Tag Archives: social justice

We need ‘Little Critter’ books for justice

At least around my house, woe befall the Mommy who, in running out the door with her hands full of kids and all their stuff, forgets to turn off a light.

Because, apparently, Dora the Explorer told my twins that leaving lights on kills penguins. And polar bears.

And they really like penguins and polar bears.

It’s great, really, the way that they have been indoctrinated into a conservation ethic. My oldest son won’t throw away anything from his lunchbox, in the hopes that everything can be composted or reused.

They would never leave the water running when they brush their teeth, the same way my generation learned to put on seatbelts automatically.

And they, because they are 4, are never shy about reminding the rest of us.

It’s everywhere they turn, and they’ve learned, and they become our social conscience.

The WonderPets save arctic animals, too, and the Boxcar Children recycle, and even Nancy Drew has an Earth Day mystery.

It’s a plot line, yes, but it’s also a way of life.

It’s the way of their lives, now, and so the way of ours.

And that made me think: we need to get on the ‘get them through the children’ bandwagon.

I mean, if Little Critter can save the Earth, can’t he (is Little Critter a boy?) fight racial injustice? End homelessness? Oppose heterosexism? Combat the stigma associated with mental illness?

If children all over this country watched TV programs and read children’s books and had cross-promotional tie-ins about economic inequality and the evils of social service retrenchment, grown-ups would hear about it every time we proposed massive tax cuts or bashed unions.

If Dora had to go past the DMV and around the bank and through the neighborhood with the inadequate police protection and the broken streetlights, in order to get to the office to pick up her food assistance (all while hauling around her twin baby siblings), my kids would be asking me why we make it so hard for people to get help.

And maybe that would help to spark a movement, the same way that my kids now excoriate each other if they find the refrigerator door left open.

Maybe we have some episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to write: I think they are going to organize to keep Wal-Mart from taking over their local businesses while squeezing their suppliers.

If it was on Netflix, my kids would totally watch that.

A rose by any other name…why words matter. A lot.

When we don’t want to get involved in a foreign conflict, it’s a ‘civil war’ or a ‘tragedy’, language which absolves us of our responsibility to intervene, unlike genocide, which we have a harder time ignoring.

We call it two-sided, an inevitable.

We do this with other social problems, too.

We say, ‘the poor will always be with us’, because that makes it seem like it’s not our fault, that we’re the richest country on the planet and children still lack a place to sleep and enough healthy food to eat.

We talk about breakdowns in family values as though parents are solely responsible for their children’s educational failings.

We use language that doesn’t seem as dire, because then our failure to act doesn’t seem as inexcusable.

Americans are mostly good people–I mean, individually and collectively, there are injustices that we just will not tolerate, once we recognize them as such.

So, then, actors who want to prevent outraged response are skilled at labeling problems in order to minimize the likelihood that we will rage.

A Problem from Hell featured prominently Raphael Lemkin and his struggle to coin a phrase that would capture what happened to the Armenians, Jews in Nazi Germany, and other peoples targeted for genocide, before that word existed…he understood the power of naming, and so did his opponents.

Once Winston Churchill called these targeted, mass killings, in 1941, “a problem without a name” (p. 29), Lemkin resolved that they should have one.

While, certainly, coming up with the term didn’t make genocide stop, it did–and it still does–change the calculus. For example, support for intervening in Bosnia jumped from 54% to 80% in some polls when Americans were told that what was happening to Muslims there was ‘genocide’.

And we should learn from these hard-fought lessons.

We need to name other problems that are unrecognized today. What should we call the widening class gap in higher education, for example, and the related fact that the high cost of college acts like a gate to make sure that most talented young people from low-income families can’t compete effectively with those more privileged?

And we need to make sure that names do justice to those afflicted by the ills they represent. I mean, what is the ‘feminization of poverty’? (It still pops up on spell check.)

One of the grave truths that a study of history makes clear is that we need a ‘hard principle’ that elected officials are going to weigh against other interests, if we are to prevail. We need to make it clear that the problem we want solved–poverty, or violence, or environmental destruction–is something that violates core tenets of who we are as people and as a nation.

