Tag Archives: state legislature

The DeMarco Factor

There is a lot that is pretty cool about my new, full-time position at the university.

I mean, I get a parking pass. For real.

I love my students and my colleagues, and I love the magnolia tree outside my window.

I love that tree A LOT.

But the very best thing, hands down?

The review copies of books.

It’s like Christmas every time I have a new text to select for a class, and those catalogs are like treasure maps.

It’s hard to keep up with all of the good publications coming out, and my students would cry foul quickly if I tried to assign everything that I think is worth their time to read, but it’s still pretty incredible.

One of the books that I previewed for this semester’s Advanced Advocacy Practice course is The DeMarco Factor, a sort of case study of a particularly effective advocate for health investments and equity in Maryland. It’s so hard for my students to conceptualize what advocacy really looks like, and to think through how they can apply their social work skills to its practice, and so I think there’s great value in humanizing the whole endeavor.

It’s very readable and quite well-received, but here are some of the highlights, as you’re weighing whether it makes it on your summer reading list.

  • Another point for social work relationship skills, in the advocacy context: There’s so much here about the importance of personal connections in moving policy, especially in the face of political and social odds. I feel vindicated, really, in my continual exhortations to my students that they were born for this. One observer calls DeMarco a ‘mythmaker’, capable of connecting with people so that they believe that they are capable of even the grandest political wins. If that’s not empowerment practice, I don’t know what is.
  • It takes campaigns: What I appreciated most about this book is the demystification of the advocacy process, without ‘simplifying’ it. If anything, there’s an increased understanding of the sophistication needed to develop and execute an advocacy campaign, including the process of running a public awareness component to galvanize support and the development of an electoral strategy to influence who’s sitting in the decision maker seat. But it’s not smarmy or murky or opaque at all. It’s an intervention, not that dissimilar from the interventions that we implement all the time, to induce change. Again, we can do this.
  • In building power (and you must), intensity matters: If we want to build enough power to induce policymakers to follow our prescriptions, we need far more than just public opinion on our side. We’ve really already met that threshold on a lot of our issues, and yet we’re clearly not winning many of them. What we need is fervent support, support that will convince elected officials that there will be a price to pay for failing to deliver. Policymakers will only listen when we make them. That is power.
  • You can work your model, on issue after issue: That’s the core takeaway from this book, I think, given that the central figure–Vinny DeMarco–has successfully executed advocacy campaigns on a variety of progressive issues in Maryland. Using the same modus operandi, more or less, he distributes resolutions to get organizations on board, shops policy models that can test the political waters, demonstrates economic impact, works his relationships to build powerful alliances, and uses a combination of polling, grassroots agitation, and insider politics to get to the victory. It worked on gun control, tobacco control, health care reform…we can win on anything, with the right approach.
  • We can be players: We may not all want to be power brokers the way DeMarco became. We shouldn’t. But there is more than one path to power. My favorite passage in the book, which I find really inspiring, is this: “It’s intimidating because you know that, no matter where you go in your district, or in your church, or in your world, you’re going to hear about his campaigns on behalf of the children and families of Maryland” (p. 45). To this, we should all aspire.

There’s no great utility in lionizing a particular advocate, and I don’t think that was the author’s intention with the book. What it says to me is that public interest advocacy is a noble profession and an art form, but one that can be studied and learned, to our own advantage as advocates and in service of the causes we care about.

I’m glad that there is a Vinny DeMarco, for the people of Maryland, and I’m glad to know about him, so that I can be the most skillful, powerful advocate I can, here in my own backyard.

Influence is our goal, and other reminders for the home stretch

In Kansas, our state legislature comes back from the recess next week, and May promises to be a long month for social work advocates, as we battle over major budget and tax cuts, with significant implications for vulnerable populations in our state.

And so it seemed like a good time to gear ourselves up, with a little refresher on lobbying.

And what works.

I hope that my fellow policy advocates will weigh in, too, with their best advice, for how to break through to policymakers, how to sustain ourselves, and how to stay grounded in the realities of our clients and the perspectives of the world outside the dome.

