Tag Archives: social justice

All-in-Nation: What will America be?

I participated in several webinars for PolicyLink’s release of the book All-in-Nation last fall.

There is a lot to recommend about it, including the essays by prominent activists and thinkers across the spectrum of the social problem landscape, as well as the application of these ideas to policy–one of the webinars I attended was specifically for local policymakers and advocates looking at municipality and county policy as an avenue for addressing injustice–but the point that I think deserves the most attention, and makes the most significant contribution, is this:

We cannot assume that changing demographics will somehow naturally translate into greater power for people of color, or for those who have traditionally been disadvantaged in our economy.

Instead, we must recognize that, instead of being destined to shake up the power imbalances inherent in our status quo, the growing prominence of today’s racial and ethnic minorities should remind us of the imperative to build new economic models, so that the economy doesn’t tilt even more heavily toward hardship.

An introductory essay to the book raises this alarm specifically in the context of mass incarceration and the societal impossibility of imagining a true democracy if rates of incarceration of young men of color continue unchecked, as their presence in the population grows. What strikes me the most is the subtitle here, questioning what America will be and questioning the ongoing viability of ‘the American experiment’.

Because there’s nothing inevitable about our perpetuation, of course.

We face, today, crises of identity similar to those that we have confronted in our history, and that makes all the more urgent the task of recognizing them and building policy structures up to the challenge of confronting them.

We need more equitable education funding, then, not just because it’s the ‘right thing to do’, but because, without it, a growing number of children will enter adulthood ill-equipped to be part of a world that needs them.

We need better job opportunities, including for those performing lower-skilled roles in our economy, or we will be stuck with an economy weighted down by too many low-income workers.

We need to address health disparities because otherwise the math just doesn’t work: how can we accommodate so many people in such ill health?

I realize that this lens presents the need to reduce inequality as rather self-interested–for ‘us’, as much as for ‘them’.

But I see that from two angles: first, the very real need to understand our self-interest in the equation, because otherwise we’re unlikely to generate sufficient political will to change; and, two, a need, instead, to redefine ‘us’ and ‘them’, drawing a wider circle.

To me, shifting demographics should galvanize a wake-up call, making all the more urgent these questions about fostering greater equality.

It’s not an academic exercise or, again, even one of moral obligation.

It’s an economic and social imperative, at the heart of who we are and who we will become.

We must go ‘all-in’.

Coming out of our bunkers

Sometimes my students say things in class that just make me love them so much.

I try not to gush, because that’s a little strange; I mean, I cheerlead my own kids A LOT (“It’s a beautiful day to be these kids’ mom”, sung to the tune of the Mr. Rogers theme song, is one of my calling cards), but my students and I have a little different of a relationship.

But when they are so enthusiastic about policy practice, or so angry about an injustice they’ve witnessed at practicum, or just so curious about why things are the way they are, well, I just bubble over with affection for them.

And when they are so earnest and transparent and vulnerable, it touches my heart.

So this post is offered in that spirit, not in condemnation of the student who shared this reaction, nor, indeed, of the many who didn’t voice a similar response even if they feel it.

But in love and shared commitment to find ways to seek solace in coming together, rather than in hiding out.

It happened early in this fall semester, when I asked students to share their experiences trying to navigate information about policies and policy changes affecting their practices and their clients, and one student, somewhat hesitantly at first, shared that she really avoids paying attention to ‘anything political’, not because she doesn’t think it’s important, or doesn’t see the connection, but, really, because it just hurts too much.

She called it ‘self-preservation’ and said that, because she feels so emotionally overextended in her direct service provision, the only way that she can handle the emotional fallout of being a social worker is to focus narrowly on the immediate realm of her ‘control’ (even she acknowledged this control is elusive), closing her eyes to the world beyond her agency.

And, you know, I sort of get that.

My moments of greatest helplessness come when facing questions from my oldest son about why policies are the way they are–Why would Syria’s president hurt his own people and no one stops him? Why do so many states still ban gay marriage? Why would poor children lose preschool when the government shuts down (but Congress still gets paid)? Why is a teen mom separated from her baby so that her foster family can afford to take care of her, with the right level of reimbursement? Why do immigrants have to wait in Mexico for 10 years before they can be reunited with their families? Why?

Sometimes, when my mind is filled with regrets for the way that I spoke to his brother and mental to-do lists for work, I wish that he wouldn’t ask, “What happened in the world today, Mom, while I was at school?” Because it seems easier just to focus on dinner and our day and these four walls.