When, in contrast, it’s a vague and squishy ill–nameless or poorly named–that we’re stacking up against constituent or special interest pressure, we’ll lose.

We need to call injustice out. By name.

What would it take to make ‘never’ mean ‘never’?

It has become a sort of ritual, I think, judging by past year’s content here.

I spend all of Christmas break reading what I don’t have time to read during the school year (this year, genocide and the American South in the cotton economy and global conflict and the Renaissance), and, then, around March, I get around to going back through the sticky notes that I stuck in the pages I wanted to remember…and I pull out some insights that I want to share here.

And you humor me, which I really appreciate.

The book that occupied most of my time over Christmas break (and, based on the posts I’ve started to sketch out for the coming weeks, will appear in various form here for awhile), is A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

I know, I really let loose on break, hunh?

I’m starting, here, with what I guess should be the end. Because, really, you can only deal with this kind of history by resolving:

Never again.

But, yet…

The book begins with the story of one girl killed in the Bosnian “ethnic cleansing” (word we use because it sounds less horrible than genocide–more on that soon), but, shortly after, has this quote. Jimmy Carter said in 1979, “we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide” (p. xxi).

It’s not giving away the rest of the book to state the obvious.

Of course, we did.

And so that’s my main question, from all 500+ pages, many of which have horrific narrative (I also read a novel about the Cambodian genocide, specifically, so, you know, I do fiction, too).

Since American policymakers know a tremendous amount about what’s happening in genocidal situations, and since some Americans risk a lot to push for action…what would happen if there was real outrage that policymakers are letting this happen ‘on our watch’?

I was thinking about this when, today, I met with a woman who has run a childcare and family support center for families in poverty for decades. Her passion is infectious, and she is a skilled and tenacious advocate.

She said that her advocacy goal is to “get people really, really mad, so that they just won’t tolerate it anymore, that children in our city don’t have a place to live or enough to eat”.

The question, of course, is how to do that.

There has to be ‘hell to pay’ for politicians who ignore or tolerate injustice. The change has to come from people outraged that passivity would be counseled in our names, that problems would be swept under the rug, that children would suffer because our priorities are elsewhere.

We have to make never mean never.

Or it won’t.

This advocate leaned across the table and said, “I believe most people know. They have the information. What they don’t do is act.”

And, how often, does that describe me, too?

Now we have unfettered access to images and stories. But we also have much more content to sort through, and we have to seek out the information. We have many arguments at our disposal, whether our cause is resisting genocide or easing the benefit cliff that sentences low-wage working moms to perpetual poverty. We can couch our appeals in history or in the future consequences. We know what happens when this goes unchecked, and we can project the costs if we do nothing. We can turn to morality, because many people want to do the right thing, and to have right be on their side. We can rely on policymakers’ instinct not to be the ones who let injustice rage on our watch.

We can use cost-benefit analyses, and heart-wrenching photographs, and celebrity endorsements.

We can, as the Sister said today, “give every poor kid a puppy, because then maybe people would grab their telephones to yell about it.”

It doesn’t matter, so much, the why, but the what, and the how.

The study of U.S. response to genocide makes it clear: U.S. officials make ‘potent political calculations about what the U.S. public would abide” (p. 373).

I think this is true in domestic policy issues, too, and it’s why there’s so much attention paid to framing, as it helps to tamp down dissent.

We need to change that equation.

We have to make policymakers fear the consequences for sins of omission.

We have to get outraged, and let our outrage be felt.

We have to make never really, really, really mean never.

We can all use a little inspiration.

It was a long, hot summer.

And it’s going to be a rough few years, at least here in Kansas.

So, if you’re like me, you can use a little inspiration.

Think of this post as a sort of ‘chicken soup for the advocate’s soul’…if I was that sentimental.

And, please, add your inspirations.

We can all use some more.

