Tag Archives: power

Walking in their shoes, going to the ‘genba’

Photo credit Seite-3, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

One of the questions that I frequently ask clients of the social service organizations with which I’m working on advocacy is: “What do you wish that policymakers understood about your life?”

I ask something similar of staff, about what they think that policymakers need to understand about the challenges facing their clients, in order to craft effective policy responses.

And, most of the time, I get somewhat vague answers.

Because what clients want, and what staff want for them, is just for those with power over the systems that affect their lives to know what their lives are really like.

Even if they can’t imagine how that would really happen.

They usually say something about wishing that members of Congress just had to live in their shoes for a few days, to see what it’s like to find childcare that fits the work schedule of a single mom on an odd shift, or to live in a nursing home just because you can’t find affordable housing with services to meet your mental health needs, or to ride the bus in the snow home from the grocery store with 2 kids in strollers and a 2-bag limit (really).

Remember the mental health center client who made the connection to her time as a production supervisor, and how she never could have overseen the factory operations if she wasn’t spending time on the floor?

In Creating Room to Read, I learned a new phrase for this: ‘going to the genba‘ (sometimes seen as ‘gemba’–sources are contradictory). It’s a concept from manufacturing, fittingly enough, and it means ‘the real place’–the idea that problems are visible, when we connect at the place where they happen. It captures this idea, translated in policy terms, that policymakers need to really see and live the situations in which social problems exist, if we are to have our best chance of solving them (131).

And, yet, that kind of authentic interaction is elusive, especially when we’re talking about powerful political actors and some of the most marginalized populations in our society.

Even when we bring policymakers to our organizations to talk with clients, the conversations are stilted, even scripted, and there’s certainly no true parallel to the grinding pressures of living in deprivation day in and day out, without an escape hatch.

At best, there are a few new insights, and some greater mutual understanding, and maybe some concrete ideas about ways that policies need to be changed, for them to really work on the ground.

At worst, clients feel ‘on display’, as though policymakers are using them to pretend that they are ‘close to the people’, before they go back to their comfortable lives.

So, I’m thinking, maybe we’re thinking about the wrong feet walking in the wrong shoes.

Maybe the people who need to get to the source of the problem aren’t the policymakers coming to glean wisdom from clients, in their world, but the other way around.

Maybe what we need is to help clients build the kind of power that would give them greater access to policymaking worlds, a chance to walk in those shoes for awhile, and the opportunity to see the ‘factory floor’ of policymaking and where the processes are breaking down there.

If these ‘gemba walks’ are about actually seeing the process, asking questions, and understanding the work, maybe the work that needs to be observed is that of crafting the constraints that either hinder or facilitate people’s success, not the more obvious truth: being poor, or mentally ill, or without health insurance is…hard.

Maybe instead of asking what policymakers need to understand about the lives of our clients, we should be asking what clients need to understand about policymaking, in order to shape it.

To fit their own shoes.

Making Social Justice Personal

Last week, the Sunflower Foundation Advocacy Fellowship had our session on grassroots organizing. Its inclusion in the year-long advocacy development program is one of my very favorite things about the initiative and, indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Sunflower Foundation’s approach to nonprofit advocacy.

I love, love, love that the Foundation understands that organized constituencies are our most vital resource, and that the Fellows are encouraged to think critically about how their organizations can meaningfully connect with those they serve, so that, together, they can create the future we so desperately need.

There’s something incredibly hopeful about starting an intense discussion about nonprofit advocacy with a focus on those we serve–and how we can win victories for justice only by releasing their full participation and their latent power. We start with strategies and the tactics that should flow from them, and think about how to organize so that those tactics work. Only after we’ve built plans to engage our grassroots do we turn to legislative advocacy and message development and even organizational capacity-building.

It’s “begin where our clients are”, translated for macro practice and supported by Foundation resources. And that’s pretty awesome.

But it’s one particular moment from last year’s grassroots organizing session that reverberated in my mind during these past several days, making it clear that it had a tremendous effect on me.

