Tag Archives: social justice

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?

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Assets and Education

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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:

Crowdsourcing.

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?

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?