’s The Cycles of American History, which is now on my nightstand, although I haven’t made it through it yet.

But the reason for this post is that, while I don’t take issue with the fact that politics swing on a pendulum, and that we can expect that this particular swing to one extreme will temper back down…

I don’t think that we should content ourselves to wait.

I don’t want to just ride the pendulum to the ‘other side’. I want to put it in motion. And I want you to do it with me.

There are precipitating incidents, after all, that start the pendulum shift. And there’s no reason that we can’t be them. Or create them.

My oldest son is pretty fascinated by the Newton’s Cradles and loves to pull back one of the balls to start a chain reaction. That’s why I chose that image for this post. It reminds me of what we need.

There are many things that could provide that momentum, in this time and place.

  • Making vivid, for Kansans, the impact of the tax cuts passed in 2012
  • Starting a movement around our public schools, given people’s passions about their kids
  • Organizing public sector workers, a la Wisconsin
  • Making women’s rights a centerpiece, given the likely drastic implications for reproductive choice, in particular
  • Galvanizing caregivers around cuts to Medicaid and older adult services (particularly through the planned move to Medicaid managed care)

And probably others that I haven’t even thought of.

Yes, I believe that pendulums swing.

But I also know that they can be pushed.

And that’s what I’m counting on.

Why do big tents so often fall down?

Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really committed advocates–super smart and dedicated people who are working extremely hard to protect their clients and the programs that serve them, in a climate of drastic budget cuts and an eroding social contract.

It’s soul-sucking work, and we’re losing many, many more battles than we win.

Lately, though, some of us have felt like we’re really fighting the wrong battle. Or, more accurately, battles.

It’s not just the old “divide and conquer” problem–the fact that social service advocates are vulnerable to intra-skirmishes that distract us from the real enemies and make it easier for those same opponents to play us against each other.

It’s also that we deliberately avoid taking on the real struggles, and even sometimes miss noticing them altogether, because we’re trying to contain debates that we can really only hope to dominate if we act collectively.

Here’s how it looks in real life:

In Kansas, advocates spent all last year fighting against budget cuts in different program areas–mental health, public education, child welfare, senior services. And all year, the Governor and some legislative leaders hinted that their sights were really set on a policy battle far larger and more fundamental to our state’s well-being: the revenue foundation that shores up (or doesn’t) all of those programs and far more. For the most part, they have not encountered much effectively organized opposition. From my conversations with at least some advocates, it seems that many hoped that not antagonizing the Administration on that issue would, somehow, preserve some access and influence that they could use to defend their work and serve their clients.

So, in essence, we’re sitting on the sidelines while our fates–for the next several years–are decided.

Because, of course, if the Governor and his allies are successful in eliminating the state income tax, they won’t need to legitimate their budget-slashing goals at all: there quite literally won’t be enough money to fund any of these programs, and so advocates will be fighting over crumbs.

If the failure to build a sustained, strategic, progressive coalition to take on these more global, structural issues was just a logistical one (getting people together across distance), or just jurisdictional (getting people to set aside their competition with each other), or even just a problem of capacity (people not having enough resources to take on a fight this big), then I feel like we’d know better how to start addressing it.

After all, those are the kinds of challenges that we overcome in our organizing every day.

But the real reason that building this kind of “big tent” is so hard, I think, is that too many awesome advocates think it’s a bad idea–that taking on these common concerns dilutes their influence and compromises their positions. And so we have to overcome not just inertia but entrenched resistance, and we’ve got to do it without being able to offer any guarantees that their concerns aren’t, in fact, totally well-founded: this Administration absolutely does box out those who oppose them.

But advocacy isn’t about tallying the numbers of wins v. losses.

It’s about how we can build movements that shape how people see themselves, and their worlds, and about how we can change even the debates about the policy challenges we confront. It’s about being in the arena, even if we emerge somewhat bloodied.

And so we can’t afford to sit out the really, really big fights, and we can’t presume that going it alone is ever safer.

There are some battlefields on which we just have to be willing to make a stand.

And there is solace in solidarity.

Remember: We’re the Sunflower State

This Sunflower hangs on a gate at my house, as a reminder of what we must be.

These are tough times, Kansans.

The economy isn’t great (although we ended last year with a healthy balance, thanks to some pretty drastic funding cuts whose effects will be felt for generations).