And so I’m repeating it here, and figuring out how I might weave it into my work with social service organizations trying to develop grassroots strategies, and with social workers who are struggling to understand why power is so essential to the realization of our visions, and how we can not only get comfortable with it, but, indeed, embrace it and its pursuit.

The trainer was Rudy Lopez, from the Center for Community Change, and the exercise was this:

Rudy had us close our eyes and think about the one person in our lives that we care about the most–the person whom we most can’t stand to think about being harmed. (This is part of the reason that this exchange sticks in my mind, I think, because I immediately thought about my oldest son, and it’s kind of odd that he’d so quickly come to mind, more than my other kids.) He then prompted us to think about something bad happening to that person, which, for me and for others, was a terribly difficult assignment, even for a few hypothetical seconds.

And then the kicker:

Rudy asked us to imagine that we had the power to stop that pain from happening to the special person in our minds. What would we do with that power?

It sounds simple, I know, but what ran through my mind instantly was this, “I need that power, to keep Sam safe.”

And what I didn’t realize, I guess, without the advantage of months of mental simmering, was that this moment catapulted me into not just being comfortable with power but really craving it, for the “right” reason of wanting to help someone else. Yes, it’s on a very personal level, and, yes, maybe it’s easier to relate when it’s a child you love instead of a community of strangers…but maybe not.

The next step, of course, is to build relationships so that we love, even deeply, beyond our more intimate circles. Then, we’ll reach for the power that would let us protect and serve and support them, too.

Because, the truth is, there is real pain threatening those we love, every day.

And we seldom have the power we need to do much about it.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

When we fall into the same old traps…

In this second post for Organizational Transformation week, here at Classroom to Capitol, I’m tackling an ugly reality of nonprofit social service work and, in the interest of full disclosure, my parenting, sometimes, too.

Because the truth is, sometimes the ways in which we interact with those we serve (or parent) serve to replicate the same power imbalances against which we rail, when we view them on the “outside”.

You’ve seen it, no doubt:

  • Eligibility rules that are ambiguous and seemingly arbitrary, the sort of institutional equivalent of “because I said so”
  • Organizational cultures that afford greater prestige to men, and to those higher in the hierarchy (like when we refer to the Executive Director as Mr. SoandSo but the receptionist as “Maria”)
  • Programmatic requirements that force everyone to attend the same classes, fill out the same paperwork, not because those activities actually contribute to the amelioration of the social problems that prompted a particular individual to seek services, but because that’s how people prove that they “deserve” help

    We fall into these patterns of power and oppression not because we’re bad people, of course, but because we’re people, and people tend to seek comfort in regularity and predictability and status, and those pursuits are not necessarily compatible with the promotion of maximum empowerment for those who have historically been marginalized and oppressed.

    But I promised you that this wasn’t just a post about how you should change what you do in your organizations, right? I understand that changing the way we view those with whom we work, in every way from using language like “constituents” instead of “patients” to authentically making room on decision-making bodies for the full participation of those we serve, isn’t easy.

    I understand not just because I’ve been there, as a nonprofit leader and as a consultant to the same.

    I understand because I fight the same internal battles at home, too, where parenting offers opportunities every day to choose to live power imbalances that put me purportedly on top, versus a challenge to figure out how to make our family a sort of laboratory for empowered living.
    On a daily basis, that means that I can’t change the rules without accountability, even though I’m the mom. It means that the kids’ preferences on little things matter just as much as mine, and that, even on the big stuff, I can’t disregard their views without an honest discussion and a full examination of my own rationale.

    It’s not a democracy, exactly, any more than a nonprofit organization is. That’s what people often fear when we talk about transparency and participatory governance in nonprofit organizations, but it’s more like an excuse to duck our obligations to social justice than a valid concern.

    We’re not a 1-person-1-vote family.

    We’re something more, and better, just like our organizations need to be, too.

