Tag Archives: politics

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.

We should not be applauding

Last week, I attended the keynote breakfast at the Midwest Conference on Philanthropy.

Eleanor Clift and our local political reporter, Steve Kraske, were the keynote speakers, and the topic was one that would lure me at any hour: the impact of the 2012 elections on the nonprofit sector.

I’ll get to the insights that I gleaned from the actual presentation in some future posts.

But the title of this one?

It refers to the introduction, which, honestly, is the part that has been stuck with me for the past week.

The nonprofit executive and committee member for the conference who had the job of introducing Kraske and Clift started his remarks with this statement: “Republican or Democrat, we all agree on one thing: we can’t wait for this election to be over!”

And about 2/3 of the room applauded.

And I was appalled.

I mean, I know that I’m in the minority, in terms of my fascination with politics. And, of course, I don’t watch television, which means that I am mostly protected from the attack ads on TV. I get the mailers, sure, and a few phone calls (how I LOVE political polls!), but I mostly opt-in to political debate and discussion, rather than having it land in my living room.

But, really. This was a room of nonprofit executives. Collectively, our ability to achieve our missions, and even our very existence, depends to a large extent on the tenor of social policies. And those policies are absolutely influenced by the outcome of elections, these elections.

So, what you’re saying, with your catcalls in response, is that you can’t wait to get back to your regular business, uninterrupted by something as apparently trivial as the future of our professions, our industry, and our nation.

We cannot afford to leave this election to a political vacuum. We have to be there. Not reluctantly, with our eyes half-averted.

Full on.

I’ll save my applause for election night. I’ll celebrate democracies that work, those who have poured their hearts into the business of winning the public’s, and, I hope, those courageous and visionary candidates with whom we’ll now get to work as elected officials.

I won’t be clapping just because it’s over.

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.

Reserving a seat on the justice bus

When I’m registering voters or talking with my students about the importance of their civic participation, I fairly frequently hear this lament:

Why would I want to get involved in the political process, when all that politicians care about is their own reelection, not the issues that really matter to me, or to my country?

That’s a paraphrase, but the sentiment is there, and it’s real.

Why would we sully ourselves by venturing into an environment laden, so the story goes, with greed and arrogance and raw ambition?

I used to try to counter this with my normal blend of righteous indignation, cheery optimism, and Protestant guilt.

We should vote, and pay attention, and agitate, because someone needs to have our collective best interests at heart, because there are always ways to make things better, and because, well, because it’s our duty.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, that never worked too well.

So awhile ago, in the midst of one of these same lopsided arguments with one of my friends, a social worker who used to be pretty politically involved but has now largely retreated, I tried a different tack.

I just told a story.

I told a story about my friend David Adkins, a now-unfortunately-retired-from-elected-office former Kansas state senator, who, while as imperfect as all the rest of us, is, I think, one of the more compelling examples in recent history of an elected official who put policy above politics and virtue above ambition.

And he did it on behalf of arguably the most marginalized of populations in today’s political debate: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals seeking the protection of their core human and constitutional rights, in a system bent on denying them.

He stood up, essentially alone, against the proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage in our state, and he did so by constructing a passionate and procedurally solid debate that, ultimately, allowed his colleagues to avoid a recorded vote on this most contentious issue. In the process, he made compelling arguments about the wisdom of equality and about the inevitable march of justice. And he also, when asked, looked right into the TV cameras and answered another senator’s question (“Does the Senator support ‘homosexual marriage’?”) with a firm “yes”.

His vote, and his statements, attracted threats and effectively ended his elected career. But his actions also provided hope and inspiration to GLBT individuals in the state, who saw someone use his power to stand up for them, and to be willing to stand beside them.

And, when I contacted him recently to tell him how what he did that day, and on this issue, continue to provide a counterpoint to the perception that individual participation doesn’t matter in the scope of the political process, and that there is no longer any room to stand on principle, he responded in a way that, for me, provides new motivation in a landscape where, even I’ll admit, it can be hard to find spots of hope.

He said that what he said that day was true–you can’t stop the march of justice. “It wasn’t all that courageous to hop on the bus before all the good seats were taken.”

That’s modest, of course.

But it’s also true.

I’m in the state where Brown v. Board of Education originated. In 1953, there were a lot of seats left on the school desegregation bus. But time shifts opinions, and justice marches on.

Today, we see a lot of empty seats around us, and it can especially feel lonely to jump into the electoral process, wrapped in our social work values, when we don’t see many others who share our commitments.

But we are not totally alone, as this story shows.

And, if we want a good seat, we must mark our stance today, taking comfort in the fact that, eventually, right wins, and others will join us.

The Most Dangerous Burnout?

Several conversations lately have me worried about burnout.

Not the individual “I’ve had it with social work and think I’ll open a bakery instead” kind of burnout (I have this thought occasionally, but I really, really don’t like waking up early. And I don’t think my customers would necessarily appreciate running political commentary. So I stay.), but the whole movement “maybe this whole social justice thing is too hard and times are tough so maybe we just can’t do this” kind of burnout.

And, truthfully, this kind scares me a lot more.

In a comment to a blog post awhile back, a colleague talked about how hard it has been to stay engaged in the political debate, since many progressives felt like it was “our” moment in 2008, and there’s a sense of whiplash in the intervening 3 years.