  • Bill Clinton’s nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention: No, not really anything that he said, although I was fairly dumbstruck, listening to it from my phone the next day, at how he really can make complicated policy issues seem so easy. Can he teach my policy class? Or do my eulogy? But, no, what I think I was most inspired by was the redemptive story of his presence. How, really, we can make mistakes–even really significant ones, on a major world stage–and, if we hang in there and do enough good, we can come back. There is hope for all of us.
  • Awesome direct practitioners making social change happen: There are many examples of this, I know, but my favorite is probably my friend Vanessa, wife of my friend Jake, and all-around terrific person. She used to be a medical assistant at Planned Parenthood, and when, because of the perennial funding cuts and legislative attacks leveled against Planned Parenthood, prices for procedures and exams would increase, Vanessa would answer the frustrated patients’ angry questions with something like, “The valuable services you just received are threatened by politics. If you want to have a voice in that, I’ll register you to vote, right now.” One day, she registered 12 patients. She rarely averaged fewer than 6. She rocks.
  • Amazing students moving mountains in order to dedicate themselves to our profession: I have not one, but TWO mothers whose husbands are deployed in my foundation policy course. They’re raising children on their own, worrying about their partners, and still studying social work with all their dedication. One is also trying to get her Parents-as-Teachers chapter to engage in more advocacy, too. Wow.
  • Zach Wahls: My friend Melanie knows Zach and posted a picture on her blog of them playing piano together. For me, it’s better than a celebrity sighting. Can you imagine being the moms who raised this tremendous young man? Also inspiring: my own kids, who, when told that their nanny was marrying her partner, paused just a minute before nodding and asking if they could have Sprite at the wedding. Love knows no boundary, as long as there is special-treat drink.

Please share: what inspires you?

How they will know history

Sam and I reading our favorite quote at the Dr. King Memorial

I interrupt September’s “reflections on my practice” theme, today, not for a “I remember where I was on Tuesday, September 11th, 11 years ago”, even though I do.

On this day, as I answer Sam’s questions about what happened then, I am struck by how much responsibility I have, as his Mom, to shape how he sees a past he will never know first-hand.

And that’s a really big deal.

Today, he asked the hard questions, about why someone would attack the United States when we weren’t at war. About why people who weren’t soldiers were the ones targeted. About why we responded by attacking a country.

Today isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this.

When we were at Legoland a month ago, for his birthday, he said that what he wanted to build on the ‘earthquake’ table was “Kris Kobach’s office.” (For the record, I did NOT condone this.)

He also called Kobach the “Voldemort of Kansas”. (Full disclosure: I thought that was pretty funny. And kind of accurate.)

So, obviously, he listens when Mommy talks, even if it’s not directly to him, and it shapes how he sees things that even he–who understands so much–can’t totally comprehend.

He knows that Mommy has a soft spot for LBJ, his obvious failings notwithstanding.

He knows that, in our family, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a big deal, not just a Monday off work in January.

He knows that the FDR Memorial in DC is my favorite, and he knows why.

And I don’t regret this, this passing on of what matters to me, and some of the values I hold most sacred.

This summer, when we were at the MLK Memorial in DC, I read him one of Dr. King’s quotes, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Sam looked at me and said, “Like Abraham Lincoln.”

How could I not be proud?

But how can I–collectively, how can we–teach our children about the past while creating a space for them to shape their own beliefs? How can I encourage him to conduct his own analysis and reach his own conclusions? How can I impart knowledge, and core values, and give him reign to think through the spaces himself?

Because I care about how he sees our history.

But his ability to craft his own lens, and to accommodate the views of others as he comes to know his core principles?

That matters far more, for our future.

The solace in standing on the right side

At Sam’s parent-teacher conferences last fall, his teacher said that sometimes he has trouble in class because “he always thinks he’s right.”

My husband just gave me that knowing look, as in ‘we know where he got that trait.’

Yeah, okay. I can own that.

But, truly, I can acknowledge that some of the positions I take may not be right, at least not in a “so the other side is wrong” way. I get that there are legitimate questions about the best way to support working families, for example, or what optimal energy policy looks like, or the precise mix of taxes that create a strong revenue foundation. And, so, within my worldview, there’s room to admit that I don’t have any lock on absolute truth in those questions, where there’s at least an element of technical knowledge, not just moral judgment.