  • We give elected officials reason for being. We cannot ever forget that, without our phone calls, and our pleading, and our presentations, policymakers would not have a legitimate role in government. They are our representatives. So don’t ever let them make you feel bad, when you’re chasing them down in the hallways or calling them on a Saturday morning or sending them another email.
  • Stories may not convince, but they do increase investment, and getting policymakers and allies invested in our policy issues is our greatest challenge. If we can get others to take on our fights as their own, we have essentially one.
  • If you can only inform or influence, don’t forget that influence is our goal. We know a lot about our work, and we have so many things that we want to say, but information overload can reduce our effectiveness, and we can’t afford that. A personal connection with a policymaker can bring you much more influence than all the information in the world, and swaying policymakers is the reason we’re in this work.
  • Don’t forget to pack your social work skills and values for the trip to your capital. The humor and collegiality and value base that sustain us in the most difficult social work will sustain and serve you in policy advocacy, too, but it can be too easy to slip into another persona, in the halls of the capitol, instead of wrapping ourselves in our social work-ness.

What gets you through to June or July or whenever your ‘break’ in the policy advocacy world comes? What advice would you share with those who are just beginning in this journey?

“That’s not my experience…” You already know enough.

At the Kansas Coalition for School Readiness‘ advocacy day today, I met a young mother of two who made the trip to Topeka, on her own, to express her support for her children’s Early Head Start program. She listened to the presentation of the Coalition’s key policy issues–supporting the Governor’s recommendation for $51.5 million in Children’s Initiative Funds for FY2014 and FY2015 and restoring the Child and Dependent Care Credit. She soaked up the advice on how to approach legislator visits and how to begin a relationship with an elected official.

Then she got on a bus with dozens of advocates, most of whom were there as part of their official job duties, and headed to the state capitol building.

When I met her, in the capitol rotunda after her two legislative visits, she was somewhat shaken. The visits, in her opinion, hadn’t gone too well. The very new, pretty young, legislators with whom she met were very open about their disagreement with her position, and I don’t think that she was totally prepared for a policymaker’s only slightly tempered hostility.

She told me that one of the representatives had declared that he doesn’t support Head Start because it’s ‘just daycare’ and that parents should be the ones teaching their children everything they need to know. She asked me how a policymaker who, after all, isn’t a parent, could presume to be such an expert on parenting.

I asked her how she responded.

Hesitating, she said, “Well, I just told him that that’s not my experience. I kept my son home with me until he was ready for preschool, and then I enrolled him in Head Start so that he could get ready for Kindergarten. And I know that he is going to succeed in school because he got the preparation he needs. I can teach him a lot, but part of my responsibility as a parent is to select a good school for my child, too, and that’s what Head Start makes possible.”

And that’s what has stuck with me today. That, as parents and as advocates and as citizens, we can’t always sway the opinions of our policymakers. But we can share our experiences, and those cannot be refuted. We cannot be shaken, in sharing our own stories. We must not be deterred.

We don’t need to know every statistic. We can’t prepare for every eventuality. We can’t speak to every argument.

But we owe it to ourselves, to our children, to our clients, and to our policymakers–who depend on us for their legitimacy as elected officials, after all–to share, “In my experience…”

And when we got back to the hotel for lunch, and the speaker asked who was headed back to the capitol for more visits that afternoon, that young mom raised her hand.

Her children, I know, are lucky to have her in their lives. And so are those policymakers.

So are we.

Multifinality, Commander’s Intent, and My Household Chores

Sometimes, in solving social problems, the how doesn’t matter so much.

But you wouldn’t know it by our advocacy.

We spend so much time arguing about the ‘how’.

I’m not going to assert that the way in which we arrive at a particular conclusion is always immaterial, certainly. I mean, if we want to prevent unintended pregnancies, universal sterilization gets us there, right? But no one’s going to argue (I should probably check NCSL’s updates on state legislatures before I go out on a limb there) that that’s a good approach.