We’re in the middle of redistricting, which is ugly in the best of circumstances and potentially explosive with a polity as divided as ours today.

We face battles in this new legislative session around Arizona-style “show me your papers” legislation, raids of the Children’s Initiative Fund, an attack on our revenue foundation, and more cuts compounding the cuts.

It’s a good thing we’re the Sunflower State.

Sunflowers were adopted as a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement by Kansas suffragettes, I think mainly to ensconce their movement fully within the social mainstream. It has been used in advocacy campaigns repeatedly since, according to my research, because sunflowers can take the heat.

And they always face the sun.

And that’s what we need today.

As advocates, we’ve never felt more heat. The stakes are high, and the threats are real.

But we know what our vision looks like, too, and that’s the promise, the sun, towards which we must set our sights, unwilting, unbending.

The Legacy of Brown: We Must Not be Bought

Not long ago, I stood with my oldest son at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in front of a photo that contrasted a segregated school for African Americans in South Carolina (one-room schoolhouse with sagging shingles and missing boards) with a rather opulent school (large brick building) for white students.

The “unequal” part was obvious, and even more glaring than the “separate”.

Looking at those pictures, I remembered a section of The Race Beat, a book I read recently about journalists who covered the civil rights movement, that described the efforts of some segregationists in both the North and South who were eager to spend more on schools for children of color, especially in the lead-up to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Because they were willing to pay a lot to maintain the status quo.

That’s how much maintaining an oppressive system was worth.

Holding hands with my son, who started Kindergarten in public school this year, I was thinking about those brave parents, the ones whose names are on the collection of lawsuits that, together, became known as Brown v. Board. And wondering whether they were ever tempted, as I would have been, if my child had been in that rickety schoolbuilding, to take the money.

Even knowing what it cost.

Obviously, our entire country has benefitted tremendously from their refusal to be bought. They understood that separate could never be equal, and they knew that their little boys and girls deserved integrated schools and the access to power and full participation that only integration can bring, rather than a spiffed-up segregated school, with better-paid teachers and textbooks in the classrooms.

They were right, and they were patient in that impatient about injustice but amazingly able to wait for real solutions way, and their intransigence was a witness that sparked the greatest movement for social equality our country has ever seen.

And the next thing I thought, as my son’s attention moved on to the next part of the exhibit, was…

I hope we can be as brave. And as tough. And as smart.

Times are tough, these days, for social service nonprofit organizations and for many of those we serve. We’re perennially out of money, and in begging-mode, and we are confronting serious challenges in a political context that’s often impervious to our sufferings.

That’s a dangerous combination, because it can breed a desperation that can push us to accept compromises that we know take us backwards, concessions that violate our most honored principles.

I see it when private organizations join together to pay for public services that the state has abandoned–we’re reaching for a Band-Aid because the need is so urgent, but we’re excusing public abdication of responsibilities core to our social contract.

I see it when organizations scramble to align themselves with even objectionable programming opportunities (“marriage promotion“, anyone?), because they’re trying to find ways to stay afloat, and to curry favor with government officials.

I even see it in myself, when I’m reluctant to take an Administration on on one front because we’re still negotiating on another–no, it’s not money at stake, but something arguably more valuable–my integrity.

I’m sure Linda Brown’s parents wanted her to go to a nice school. They may have even been approached with offers of upgrades, if they would just “be quiet”.

We need to all be thankful that they did not.

And we must, in the words of the song to which my 3 oldest kids and I danced in the gallery of the Brown site, in what used to be a school only for children with a certain color skin, we must not be moved.

Or bought.

Like a Horror Movie: Voter ID Laws…Coming After You

Restrictive Voting Laws=Way Scarier than this Guy

You want to be scared on Halloween?

Really, really scared?

Like “a threat to all you hold dear and potentially the end of life (okay, democracy) as we know it” scared?

Then think about this:

In Kansas, and, increasingly in other states around the country, politicians have used the completely ridiculous (would be laughable if not for the end result) allegation of undocumented immigrants voting to push through voter identification laws that will seriously harm voter participation of low-income and marginalized populations, primarily through their effects on nonprofit and community-based groups’ voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote work.