In some of my consulting work with nonprofit advocates, I had a very experienced lobbyist with a well-respected organization tell me that her greatest concern, looking forward, is how many of those alongside whom she has advocated are already giving up, saying that the more conservative legislature and Governor we have in Kansas today is simply more than they can stand.

And, perhaps most chilling are the conversations I’ve had with a few elected officials in our state recently, none of whom have answered my, “so, can we count on you to run again in 2012?” question with anything close to an adamant affirmation.

And I don’t blame them. Any of them.

It’s tough to spend every day advocating on what seem like lost causes, and so many of our dearest struggles seem that way these days: budgets that protect the most vulnerable, progressive civil rights legislation, adequate supports for families, equal rights for women, strong environmental standards, a solid regulatory framework for health care reform…fill in your own “lost cause”.

I wish we were winning more, too.

But the reason that I’m so concerned about these signs of movement burnout is that we will surely lose, and likely lose more ground than we even fear (and, perhaps, more than we’ve even won!), if we step away. If we wait for a better day, or someone else to take up the charge, it will likely never come.

But, lest this post turn into some inspirational poster with an odd animal photograph (is my kid’s classroom the only one to feature those?), here’s a quote from one of my all-time favorite social work advocates. Ever.

“We are all being told that we have to be pragmatic and recognize that this is not a “good” year for social issues, especially if they cost money. That implies that there may yet be a good year for social issues, if only we have patience. But no Congress has ever come to Washington vowing to make things right for the poor, the vulnerable, for workers, or for the environment. In that sense, this year is different only in degree.”

The advocate? Nancy Amidei, the woman behind the “ketchup is not a vegetable” campaign.

The year?


It’s always an uphill climb, no matter who sits in the White House or even how many votes we control in Congress. Trying to vanquish injustice is like that.

And, while I don’t have the answers to how we guard against this burnout and how we collectively care for each other so that we can continue on, I’d argue that the stakes have never been higher than in the next 13 months, at least.

Our causes are no less noble for being long shots. Our clients’ and communities’ needs are no less urgent. And our roles are no less critical. And, together, we can not just hang on, but even carve out some victories.

And maybe even turn some tides.

A Diary of a Social Worker in the Political Arena

**Note from Melinda: I asked Becky Fast, whom I have known since my undergraduate days (when she was my boss!) to write a reflection about her decades as a professional social worker immersed in the political realm, always with a laser focus on upholding the mission of our profession and advancing our collective values. I am honored that she agreed to do so and thrilled to share this inspiring post with you. Becky has graciously agreed to share her email address, too, for those interested in pursuing this path–I can say from personal experience that she is an excellent mentor! blfast at msn.com

My venture into politics began advocating for the rights of my brother with Downs Syndrome to access regular education. At a young age, I observed first-hand how public laws and regulations excluded full participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities.

I was attracted to the profession of social work because of my desire to be a social activist. I had a desire to change the world in such a way that others wouldn’t have the childhood experiences that I had. I was attracted to the mission of the profession to uplift people and to improve the quality of their lives.

Social work when practiced at its best is about social change and social justice. Yet – I was greeted with mixed reactions from my social work colleagues when I decided to detour for 12 years from direct practice to a career in political social work as an aide to a U.S. Congressman. I found it perplexing to encounter a long-standing and pervasive belief that social workers are to be apolitical in their approach to professional practice. I found social workers embracing public service, volunteerism, and community organizing but they were conflicted about direct involvement in politics.

The Institute for the Advancement of Political Social Work Practice at the University of Connecticut-School of Social Work under the leadership of Dr. Nancy A. Humphreys helped me to see that I wasn’t abandoning my profession by working as a political social worker. I began to see that everything I learned through my MSW education and field practice experience is what exactly a politician needs to be successful. Over the years, I found my professional knowledge critical to candidates for office and elected officials as they formulate social policy decisions.

In my role as the Director of Casework for a U.S. Congressman, I handled individual and community problems with federal policies and programs including Medicare, Social Security and Veterans Benefits. When individuals or groups would have similar problems, it was my responsibility to report to the Congressman and assess if a change in federal legislation was needed.

Our daily lives as social workers are often based on actions taken in the political arena. My current job as a hospice social worker is dependent in a large part upon helping families access the Medicare hospice benefit. Our nation’s support for housing, health care, childcare, and education for the disadvantage and vulnerable are all made by politicians and government officials. As programs and services are slashed and cut from the statehouse to the white house, social workers involved in politics are needed now more than ever as our clients lose their jobs, housing, and health insurance from financial insecurity. Many of our clients with the least amount of resources carry the heaviest social and economic burdens.

Politicians change policy that either will help or hurt our profession and our clients. Social workers working on the “inside” as elected officials, lobbyists, campaign workers, staff and as a part of coalitions are needed to insure political empowerment of the populations we serve.

Empowering ourselves and our clients by becoming more active in political processes is a core tenet of social work and what political social work practice is all about. More politically empowered social service professionals and clients will improve the public policy decision-making and the services provided.

Being involved in politics doesn’t have to be a career it can also be as simple as writing an email or making a phone call to an elected official about a proposed budget cut. If you are considering getting involved in political advocacy please join me because only together can we effectively fight against poverty, racism, and injustice.

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.