Tag Archives: social problems

Not a fortress mom

Photo credit, alex ranaldi, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

Photo credit, alex ranaldi, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

I am not a ‘fortress mom’.

I mean, yes, I try to feed my kids healthy food, even though I can’t keep up with which plastics that I’m supposed to be worried about.

And I spend time working with Sam’s teacher and helping him pursue his education–we definitely fall into that category of upper-middle class parents using our resources for our children’s educational benefit.

What I mean is that I don’t consider it my job, or even desirable, to try to keep danger and threat and harm away from my children through sheer force of my will, or an abundance of cautious planning.

I’m not interested in trying to put up walls to keep out the world.

And I refuse to spend my energy policing their every move.

Instead, I feel called, as a parent and, I think, as a social worker, to care for my children–and, by extension–all children, through changing the systems that affect the world in which my children will grow up.

It is so tempting to revert to the individual sphere to cope with our fears and concerns, since, even on the household level, they are plenty overwhelming.

But I believe in the quote that is the header on this blog, that “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

It’s not that I don’t care–obviously, I hope–about my children’s well-being.

It’s just that I’m not too interested in trying to squeeze what I can for them, if that leaves less for everyone else, or in retreating inward as a way of protection, because it’s really not.

This ‘environment’ that parents are so concerned about–the influences on our children, the pressures, the pollution–isn’t some personified enemy to be vanquished or, at least, contained.

Instead, of course, it’s multiple and overlapping systems that can and must be manipulated to bring better outcomes.

The societal problems that I worry about for my kids:

  • Raising daughters in a gendered world, still rife with sexual violence, pay inequality, and unmanageable expectations of body image
  • The inability of public education to adequately meet the needs, most days, of an extremely bright child with simultaneous sensory concerns
  • The difficulty of navigating our food system for health and wholeness and the inundation of distorted messages about food and nutrition
  • Violence that stems in large part from marginalization and growing inequality and the intrusion of the same into our most sacred spheres

are not my problems, but, instead, our collective challenges, to confront…together.

I’m not spending much time helping my kids cope with injustices we should not tolerate.

I’m not taking on the stresses that come from prescribing individual lifestyle changes as the ‘cure’ for societal malaise.

As a family, we’re looking outward, as much as we can, and teaching the kids that it’s okay to question why structures are the way they are, and why outcomes are so often unequal.

I’m advocating for more funding and stronger supports for public schools, better nutrition in the lunchroom, a fairer criminal justice system, immigration laws that make sense for our future and affirm our shared past, and gender equity enshrined in laws and seared into our hearts.

And I’m showing the kids how we do this work together, rather than seal ourselves off.

Because there’s no wall high enough to keep out the world.

Even if I was trying to build it.

Context matters: In defense of ‘wraparound’

One of the tensions in the nonprofit world today, especially around questions of scaling, relates to whether our needs are best served through the creation and maintenance of ‘niche’ nonprofits that provide a few core services and do so very well, versus the development of a smaller number of large institutions that are each capable of delivering holistic services in their respective fields.

Do we want many Davids or a few (well-intentioned, of course) Goliaths?

Do we get to scale more effectively by fostering many nimble, ’boutique’ nonprofits, or by directing resources to organizations more equal in size to the problems they confront?

I have thought, though, for awhile, that this might really be the wrong question. That maybe we should be spending more time thinking about whether our services–our response to the problems–are scaled correctly, not whether the particular vehicles through which we’re delivering them–our organizations–are.

Because, when it comes to tackling the big challenges plaguing our society–illiteracy, poverty, gender discrimination, racial injustice, obesity and ill health, growing educational disparities, pervasive underemployment, rampant incarceration–context really matters.

It’s not just that smaller nonprofits with a more narrow profile of services may be ‘outgunned’ in these battles, but that even the service models of bigger organizations, the way that they structure and understand their missions, may be missing some links, too.

But when organizations expand beyond their boundaries–regardless of their size–I often sense considerable pushback, around the idea of ‘mission drift’ or concerns about others’ turf or fear that ‘core’ services (however those are understood) will suffer as the service scope grows.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder describes a very different approach, one where the organization fairly quickly saw that achieving its goals of literacy, especially for girls around the world, would require far more than the initial objective of building schools and libraries. In order to succeed, Room to Read would have to look at the skills that girls need and the contexts in which they often fail to develop, the social supports that can help girls overcome cultural taboos against advanced education for females, and the tangible obstacles they face (including transportation, meals at school, and childcare for siblings).