And that’s what politics should be about, in my opinion–vigorous debates about the best ways to attain what should be universally-heralded goals. As in, we all want to make sure all children are well-nourished and well-educated, but what are the best ways to attain those ideals?

This post isn’t about those issues, the ones where people can have open and pretty dignified debate, and where there’s a pretty decent chance that the truth is somewhere in the middle of their respective positions.

This is about those issues where there’s clearly no middle ground, and where what’s at stake is really too sacred to be left to compromise.

It’s about the struggle of oppressed peoples for freedom, about the search for equality under the law, and about the human need to be recognized as fully human, even when that’s not yet where political consensus comes down.

When I was leafing through a magazine shortly after baby Evelyn was born last summer (the great side benefit of hours spent nursing!), I came across this quote from Chris Matthews that I liked so much it has been taped to my office wall ever since:

“Over time, people who advance liberties tend to win the argument, whether it’s for women, African Americans, immigrants, or the gay community. In the end, America takes the side of the people looking for rights. That’s one of the wonders of this country. Eventually, we live up to our ideals.”

I don’t know, quite honestly, that I’d be quite so generous in my assessment, but I think his basic premise is not only pretty accurate but very comforting. In essence, it’s a restatement of the famous quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” (1967 address to the SCLC).

And it reminds us that, even when we seem to be losing today, today is, after all, only today, and the odds are still in our favor. What was unthinkable a few generations ago is now enshrined in laws, however imperfect they may be, and today’s most heated struggles–for equality for GLBTQ communities, for the civil rights of immigrants–may be case studies in tomorrow’s history books.

I can’t always be certain I’m correct, as much as I might like to posture otherwise.

But we can know when we stand with right.

And, in the middle of lonely and seemingly hopeless battles, that feels good.

Spend your “extra” day fighting a losing battle

The way I see it, folks, tomorrow is a freebie.

It’s a totally bonus day that we only get once every four years.

You won’t have a February 29th next year, and you got by without one last year. Since we don’t plan on it, then, it’s essentially a total bonus, right?

So here’s my thought:

Let’s “waste” this extra day fighting some battles we’ll almost certainly lose. You know the ones–they need to be fought, to right a wrong or just stir up some trouble for those who need to be troubled. But we avoid them, because it seems more prudent to focus our energies on more attainable victories.

But not tomorrow.

Those 24 hours are a calendar’s gift, so we might as well throw them away on some of these hopeless causes.

My list, to get the day started:

  • Public assistance eligibility for immigrant families–can you think of a less popular cause? But economic hardship sentences some citizen children of immigrant parents to a lifetime of reduced life chances, and financial desperation traps some immigrant women in violent homes. Our public assistance systems are designed to reduce hardship and provide a safety net, and these families–part of our communities–deserve that, too.
  • Tax fairness–okay, so I fight this one on some of the other days, too, but I figure I can spare a few extra hours today. We need a revenue system equal to the challenges that face us, as a state and a country, and maybe this Leap Day can put us over the top.
  • Electing truly progressive candidates to my state legislature–most of the year I’ll do some campaigning for some allies whose relatively moderate views make them important stopgaps in our current political environment, but I have dreams of seeing some folks with big plans and huge hearts elected, and maybe some fundraising calls on this extra afternoon can help.
  • Peace on earth–yeah, I know. But, then, I ask myself: what have I done lately to try to stop war and promote peace? The answer, sadly, is not much, even though I very much want my kids to grow up in a safer world. I’ll spend some time today checking out the activities of peace groups local and international, and find a way to contribute some of my time (or, most likely, my money) as an investment in the future I want for them, and for us all.

The way I see it, we spend too much energy talking ourselves out of some of the fights we really should embrace.

Pragmatism is overrated, and the greatest movements for social justice certainly never conducted a feasibility analysis first.

We have to be strategic, but we also have to be bold. And stubborn. And, sometimes, a bit foolhardy.