But his face, and his eagerness, and his whys, are my most poignant reminders of what’s at stake, and why hiding in a bunker isn’t safe for any of us.

Not when the world needs us out there.

So my response to my student was, in many respects, speaking to myself.

We talked about how joining with others to tackle root causes can combat burnout, and about humans’ greater ability to deal with that for which we feel prepared, rather than what blindsides us.

We talked about power, and vacuums, and about our responsibility to be at that metaphorical table when decisions are being made.

And we talked about Sam.

And about how, sometimes, when it seems like too much and I wish for the temporary solace of ignorance, I think about his wonderings.

And I take comfort in, at least, being able to tell him that I was paying attention. And that we tried. Together.

As we greet the new year, here’s to opening the door to the world, pulling the covers down, and facing our battles.

Inspiration from, and for, the commons

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.

But, around this time of year, I always feel like I could use a little extra inspiration.

And, so, in the interest of finishing 2013 strong, I’m sharing some of my favorite social justice-related quotes, and hoping that you’ll share yours, too.

I was 7 years old when I received my first book of Bartlett’s quotations, as a birthday present, because I have always been fascinated by words–how they move people, and how we organize them.

I still collect them, not so much for who said a particular phrase, but for the glimpses of insight–new or just repackaged–that they offer.

Stay awhile, be inspired, and, then, leave your own mark.

  • “If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine.” ― Ernesto Guevara
    This one reminds me of Sister Berta, the tireless advocate for children in poverty who started Operation Breakthrough, here in Kansas City. In a meeting earlier this year, she pounded the table and demanded to know why there isn’t more outrage about what poor children endure in our community. I didn’t have an answer, and I still don’t, but I know that she inspires me to get angry, all the time.

  • “In these days of difficulty, we Americans everywhere must and shall choose the path of social justice…, the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.” ― Franklin D. Roosevelt
    I posted a photo of this from the FDR Memorial this summer. It’s as true now as then.

  • “An educator should consider that he has failed in his job if he has not succeeded in instilling some trace of a divine dissatisfaction with our miserable social environment. ” ― Anthony Standen
    I discovered this one during an Internet search for something else, and I think it’s sort of my new professional mission statement. We cannot adjust to injustice.

  • “In the unceasing ebb and flow of justice and oppression we must all dig channels as best we may, that at the propitious moment somewhat of the swelling tide may be conducted to the barren places of life.” ― Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House
    I love this. I love the hopefulness of it, the resolute sense that we must persevere even when we don’t know when or how good may come. I love the recognition of the role of serendipity. I love that we are both social workers.

  • “Every good law or case you study was once a dream. Every good law or case you study was dismissed as impossible or impractical for decades before it was enacted. Give your creative thoughts free reign, for it is only in the hearts and dreams of people seeking a better world that true social justice has a chance. Finally, remember that we cannot give what we do not have. If we do not love ourselves, we will be hard pressed to love others. If we are not just with ourselves, we will find it very difficult to look for justice with others. In order to become and remain a social justice advocate, you must live a healthy life. Take care of yourself as well as others. Invest in yourself as well as in others. No one can build a house of justice on a foundation of injustice. Love yourself and be just to yourself and do the same with others. As you become a social justice advocate, you will experience joy, inspiration and love in abundant measure.” ― Bill Quigley
    I had to look him up, I liked this so much. The first part is my favorite: every social program we now take for granted first existed only in someone’s imagination. We should be dreaming bigger dreams, people.

What’s on a sticky note affixed to your computer? Or taped on the wall by your bed? Or on a magnet on your refrigerator?

Doing good for a living

MN 1026

Tomorrow is my birthday.

If you’re like me, birthdays mean a lot of self-reflection.

I find myself thinking about where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what’s next.

And I do a lot of pragmatic planning, prompted by the more existential reflections.

It was going through my calendar, for the mundane, that I came across a quote from one of my guest speakers from last spring’s class.

“I realized I could fight the good fight for a living.”

And that’s what I’m thinking about, during this birthday week:

How really, really, really lucky I am to get to make my living doing work that gives meaning to my life. Really, really lucky.

I mean, we all complain, sometimes, about having too much work or feeling under-appreciated. And I think that can be cathartic.