    Because avoiding the temptation to fall into the same old bad patterns means starting from the premise that power is only as valid as the way in which we wield it, that we can’t decry the abuse of authority in others without being willing to own it in ourselves, and that our relationships will be stronger when they are based on a presumption of equity than when reinforced through hierarchy alone.

    Ultimately, turning our organizations inside out like this should make us stronger advocates externally, too, because we’ll gain an empathy for those targets against whom we’re arrayed when we understand the universality of the temptation to oppress, at least in subtle ways. It also restores some of our moral authority and reduces our vulnerability to charges that “you do it, too.”

    But, more immediately and much more importantly, it will turn our organizations into places where people learn how to relate fully and equally, as agents in their own rights.

    And that’s what I remind myself every time I so want to say, “because I’m the Mom.”

  • Is “participation” overrated?

    Sometimes I write this blog because there’s something that I’m really excited about that I want to share, or because I’m soliciting others’ opinions and experiences, or because I’m delving more deeply into a certain topic and I need this forum to organize my thoughts and involve my community.

    And then, sometimes, I write about something that is kind of haunting me, about which I have a really sinking feeling, because I hope that writing about it will somehow make me feel better, and lead me to a place where I can do something productive with those concerns.

    This post falls into that last category.

    I teach a class on global poverty in the summer and, this spring, in getting ready for it, I read The White Man’s Burden, a really interesting and often provocative examination of western development aid to “the rest” of the world.

    As I get into that class this summer, I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts and questions to share about the best way for the U.S., in particular, to support development in other countries, about the connections between anti-poverty policy here and around the world, and about the rise of social entrepreneurialism and other “innovative” strategies that, really, shouldn’t seem so innovative at all.

    But, today, it’s a relatively obscure passage, from a sociologist and politician with whom I have a rather, um, complicated relationship: Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

    Here’s the quote, and then here’s why it’s haunting me:

    “The socially concerned intellectuals…seem repeatedly to assume that those who had power would let it be taken away a lot easier than could possibly be the case if what was involved was power” (from White Man’s Burden, p. 144).

    When I read that quote, I think of all the times that I’ve used the word “empowerment” rather loosely, about all of the references we make to “participation” (even when we know that it’s kind of token), and about all of the barriers that exist between people who have been deliberately stripped of their real influence and the reclaiming of that power over their own lives (not the least of which, of course, is the view that power is zero-sum, and the loathing those in power have for the idea of relinquishing it).

    I’ve always been skeptical at best of “consensus-based organizing”, always believed that power is won by those on the margins, not benevolently granted to them by others. That’s why I talk to my students so often about the importance of seeking and increasing their own power, because those who are powerless can never hope to empower others.

    But, still.

    I’ve been thinking a lot in the past week about this quote, and about how reluctant we are, even within our social service organizations, to really share power, not just allow people to give “input” or “participate” in some pretty meaningless way. I’ve been thinking about the damage we can do, truly, when we pretend that what people’s participation is getting them is real ownership, when it’s not, and about how those experiences can turn entire generations away from the exercise of real power and the struggles required to win it.

    So here’s what I’m hoping you’ll share in the comments, to perhaps put my soul a bit at ease:

  • What do “participatory” structures need to have to ensure that it’s real power that’s being shared? How can we tell participation in name only from the meaningful kind?
  • Where have you seen power change hands in marginalized communities, and what transpired to make that happen?
  • How should we talk about power, and empowerment, and participation, to ensure that our own language isn’t part of the problem, distorting the concept to the point of making it unrecognizable?
  • A Political Action Committee for the poor?

    Even though I’m from Kansas, it’s not often that I find myself inspired by a quote from Bob Dole.

    But, on page 148 of the really fascinating book So Damn Much Money, about the role of money in the distortion of the political process, Dole is quoted decrying the ways in which Political Action Committees (in 1982, a relatively new innovation) were influencing policy decisions:

    “Poor people don’t make campaign contributions.”

    Now, I grant that that’s a rather obvious statement by then-Senator Dole.