So, what’s on your list of losing battles for our bonus day?

Happy February 29th.

Enlarging our human circle

This is my last post, at least for now, pulled from the notebook in which I’ve been recording some of my reflections, over the past few months, on dr. john powell’s time in Kansas City. I’m grateful to the folks (including many good friends) at Communities Creating Opportunity for bringing him to town, and for convening people to talk and think about race and justice and how easy it is for us to “other” others.

I hear this a lot, really, in my work with policy impacting undocumented immigrants–the idea that much of this policy is constructed without a basic regard for immigrants as human beings–as though they are somehow non-persons.

And to be honest, sometimes it sounds kind of outlandish, this concept that the root of the injustice that surrounds us is an inability to see each other as people. I mean, I get it that we obviously don’t see kids in urban school districts as our neighbors, or people experiencing homelessness as our fellow citizens, or immigrants as our equals.


But, not even as people?

Except, you know, it kind of explains a lot.

dr. powell shared some tremendously powerful psychological research about how the brain responds to stimuli around difference, and, in contemplating the end results of the policies we end up with, it sort of becomes the only logical conclusion:

surely we wouldn’t, couldn’t, let these routine tragedies befall other people so regularly…unless we didn’t see them as such.

And, so, unless we can bring people into our circle of concern, who are currently beyond it, unless we can begin to see everyone as just as human as we are, then our tools to push for supportive policy responses–to child poverty, to criminal justice, to mental illness–will be severely limited.

Because what has a heavy application of guilt gotten anybody lately?

But if we can enlarge our circle of human concern so that it goes beyond our Facebook friends and our next-door neighbor (maybe) and the families that look just like us, then we can tap into the decency that still abides in many hearts, motivating American voluntarism and charitable giving, albeit in quantities inadequate to compensate for the abdication of our collective responsibilities.

I don’t have the answer, of course, to the key question: how?

It’s getting harder, evidence suggests, because, as our society grows more diverse, there are more and more people we see as beyond our “circle of human concern.”

There are efforts that seem to be bearing some fruit–like Welcoming America, in dealing with immigrant and refugee issues–by helping people see themselves reflected in each others’ eyes, and by connecting on the level of shared hopes and common fears.

There are policy answers, too-seriously integrated schools and mixed-income housing and the preservation/creation of public spaces–to our tendency to draw a tight and small circle that leaves a lot of “others” out.

And we need to tell stories, because it’s still hard for most of us to ignore the humanity of someone so obviously human, while statistics and even aggregations are too easily lumped beyond the circle.

I guess the key is that we don’t overlook this step, as I’ve done for so long. We can’t rush to the policy solution, scratching our heads or lambasting the culprits, without stopping to ask why it’s so easy to harm those whose pains we can’t see or even comprehend.

First, we need to make sure that those we want to help are fully humanized, since we already know they’re fully human. We have to force those in power to face the “other”.

We have to draw the circle. Bigger.

When the “enemy” is a structure

My oldest son is really, really cognizant of bad guys.

Everyone in his world, really, is either a “good guy” or “bad guy”–even though he can recognize gradations in his own moods and behaviors, he seems perplexed, at times, by the idea that someone can be simultaneously good and bad, in that very flawed, very human kind of way we all live, and see, every day.

And, you know, I think we see advocacy, and our quest for social justice, in much the same way sometimes.

People, and institutions, are either “with us” or “against us”, as much as we might like to pretend that we don’t categorize that way.

Yes, as social workers, we have an ethical obligation to respect the dignity and worth of every individual, but, really…how often do you hear social workers talk that way about politicians? Or bureaucrats?

I see it in my students, and I feel it in myself: somehow, everyone who isn’t as committed as we are to seeking justice for those we serve (as we define it), is our enemy–an obstacle to be surmounted and a target for our advocacy.

I know. It comes as a shock that I can be sanctimonious. I know.

And, so, part of what was, for me, so morally and intellectually challenging about dr. john powell’s presentation, and the work of his with which I have familiarized myself since, is his insistence that we need to move beyond calling each other racists.