Because when these laws are fully implemented (which, in Kansas, won’t be until January 2013, largely because some senators felt guilty and so postponed it until after the 2012 elections), conducting a voter engagement drive in the community–at a festival, on a street corner, on a public bus, as people are leaving a rally–will be nearly impossible. Every new voter will have to prove citizenship upon registration, and who carries copies of their birth certificate with them (to be submitted with the registration)?

There are obvious obstacles to actual voting for some of these same populations, too, particularly that the rules for obtaining a free photo identification (yes, there absolutely are U.S. citizens without photo ID) are convoluted and involve considerable exertion on the part of the (by definition) indigent would-be voter.

Those barriers are real, and they fall disproportionately on low-income individuals of color, particularly the very youngest and very oldest in the electorate.

But what scares me the most is the way that these laws will completely take nonprofit organizations–social service agencies, health centers, senior centers, ethnic associations–out of the voter registration and civic engagement business. We know that we’re particularly good at bringing these often-marginalized groups into the electoral process, after all. We build on our relationships, connect people to the issues that affect their lives, and walk alongside them to ease their first voting experiences.

We don’t do it nearly often enough, but, when we do, we make a difference–on individual lives and on how elected officials view those with whom we work.

But that’s all going to go away.

And what’s even scarier, really?

The way that such a totally invented risk, for which there is absolutely no evidence and which defies all logic to anyone who can imagine even any facts about immigrants, can frighten away the allies who should have stood with us, creating this specter of fraud that silenced too many voices. I mean, really? With voter participation dismally low among U.S. citizens, undocumented immigrants are supposedly risking felony convictions and permanent deportation to make their mark on our democratic process?


We’re at the point in this terrible saga when the huge blob, or scary ax-murderer, or ghastly ghoul is running for us, and we’re all kind of cowering behind the half-open door.

And we know enough about how these things turn out to know that we’ve got to come up with a different plan.

First, we need to register as many people as we possibly can before these laws kick in. Second, we need to educate our communities about these laws and what they will mean, and we need their help documenting the very real ways in which U.S. citizens are affected. Then, we need to take that information, along with a value-based appeal (justice, freedom, and democratic participation, anyone?) to legislators who knew better but voted for these horrible laws in the first place.

They can be undone.

We need a legal strategy that attacks the laws’ undue infringement on our core constitutional right to vote, a legislative plan that mounts the strong attack that was missing initially, and an organizing effort that recognizes this threat as what it really is:

Paving the way for all of the threats that are to follow, once the demographic shifts that could reshape the social contract in this country through electoral transformation have been thwarted by systematic disenfranchisement.

It’s time for the hand to reach up from the grave, or the girl to step out from behind the curtain (you know that I don’t watch many movies, so fill in the blanks here).

We can write a different ending.

But we have to open our eyes.

What the new poverty data say about an old problem

What they said...

I’ve spent the last few weeks buried in the U.S. Census Bureau’s new website, trying not to be paralyzed by the fact that the poverty statistics represent, of course, actual people who are poor.

A lot of them.

There isn’t anything truly surprising in the new data; poverty has gotten worse–dramatically so, in some cases–with people of color and children, particularly those in single female-headed households, especially vulnerable.

So, for me, reviewing these figures is not so much about gaining new insights, but about seizing an opportunity to focus our attention, once more, where it belongs–on how terribly our public policies are failing to effectively combat the scourge of poverty.

Because we’re failing not in explicable or unpredictable ways; we’re failing with tragic routine, reflecting much more a failing of political will than of technical ability.

And our failure is increasingly dangerous, as the numbers of people in poverty grow, and as we learn more about the lifelong effects of being poor.

Here’s what we know about poverty in my state in 2011. Now, what should we do about it?