But I know that I never dreamed, when I thought about my career, that I could cobble together work that makes me feel connected and valuable, while still making it possible for me to dabble in lost causes and wrap up my kids in regular hugs.

So, I guess this is more of a birthday ‘cheers’, to those of you who have, similarly, found a way in this broken society to pay your bills while changing the world, and to those who are looking for a path through which to do the same.

They are good fights, and we need them, and you deserve to eat and rest and buy a new sweater or sit on the beach sometimes, while you fight them.

I vow to never stop being grateful that it’s possible.

Why be an organization when you could build a movement?

As I have posted before, the definition of advocacy that I use when talking with direct service organizations about how they can ease into it comes from the Latin root word, advocare, which means “to call to aid”.

It’s about how you build a constituency around your cause, even more broadly than around your organization.

It’s how we make our issue really our issue, so that others feel that they own the concerns that motivate our work, too.

It’s how we build a movement.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder’s way of talking about their work resonates with this inclusive definition of advocacy.

He says that he doesn’t want to be the one leader of an organization but, instead, one of many leaders of a global movement (p. 269).

Because it’s going to take movements to end the social problems that plague us.

But what does this mean, in terms of how we have to change what we do, in order to build this kind of cause identification and mobilize the latent constituencies around our issues so that they coalesce into a movement?

I certainly don’t have all of the answers to that question, but I spend quite a bit of time talking about this with nonprofits, and thinking about it besides, and I do have some ideas.

  • Movement building has to be our goal: We too seldom set our sights on this kind of deep engagement around a cause; sometimes we can’t really even articulate the root causes that motivate our work. Of course, we won’t get there if we don’t set out in that direction.
  • Similarly, we need visions, not just missions: The other day, I asked a group of hard-working nonprofit staff what change they would make if they had a magic wand to make one thing different in the lives of the families they serve. I got mostly blank looks, with some very concrete suggestions about how their organization needs to improve its communication channels. I find that stunning. If someone is giving me a magic wand, things are going to change. We need to know what we want the world to look like, because that’s a vision compelling enough to convince people to come along with us.
  • We have to share the credit: Movements are never animated by one person, even the ones you are picturing in your head that you think were driven by one person. Really, they aren’t. An organization can be run unilaterally by one strong person (although, honestly, probably not very well), but a movement? That will take a crowd.
  • We will have to risk to build: Organizations can plod. Movements have to be nimble and adaptive and daring. Movements have major setbacks. They wander in the wilderness for decades before reaching the promised land. They have to find ways to sustain themselves through periods of great darkness, and they have to fail. A lot.

Where and when are you movement-building? What does it look like? And where does our organization fit in?

Attention to process

I will have several posts in the next few weeks with insights from Decisive, a book that had so many sticky notes in it when I was finished that it would have been easier, probably, to mark the pages that I didn’t think I needed to highlight.

I’m starting with this, a finding from some of the academic literature (mostly from the business world) reviewed in the book:

When it comes to producing solid decisions, process matters more than analysis, by a factor of six, in influencing the quality of the outcome (p. 5).

Essentially, how much we know–about the issue at hand, and even about ourselves and our own biases–does not matter nearly as much as the process we develop to guide us towards our conclusions. In part, this is because even knowing our limitations isn’t enough to correct for them, and because we can never know everything that we need to know, in order to independently arrive at the best result.

Process matters, for helping us to identify the range of best options, for ensuring that we incorporate others’ perspectives as needed, for encouraging small failures that facilitate innovation while minimizing risk.

We get better decisions, all else held constant, if we work those decisions through a better decision-making process.

And that, I believe, has profound implications for government policymaking.

The fall semester just started, which means that I’m teaching policy classes again, charged with helping social work students to not only understand how policy is made in this country, but, at least on some level, to believe in that process, at least enough to want to work through it, and to improve it.

But the truth is that much of my students’ impressions about our policymaking structure is correct: we really shouldn’t leave the most important decisions about how we want to live and what we want to value, as a nation, to a process that we jokingly refer to as ‘like watching sausage being made’.

We shouldn’t be surprised, after all, to so often get bad results from such a bad (read: too much influence of money, too short a timeline of measuring impacts, too polarized in terms of district boundaries) process.

But, and I think this is fundamentally important, too:

Process matters not just for shaping the kinds of outcomes that result, but also for influencing how people feel about a decision.

We call it “procedural justice” for a reason and, when people perceive that a process is bad/unfair/illogical, they don’t feel as good about the decision that results, even if they would otherwise prefer it.

