Tag Archives: legislation

Means to an End

In a conversation with some nonprofit advocates a few weeks ago (where, yes, we were again talking about the framework!), one leader with a long history of working on civil rights and equity issues for people of color in Kansas questioned the utility of even showing up to provide testimony in the legislature or directly lobby members, given the unlikelihood of positive policy movement in the near future.

Again, this is an advocate with a track record of taking on racial inequality in a conservative state.

She’s no neophyte, and she doesn’t back down from a challenge.

Her question wasn’t, “what’s in it for me?” or even “what’s the use?”, but, instead, given the opportunity costs of engaging in any advocacy strategy, “is this the best use of my advocacy capacity?”

That conversation, and her honest accounting of when it’s better to walk away, led to my second sort of ‘aha!’ moment, in thinking about what our advocacy needs to look like in this context:

Sometimes, we can use legislative advocacy–or, really, any advocacy strategy–to generate outcomes elsewhere in the framework.

In other words, our policy analysis might, sometimes, primarily be a way to generate media attention. Our testimony might primarily be a way to energize our community mobilization work. Our efforts to develop elected official champions might be a vehicle through which to build public will, too, through the use of messages that will resonate with both audiences.

We don’t have to only ‘play’ in the area where we want results.

Stuff spills over. In good ways.

As long as we’re clear–to ourselves and to those who are walking alongside us–about what our aims are and what the strategy that links them to our activities is, we can use those ripples.

It’s like advocacy echoes, I think.

And, especially these days, I’ll take all the two-for-ones I can get.

Messages and Collateral Damage

Photo credit: Reform Immigration for America

Five months ago tomorrow (I know, who else remembers where they were?), the U.S. Senate proved themselves real Grinches, as they defeated, by a five-vote margin, the DREAM Act, which had passed the U.S. House the week before.

And, in the intervening months, as we struggle for any traction around immigrant rights in the midst of an increasingly hostile climate, I find myself mourning most, not for the students whose dreams were so coldly turned back, but for their parents. And that has me thinking about messaging, and how we sometimes don’t do ourselves any favors, and also about parenting, and about how powerless we are, as parents, to protect our kids from the cruelty of the world.

Around the same time that DREAM was defeated, I sat in a conference room in our local school district and heard an administrator actually say that “parents in our district expect more for their children than those elsewhere.”

I know. Disgusting.

Because I know a lot of immigrant parents who expected so much for their children that they WALKED ACROSS THE DESERT to give them a chance at a better life. Or RODE IN THE TRUNK OF A CAR for eight hours.

If that’s not complete dedication to the well-being of one’s kids, well, you can imagine how I reacted to that bigoted statement.

But even some of our greatest DREAM Act allies: immigrant rights organizations, champion Senators, and members of the Administration, have unfairly villified immigrant parents over the past several months, in an effort to win sympathy for DREAM-eligible youth. You’ve heard the claims, I’m sure: “children shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of their parents”.

As if wanting more for your children, and being willing to risk your own life to get it, is a sin.

And, so, as I’ve thought about what could have been, and what should have been, if the DREAM Act had won the support of just FIVE more Senators, I’ve thought about how those parents must feel.

They’ve watched their children become all they had ever hoped and more: bright, accomplished, committed, brave, articulate, ambitious. And they’ve watched powerful people in their adopted country deny their children the most basic opportunities to build on those assets in pursuit of a better future. And then they’ve watched those who are supposed to be their friends throw them under the bus, in a desperate attempt to win what should by rights be theirs in the first place.

And they can’t do anything to stem the tears or salve the disappointments.

I’ve said it before, but I’m more convinced than ever: we need messages that work for the long-term, and across multiple issues. We can’t sacrifice principles for expediency. Because we often lose anyway, and, along the way, we’ve hurt people who are hurting enough already.

Moms and Dads, I talk with your kids a lot. And, without fail, they credit you for who and where they are today. You instilled these values in them, and you inspire them every day.

They know that they’re not atoning for your crimes; they’re living up to your legacy.

Muy bien hecho, mamás y papás. Muy bien hecho.

One year later: Health care and our “Reform Reality”

On March 21, 2010, one year ago today, my husband and I stayed up late watching the debate on health care reform stream on his computer. Even though I’d read all of the analyses about the advance vote count, I think I still held my breath when the roll call was winding down.

No, of course it’s not a perfect bill.

There were several versions I preferred to what finally passed, and I’m not excited about how long some of the most significant pieces will take to be fully implemented, especially as the country continues to grapple with rising entitlement expenses, a lagging economy, and frustration with Congress.

But still.

My kids will be able to stay on our health insurance until they actually finish college. I don’t have to worry that my genetic blood disease will make us lose our insurance. SCHIP is protected. We’ll see increases in preventative care investments. We’re closing the “donut hole” gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage. We’re trimming cost excesses in Medicare Advantage. We will finally stop losing ground, at least, on the rising ranks of the uninsured.

It’s better.

And, in addition to the tangible improvements it makes in our health care “system” (what we have now can’t really accurately be called anything like ‘systematic’!), health care reform also represents a triumph of policymaking against tremendous ideological, fiscal, and political odds. I don’t believe in the “better than nothing” school of thought, much, because I’ve seen too many cases where settling for a little meant that we never saw a lot.

But this is better.

And, so, on the one-year anniversary, when the vast majority of health care reform’s provisions are but directives to be specified and analyzed and codified by regulators within the Department of Health and Human Services, between now and 2014, I’m spending some time checking out the Reform Reality site created by the Health Care Foundation of Kansas City (for which there are billboards all around my town!).

It’s a fully interactive site, with options to click to see how health care reform’s provisions affect those with different current positions in the system today. The content is similar to other sites, but I think it’s easier to engage here. You can see some of the expected fiscal impact, check out how reform aims to improve our nation’s health status (which is, after all, the ultimate measure of the success of any health care system), and link to organizations locally and nationally working on the aftermath of that day last March.

Check it out, and then I want to hear from you. What do you think about health care reform, one year out? Where do you hope we are one year from now? What about health care reform excites you the most, and what were your greatest disappointments?

Why direct practice will always matter

Lyndon Johnson was no social worker.

But it is a speech of his, or rather a section of one, made on March 15, 1965, one week after the march in Selma, Alabama that drew the nation’s attention to the urgency of the struggle for racial justice, that, for me, best highlights why it is so critical that policymakers, in any profession, be rooted in the lives of those who will be most touched by the policies they create.

Towards the end of his speech outlining for Congress his vision for The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which remains, in 2010, an essential piece of civil rights legislation and one of the core victories of the African-American struggle for equality, he said:

“My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. They knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that it might help them against the hardships that lay ahead.

Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.

I never thought, then, in 1928, that I would be standing here, in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance–and I’ll let you in on a secret–I mean to use it.

And I hope that you will use it with me.”

We will not all become President, certainly, nor wield the kind of power that Lyndon Johnson did at his peak, but we can cultivate positions of power and authority in our pursuit of social justice, in the expectation that we will, too, someday have the chance to do great things on behalf of those who have touched our lives by allowing us to walk with them.

Failing to seek that power gives up that chance. And it’s inexcusable.

As is forgetting those faces once we’re in a position to do something to help them.

And, for all his many, many failings, that’s something Lyndon Johnson, the teacher and the President, can help us remember.