And I have kind of a problem with that, because, well, some people are racist. It’s not just the legacy of racism–it’s still alive and flourishing, and it can’t live except in people’s hearts.

But, after a lot of reflection, I think I understand more about what he means.

Pinpointing the root of racial inequity in this country–or any other–in the structures that perpetuate racially unjust outcomes isn’t about letting racists off the hook. If anything, it heightens the tension, because when we think about racism as only existing in marginalized pockets of “fringe” outcasts, it is trivialized, in some ways, as compared to locating it properly among those who set up the rules of the game and rig it in their favor.

And identifying the racialized nature of the system brings more of us–those who would never consider ourselves racist but nonetheless benefit in very tangible ways from the injustice of the status quo–into the ranks of the “guilty” too. Because even good intentions can’t excuse racialized outcomes.

And that means that even the “good guys” share responsibility for transforming our systems–economic, political, social–so that they work for everyone.

And that means that even the “bad guys” aren’t really, in the final analysis, all that much worse than the rest of us, just as that pesky “dignity and worth of every individual” clause would have us remember.

Analyzing structures this way isn’t always easy; it can be harder to walk a client through the process of dissecting the systems that impact his/her life to identify the root causes that perpetuate problems than it is to nod when someone talks about caseworkers who have it in for her, or those bums in Washington who only look out for themselves.

And it’s more fun to throw darts at a face than a structure, for sure.

But it’s far more accurate, and ultimately more powerful.

Because we can’t hope to win if we’re not fighting the right fight.

Seeking transformational solutions in a transactional world

I had the opportunity to hear dr. john powell (sic) of the Kirwan Institute speak at a Communities Creating Opportunity event in Kansas City a few months ago.

There’s something so life-affirming about sitting in a multiracial crowd, struggling together with the reality of “structural racialization” (his term, and my new favorite) in our society, in our organizations, and in our individual lives.

It was a really challenging and tremendously invigorating afternoon, and those ideas have continued to swirl in my mind. This week, I’ve written 3 posts related to aspects of what he spoke about, and how I’ve tried to apply it to my life and to my social work in the weeks since.

One of the parts of the afternoon that struck me the most was the story he related about a mother sentenced to jail for lying about her residence in order to get her kids into a better school. There was a great deal of sympathy, in the room, for her plight, but what dr. powell pushed us to think about was how frequently we take such actions, in our own efforts to cope with systems which are inherently unjust.

And how, in so doing, we’re seeking to change the terms of those unjust transactions, rather than transforming the system.

And that got me thinking about advocacy, and about how often our advocacy revolves around trying to improve a client’s (or clients’) outcomes in a given transaction–advocacy to get someone in a decent apartment, or to make sure that a school district meets a child’s IEP parameters, or to get an employer to give a second chance to an ex-offender.

That advocacy is important. Securing more favorable transactions for those marginalized within oppressive systems can change people’s individual lives, opening doors that were closed and allowing them to access an entirely new plane of opportunities.

And it’s often how we engage with the systems that impact us personally, too; just as the mom highlighted in the story did, we look for ways over, around, and through the obstacles we confront, because, quite honestly, it’s often just too much to try to figure out how to dismantle those barriers entirely.

But, as dr. powell reminded us, only such transformational approaches–those that ask not how can we find a way out of this trap, but who keeps setting traps in the first place?–can reshape the landscape for ourselves and for those who will follow.

It’s a harder lift, obviously.

And, in a world of such structural racialization, with so many injustices woven right into the fabric of the systems, it’s heaping oppression onto oppression to say that this mom, or any individual, is to be blamed for seeking a better transaction rather than a radical transformation.

Because, like the fault in the first place, that’s a responsibility we all share.

Transforming our society by rethinking the systems that govern our lives–asking why and why and why and why–falls to all of us. It’s not enough for me as a mother to want the best for my kid, when I know that I can do something to make “best” within the reach of other kids, too. It’s not enough for me as a social worker to be skilled at getting more for my clients, when I know that more is owed to many.

The best deal isn’t nearly enough.

We need a whole new game.