And that makes me wonder, could we restore engagement in government, even if people disagree with the outcomes, by improving the process through which those decisions are arrived?

Could that motivation be enough to compel some critical changes (maybe changes to Senate rules, certainly campaign finance, districting), in ways that more base desires to shift advantage to one side or another have failed?

We’re social workers. We ‘get’ process.

What would it take for us to have a policymaking process worthy of our democratic ideals?

And what difference would it make?

Not mine alone

This Labor Day, I’m thinking about how easy it is to take credit for things we didn’t secure by ourselves.

To claim our employment successes, for example, when they come in significant measure because of educational advantages or accumulated privileges.

To pride ourselves on our initiative or hard work when–present though those attributes may be–there is ample evidence around the world that some economies reward them very differently, and that status still matters in determining how much our efforts will yield.

And I’m thinking about, in my own life, a perhaps trivial but, to me, still poignant example of this, nearly every day.

I have lost quite a bit of weight over the past few months, now that I’m done having babies. And often, especially when I haven’t seen people in awhile, they will remark about it. It’s usually along the lines of pointing out that I must be working hard, and, not infrequently, even making jabs at those who are overweight, something about “if you can find time to work out, so can they!”

And, to me, thinking about that invisible backpack of privilege that we carry around, that’s not a compliment.

It’s a teachable moment.

Because the truth is that our food system and our gender relations and our economy and our built environment and, indeed, our entire society, are wired for overweight. My successes in counteracting those currents stem not so much from my superior willpower (or, in all honesty, the fact that the treadmill at 5:15AM is one place where no one will interrupt me) but, again, from the scaffolding that places me at a distinct advantage in the quest to reach a healthy weight: adequate income to purchase more expensive, nutritious food; access to quality childcare so that I can exercise knowing my kids are taken care of; an education that positioned me to secure flexible employment; racial and economic privileges that allow me to purchase a home in a desirable neighborhood with ample access to recreation and physical activity…and so on.

It’s not that I mean to dismiss the influence of the individual. Social workers are PIE for a reason. It’s not all environment.

But when we ignore the power of the structures that shape our opportunities and our outcomes–at work, at home, in politics, even on the bathroom scale–we don’t just give ourselves too much credit.

We deny the contributions, and the sacrifices, and the disadvantages, of those who have gone before and those who struggle around us today.

That five-day work week, those paid sick days, those accommodations for disabilities, my pounds lost…all are shared victories.

Not ours alone.

It only takes one

Helene Jacobs, from the German Resistance Memorial Center

Helene Jacobs, from the German Resistance Memorial Center

So, yes, I was that person reading about Nazi Germany at the beach.

It’s sort of how I roll.

Specifically, I read The Forger, a short memoir about a young Jewish man who survived in wartime Berlin in large part due to his skills as a graphic artist (he forged documents that helped to save the lives of other Jews, hence the title) and his brazen daring.

But also the kindness and courage and generosity of Helene Jacobs, now officially honored for her sacrifices, who gave up her engagement because her fiance supported the Nazis and then sheltered the protagonist, Cioma Schonhaus, during the war.

And afterwards, when his entire family had been slaughtered in Nazi camps, he reflected that he could still survive and, indeed, could still keep going every day largely because his relationship with this one German counteracted the brutality leveled by so many.

Knowing Helene Jacobs and seeing her goodness and selflessness inoculated him, in some ways, against the bitterness and hatred that would be–still today–so completely understandable.

And, so, while I’ve never been a ‘starfish’ person, never bought into the ‘power of one’, all that much, because I believe in building movements and changing systems…

it made me think.

When can we be that one?

Not trying to change the world on our own.

Not contenting ourselves with providing salves against the injustice and destruction that characterizes so much of our world.

But just interacting with others in such ways that we can restore their faith and hope, at the moments when they need it most, and being beacons of decency in a world that can use a lot more of it.

Because if Ms. Jacobs could single-handedly not only save a life but sustain that light, in the midst of so much darkness,

can’t we?

Assets and Education


During what seemed like a brief break from the mostly-vacation that was my July, I was privileged to participate in the release of the biannual report on the Assets and Education field, with my colleagues from the Assets and Education Initiative at KU.

This report occupied huge swaths of my time last winter, and it was a relief and a joy to get it out the door, but especially to experience the reaction of policymakers, educators, advocates, and practitioners, all of whom are coming to a realization that, when it comes to financial aid, we really may not be getting our money’s worth with our over-reliance on student borrowing.