  • Between 2009 and 2010, 20,000 more Kansans were added to the poverty ranks, and the percentage of those living in poverty rose to 14.3%. Kansans of color were disproportionately represented among the poor, with 28.6% of African Americans, 29.7% of American Indians, and 25.4% of Latinos living below the official poverty line.
  • Children are especially suffering in the current economic picture; nationally, 22% of children were in poverty in 2010. In Kansas, an alarming 23.7% of children under age 18 were poor in 2010, up from 18% in 2009 , a devastating decline in the fortunes of our state’s youngest and most vulnerable.
  • The poverty rate “gap”, then, between older adults (65+) and children has grown. In 2010, only 7.7% of Kansas seniors were poor. This is a triumph of the social policy innovation we know now as Social Security retirement; without Social Security, the percentage of Kansas seniors living in poverty would rise to more than 40%.
  • Work is no longer a guaranteed path to economic security. In 2010, real median household income in Kansas was $46,229, almost 5% lower than Kansas’ 2007, pre-recession median ($48,497). 27.8% of single female-headed households with children under age 18 had a householder who worked and yet, still, the family fell into poverty . In 12% of cases, these mothers were working year-round, full-time without being able to pull their families from poverty status, testament to the strains of low-wage labor and the difficult economics facing single parents raising children, particularly when they also experience the wage discrimination that still plagues female employment.
  • Our current poverty measure’s woeful inadequacy makes these statistics all the more alarming; if we used a more realistic threshold (such as those used to determine eligibility for means-tested programs–usually more like 125% of poverty), for example, more than 45% of single female headed-households would have been poor in Kansas in 2010. Similarly, if we accurately defined and measured unemployment (as in, people who wish they were working but aren’t, instead of only those not so discouraged that they haven’t given up or involuntarily taken a part-time job instead), our unemployment rate would hover around 12%–frighteningly high.
  • Appallingly, poverty in Kansas seems to be increasingly more rapidly than in other parts of the country, despite a job market that, in some ways, has not been ravaged as severely as that of other regions. While our overall poverty rate was slightly lower than the national figure, Kansas saw higher rates of child poverty and poverty in single female-headed households in 2010, and higher rates of growth between 2009-2010 in several categories.

We shouldn’t need new statistics to remind us that poverty is a dire and growing threat to community and individual well-being. We don’t need statistics to connect the dots about those we see living in homelessness, or our own coworkers’ concerns about their mortgage payments, or, even, our own fears about the precarious nature of our employment.

But we can, and, indeed, we must, use the release of these new data on poverty and its shadow–the economic insecurity that is nearly ubiquitous in today’s economy–to dedicate ourselves anew to developing public policy structures and investments that harness our considerable powers to improve people’s lives, individually and in the aggregate.

Because when the next set of poverty data is released, I want some surprises.

Social Workers and the Politics of Budget Cuts

*I’m still on maternity leave and, so, revising and republishing some of my favorite posts from the past two years. This particular post jumped out at me; our Kansas state budget, of course, is in just about the same place, in terms of the depth of cuts on the table, as it was when this originally ran in 2009 and, now, there’s a somewhat surreal conversation about the federal deficit, and how to reduce it (a conversation which, in Congress, centers almost entirely around spending cuts and fiscal chicanery). Social workers still need a louder and more outraged voice about the options that we’re walking away from, and about the very real implications of those default decisions. In the intervening two years, the lives of those we serve have mostly gotten harder, and that means that our resolve must, too.

The economy is bad. It is. And that means that some pain, including not only that which is visited upon the people we serve directly but also that endured by our nonprofit organizations, is inevitable.

But inevitability is vastly overstated.

Social workers run the risk, I believe, of depoliticizing the current battle over investment in our nation’s future and commitment to the most vulnerable by brushing away important questions and needed outrage with a white-washed, ‘the economy is really bad’ explanation that, really, doesn’t explain anything.

There is nothing inevitable about budget cuts when state revenues are declining. There are, obviously, other alternatives–raising taxes chief among them–and the fact that those alternatives are not chosen says a lot more about the political decisions being made (and the people making them) than it does about the state of the economy. We could be choosing to invest more heavily in programs for people living in poverty (which would make sense because more people are poor), in education (because it’s the most direct link to future economic development), in infrastructure (because it puts people to work while meeting our needs).

And the fact that we’re not, that we’re slashing spending in ways that mean longer waiting lists for Medicaid waivers, more kids in every classroom, less outreach for children’s health care, fewer supports for vulnerable seniors–that is a fact that is much more political than economic.

So the next time that you find yourself (or a colleague) bemoaning cuts and their impact and then blaming that vague nemesis–the economy–ask instead about the choices that determined, when presented with a couple of different forks in the road, which one to take. Find out who is responsible for choosing that path, and hold them accountable. Use it as an example that our clients can understand: tough times come into everyone’s (and every state’s) lives, and when they do, we have choices. We can’t control the situations in which we find ourselves, but we can control how we respond. And, when we respond in ways that are harmful to others, there will be consequences.