Importantly, attending to this context doesn’t always mean adjusting the scale and size of the organization itself, since there are other ways to ‘scale up’, and it isn’t perceived as ‘Christmas-treeing’, tacking on anything that seems appealing, without thought as to the distraction that additional services may pose.

Instead, it’s about boxing in our problems in order to attack them.

It’s about wrapping those we’re concerned about in the mantle of all of the essential supports they say they need, and figuring out how to do that through a combination of service expansion internally, strategic partnerships, and advocacy with public institutions.

In essence, then, I guess that I’m more interested in the ‘what’, when it comes to scaling to match our challenges, than I am the ‘how’.

I don’t know that I care, all that much, if we pursue models of many small organizations, working collaboratively, or investments in large and robust responses.

What matters is that we go wide, with our lens, looking at the context in which problems flourish.

After all, it’s only mission drift if you’re moving away from what really matters, or if you’re focused more on the narrow provision of services than a compelling vision of the world as it should be.

Otherwise, it’s just approaching our challenges from different angles.

Until we have them surrounded.

Blaming the Victim

I am obviously not the first person–nor even the first social worker–to observe and decry our tendency towards victim blaming.

We see it in nearly every field of social policymaking today.

In domestic violence: “Why doesn’t she leave?”

In substance abuse: “Why doesn’t he quit?”

In criminal justice: “Why can’t they go straight?”

In education: “Why do schools need more money?”

But victim-blaming isn’t a new phenomenon.

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that, during and immediately following the Holocaust, voices within and beyond the Jewish community questioned why Jews had not ‘resisted sufficiently’.

In part, I think this exposes one of the motivations behind victim-blaming: self-preservation.

I think that, sometimes, when we shake our heads and tsk, tsk at those who we see as fallen, what we’re really trying to tell ourselves is that there must be something wrong with them, because we could never end up in that same situation.

You can hear that in the quotes of Jewish survivors who asserted that people should have run away from the trains and risen up in the camps. We want to believe that the world still basically works, and that what went wrong in this particular instance is that somebody didn’t [fill in the blank: make the right decision, try hard enough, listen to good advice].

That’s not meant to make excuses for victim-blaming.

We can’t let ourselves get comfortable projecting the actions that we think oppressed people should have taken, in the face of odds that we ourselves have not encountered.

It’s inexcusable.

But it is, I believe, when seen in the context of our desperate need to reconcile tremendous suffering with our need for order and control and predictability, understandable.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

I have spent much of my summer working on my advocacy around educational equities, particularly regarding policy innovations to improve post-secondary outcomes for low-income students.

It’s pretty clear that our educational system–from the expectations we set for children to the resources they encounter in the classroom to the incentives presented to their parents to how students fare once they leave school–works differently for disadvantaged students than for advantaged ones.

And the result is that, instead of being an equalizing agent in our society, education tends to reinforce patterns of relative privilege.

It works insidiously, of course, so that these mechanisms are nearly invisible.

We end up, then, with something that looks almost like a ‘natural’ phenomenon:

Low-income students of color just don’t do as well in school.

As if that is, somehow, just to be expected.

And that’s a theme–this idea that our policies can produce inequitable outcomes in a way that makes them look inevitable, instead of distinctly and unjustly orchestrated–that I reflected on during some of my non-professional reading this summer, too.

Like how, around the world today, many nations and cultures believe that girls don’t deserve an education, so they make it difficult or even impossible for girls to go to school…and then their relative lack of education is used as ‘evidence’ of the reality of girls’ inferior academic abilities.

Or, even more tragically, when Nazis did not permit Jews to work and then used their ‘idleness’ as part of the rationale for their subsequent deportation.

Of course, these beliefs and practices aren’t just found in literature.

What about when mothers receiving welfare do not receive enough financial support to provide well for their children, and then we point to their kids’ inadequate nutrition and ill-fitting clothes as ‘proof’ that they are not well cared for?

Or when we enact strict penalties for those who have disabilities and work (in many states, they can still lose their health care and benefits, if they earn too much money) and then lament their lack of ‘work initiative’?

Or when we forbid people from using SNAP benefits to buy diapers at the grocery store and then incarcerate a mom for stealing diapers for her baby (really), and cite that as, somehow ‘proving’ the inherent untrustworthiness of people in poverty?