One of the major purposes of the report is to explain the idea of institutional facilitation–the main way in which assets can change students’ educational trajectories, even long before they have saved enough money to finance all of their college educations.

By sending children a powerful message that supportive institutions will augment their own capabilities, and by reinforcing pro-education ideals in ways that shape expectations and, subsequently, behavior, saving even $500 can dramatically increase the likelihood of positive educational outcomes for a disadvantaged child. In contrast, the prospect of borrowing thousands of dollars to go to school can actually discourage low-income children from enrolling, eroding the power of education as an equalizing force in U.S. society, since college completion now largely reflects economic divides.

My piece of the report rollout centered on the policy implications, particularly looking at what it would mean to reorient financial aid to an asset-based model. How would we need to change welfare policy, so that low-income households are not discouraged from saving? How can we best encourage savings among those who most need transformational assets? How can we take asset-based financial aid to scale, and what role makes sense for student loans, in the interim?

I’ve been very pleased with the debate, so far, and the traction around translating the research into policy implications. And, now that I’m back from vacation and getting back into the swing of work, I’d love to continue the conversation here.

On a personal level, how has financial aid–loans, perhaps, or being independent of debt–affected your post-college outcomes?

What do you see as the connections between financial aid and the promise of the American Dream, if, indeed, our public policy choices are constraining access to higher education along lines of race and class?

What are your hopes for public policy in this arena? How can we translate the lessons of asset-based welfare to child savings?

What are the risks in this type of policy shift?

What difference can assets make, and what questions do we need to be asking ourselves to realize this potential?

Crowdsourcing Week: How do you teach advocates history?

It’s summer.

I’m dividing my time between the pool with my 4 kids, shuttling said children to dozens of activities, teaching intense summer courses, and managing my nonprofit consulting responsibilities, which honestly get a little more challenging in the summer, since coordinating with several agencies’ vacation schedules is a bit difficult.

All of which is a long introduction to this week’s theme:


I love crowdsourcing, it is well-established. I love the idea of it, since I believe that people already possess much of what we, collectively, need to know. It’s just a matter of harnessing it.

I love it in practicality, since it is a really terrific way to get good ideas without having to do a lot of work. See above, re: it’s summer.

And I love it here, since I learn something from my readers and our conversations every single day.

So, this week, I’m turning the tables. I don’t have much to bring to these posts. I mostly have my hands out, hoping for some pearls of wisdom.

Just like Ms. Crystal Smith says in the best. podcast. ever: “I appreciate you in advance.”

A few months ago, I read this great article about the women’s suffrage movement. What is so powerful about it is that it isn’t just a history lesson, in the ‘what happened, to whom, and when’ vein. It is, instead, several lessons from history, applied to struggles for social justice today.

But, without the historical context, an article like this would have been just another list of pieces of advocacy advice–helpful, but not with the same weight and resonance. Because the truth is, we need to learn our history, as advocates for social justice, if we are to root our efforts today in the collective wisdom and experiences of movements past.

And yet, I see, with my students and with my colleagues, a relative lack of historical perspective. In some ways, this advocacy ‘amnesia’ reflects the uncritical teaching of history in our formal education system, and the ways in which marginalized voices have been excised from much of the historical record. And it’s also, I think, partly our own faults. It is easy to think that this particular time is so unique that the past cannot possibly hold any truths relevant for today. Especially with the ascendance of technology in organizing, it seems like organizations’ campaigns from a century ago can’t possibly inform our actions tomorrow.

But. We need to learn our history. It is part of who we are, and it shapes the context in which we advocate today. As this year’s inaugural address reminded us, we are still a part of the thread of continual striving for perfection of democracy, a thread that has Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall woven through it.

So, the crowdsourcing.

How do we incorporate social justice history into nonprofit advocacy? Given that I can’t pack up a group of advocates against child abuse, or for ending the stigma of mental illness, or campaigning against hunger, for a semester-long course on movement history, how do we approach their work today with an eye towards yesterday’s victories and defeats? Where do you get inspiration from the past? What are your favorite sources of historical perspective? How do you weave them into your life in small-enough doses to be manageable? What tactics work best, for taking this long view?

How do you teach advocates history, so that we can repeat the lessons we should be learning and avoid the mistakes from which we must have already learned?

What does the crowd say?