    But it makes me wonder:

    Should they?

    What I mean is, at the same time that advocates for social justice take on the current judicial and regulatory structures that allow for such a significant infusion of money into the political process (which, of course, should absolutely be a critical advocacy issue for those who are committed to legislation that reflects the needs of now-marginalized communities), should we find a way to work within the “world as it is”, and start a “Poor People PAC”?

    I know…it’s immoral to think about diverting money that could be spent on direct assistance for low-income people to campaigning for policymakers sympathetic to their needs.

    Except we do it all the time when we hire fundraisers or organize special events–there we think of it as investing, spending money so we can make money.

    And most of us social workers don’t object to the organization of a PAC by the National Association of Social Workers (except that it focuses more on issues of social work professional licensure and reimbursement, although there is arguably considerable overlap between those sympathetic to our profession and those committed to the issues we address).

    So why not?

    It doesn’t require denying the inherent problems in the system as it’s organized today, any more than registering as a lobbyist requires pretending that all lobbyists are committed to the public good.

    It just says that, while the system works this way, we want it to work for the very people who need it most.

    It wouldn’t take that much money, I don’t think, to begin to change the way that elected officials viewed the concerns of people in poverty and those who work with them: a few fundraisers, some well-placed $1,000 contributions, and a focus on accountability to the constituencies and the issues of those in need.

    It might reinvigorate the democratic process for those who are understandably disenamored of its exclusion of those without the money to pay the “access fee”–if people in poverty interviewed candidates to decide who would get their endorsement (and their contributions), they might see themselves more legitimately as stakeholders in the process who deserve authentic representation.

    What do you think? Is this an area where nonparticipation is the only ethical option? Or is a PAC for the poor an idea worth exploring?

    Equally-shared Social Change

    One of the books that I read during my maternity leave was Equally-Shared Parenting. My husband and I are trying to figure out how he can create a work schedule that will allow him to play a larger role in our child-rearing responsibilities, since my work/life balance is great, except for the elusive idea of any free time when I’m taking care of kids all day and working most of the night.

    It’s a pretty inspiring book and has given our family a lot to think about, and to work towards.

    But it also has implications for our social change work, too, especially the part that chides us all to remember that, when we hoard work, what we’re really doing is hoarding power.

    It doesn’t feel like that, does it?

    When we stay really late and come in really early, when we spend our anniversary registering voters on a Saturday, when we work through yet another maternity leave, when we sacrifice our health and family and friends and sanity, all because we care so very much about the causes to which we dedicate ourselves (um, obviously, all of the above are just hypothetical!)…

    We feel like we’re doing it for others, like we’re being so very good.

    We need committed advocates, not martyrs.

    Except there’s nothing honorable about structuring our work, or our campaigns, or, indeed, our movements, so that it looks like they’d fall apart without us.

    There’s nothing moral about keeping information close to our chests, so that then we can argue in good faith that we really DO need to be there, because no one else knows how it’s done.

    There’s nothing particularly laudable about making ourselves seem indispensable.

    And there’s nothing particularly fun about it, either.

    So, just as Equally-Shared Parenting means that we divide responsibilities so that no one’s saddled unjustly, and no one can feel smug and superior, either, I think we need a mental frame for “Equally-Shared Social Justice”, where we work alongside our colleagues and our grassroots leaders, making decisions together about what, and how much, needs to be done, and collectively owning both the input and the outcome.

    It’s a more authentic, and empowering, way to approach the reality that there IS always more that can, and maybe even should, be done. At home, in the capitol, in the streets.

    Because the truth, of course, is that we aren’t the only ones: Not the only ones who can take care of the kids, not the only ones who can write the press release, not the only ones who can pull off the legislative meeting, not the only ones who can handle parent-teacher conferences.

    Painting ourselves as such is unfair to the fullness of the lives we deserve to live, and really unfair to those who walk these journeys with us–our partners, and our allies–in our public and private worlds.

    Here’s to sharing.