Or, particularly perniciously, when we hold our elections on Tuesdays and cluck our tongues at the low voter turnout rates among low-income working people–those least in control of their time on any given work day?

Where our policies give credence to our worst instincts, we need policy change.

Where we build barriers and constrain people’s options to a series of bad choices and then cast judgment on their choice of one of those, we need policy change.

Where we force people to live out stereotypes that in no way reflect the reality of their lives absent these unnatural limitations, we need policy change.

Where our direst prophecies are being fulfilled, and then treated as though the march in this direction is unavoidable, even while lamentable…

We need policy change.

We can’t call it a ‘failure’

The crux of the analysis in A Problem from Hell is really quite chilling: the author came to the conclusion, reviewing the U.S. response (and lack thereof) to genocide in different countries around the world, during different U.S. administrations, that our U.S. political system is working.

Our interests are being maximized, and no one is having to pay a price for doing what they want to do (mostly, fail to act). We prioritize calculations about how much risk we’re willing to tolerate, and the system allows us to preference decisions that maximize those ‘goods’.

So we can’t call it a ‘failure’, even when hundreds of thousands (or more) people die, essentially as we just watch.

If we’re not setting out to prevent, or at least interrupt, those deaths, then we’re not failing, by not doing so.

Stunning and scary, but pretty obvious, when you think about it. And about our reaction–and sometimes, lack thereof–to other social problems, too.

Since the goals of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, what we used to call ‘welfare’) didn’t include reducing child poverty or improving child well-being, then is it a failure that the move to TANF has not achieved those ends?

If our educational system doesn’t set out to produce critical thinkers who can invigorate our democracy, are we failing that they aren’t…and can’t?

If our food policies do not aim to ensure that people have adequate access to healthy, affordable food, in order to promote overall health and well-being, is our system really failing us?

If our tax policies are not designed to provide adequate revenues to support essential infrastructure and core services, then are they failing when they inevitably produce deficits and necessitate retrenchment?

And if we don’t label these failures as such, because we’re not setting the right goals in the first place, then can we ever expect to generate adequate momentum for different policies, that could bring us to different ends?

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.

Wicked Problems in 2013

The book Measuring the Networked Nonprofit, which was the inspiration for more than a few posts at the end of last year, referred to ‘wicked problems’ as those that are not solvable by traditional methods and are difficult or impossible to solve at all because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements.

Wicked problems are wicked in large part because the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems, sort of like when you squeeze one side of a balloon and it pops out on the other.

And, since I read that definition, and that particular label, I’ve been thinking about two things:

1. My oldest son hews very much to the first definition of ‘wicked’ in Webster, as morally very bad, or evil. Here it’s the second definition that applies: fierce or vicious. And the distinction is important, because our tendency, often, to rush to labeling the ‘other’ as ‘bad’ is counterproductive in our efforts to solve these problems that are perhaps best understood as more ‘mischievous’ than evil.

2. All of our problems are sort of wicked. I mean, for social workers and advocates, if a problem is solvable by traditional methods and we haven’t solved it yet…what are we doing? I guess there are those problems for which it is our failure to summon sufficient political will that explains our failure, sort of. But if you take something like poverty, which, on the one hand, is easy to solve–just give people enough money, then it becomes clear that poverty is still a wicked problem, in that solving it through that clearest route will also create other problems.

What Measuring the Networked Nonprofit suggests in passing, and what I have contemplated since I read the book last fall, is that, for wicked problems, our best chance to solve them will be to harness the collective energies and capacities of free agents who can be convinced to rally to the cause. After all, the solutions we’ve already thought of, by definition, won’t work here.

These problems are wicked.

Climate change, offender recidivism, obesity, unemployment

I think there’s something liberating, in a way, about calling these problems ‘wicked’. It makes it plain that it’s not necessarily that we’re not smart enough, or that we’re not trying hard enough. It may be just that these are fierce problems that will demand something more, something else, if we’re going to solve them without just chasing around other problems that pop out all over the place. It frees us up to dedicate ourselves, anew, to the creative tackling of the wicked problems whose solutions still elude us. And, maybe, to eradicating the pesky problems with simpler solutions that we should have gotten to by now.

So that we can make 2013 the ‘year of the wicked’, problem-wise.

Second Webster definition, of course.