But, at the least, there is usually more than one viable path to a particular policy outcome, which means that it would make sense to spend at least as much energy debating those desired ends as the means, especially since there’s a value in trying multiple roads.

  • Reducing child poverty? The Earned Income Tax Credit helps, but so do generous parental leave policies, improved access to affordable childcare (so parents can work more and at better jobs), guaranteed child support, living wages, and child allowances.
  • Increasing college attainment among targeted populations? We know financial aid makes a difference, but so do college retention programs, high school reforms, and even requiring students to apply for college before they graduate high school.
  • Closing the educational achievement gap? It means addressing equity in school finance, for sure, but what about adult education programs, teacher training, and testing reforms?

My favorite social work theory concept is the idea of multifinality, that there are multiple ways to reach the same desired end.

Embracing that truth could revolutionize the way we approach policymaking, by requiring us to focus on where we want to go, instead of putting all of our eggs into the ‘how we’re going to get there’ basket.

Imagine a state legislative session that featured lengthy discussions about the different ways to address a need for health care among low-income children, for example, instead of a protracted and often nasty fight about this or that particular tactic (different kinds of provider licenses, different reimbursement rates, streamlined eligibility determination, more outreach investment for Medicaid…).

The authors of Made to Stick refer to this as the Commander’s Intent, a military practice of spelling out a concrete goal and then letting the process unfold, in terms of how we arrive there.

It’s strengths-based, in that others are empowered to shape the journey, as long as the destination is fixed. And it’s consistent with how we understand people to be motivated, and with how we know that systems work, too.

And, I was reflecting the other day, it’s how I parent, too, especially when it comes to getting the kids to help around the house.

See, it is completely ineffective for me to tell the kids exactly how I want something done. They’ll usually either refuse to do it or give up in the face of daunting instructions. Either way, I lose. Instead, when I can present them with a vision of what it needs to look like, and emphasize the freedom they have to figure out how we get there, their circuitous paths usually end up delivering us right where we need to be.

The parallels to the legislature are obvious:

“You all need to clean up this mess. How do you do that is up to you, but it must get cleaned up.”

Where do you see multifinality at work in your practice? And how do you signal your Commander’s Intent–in your organization, in your advocacy, and in your life?

We need to win this on the merits

Image credit: americasvoiceonline.org

You know I’m not a fan of taking the easy way out.

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that we can throw the proverbial Hail Mary pass and move down the field (that’s the right sports metaphor, right?).

But in advocacy, as in life, it’s seldom that simple.

And, I’d argue, even when it might be possible, at least temporarily, it’s just not as good.

This is one of those cases.

Around the country, sparked first by the living nightmare that is now Alabama, anti-immigrant forces have been going after what they’ve long considered the Holy Grail:

Kicking immigrant kids out of Kindergarten.

It was at least 8 years ago that I first heard Kris Kobach’s assertion that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, which established the right of every child in the U.S. to attend public K-12 schools, was ‘fatally flawed’, I think along with some pronouncement that he could win a different decision if he had a chance to try the case.

Since then, he has been hoping for his chance.

With the Alabama legislature’s approval of a requirement that K-12 schools verify the immigration status of students, that door was opened, even though that provision was pretty quickly enjoined in federal court.

This legislative session has already seen similar debates in other states, and I guarantee that there’s more to come: in the ‘war of attrition’ that the anti-immigrant crowd has been waging for years, barring immigrant kids from going to school would be a really big deal.

Immigrants and their allies, then, are justifiably hell-bent on stopping these attacks. In our fervor, I think we’re vulnerable to make a serious error.

We have to win this battle on the merits. We can’t take a shortcut, point to the Supreme Court, and just argue legal precedent. Yes, scaring legislators with threats of lawsuits and confusing them with references to previous decisions can sometimes work. And, yes, I fully believe that the U.S. Supreme Court (and I mean this specific one) would still decide a similar case the same way. Absolutely. But precedent can change. Winds can shift. And, so, the foundation can fall out from under those arguments that once looked so solid.

Besides, who was ever motivated to stand up and join a cause to fight against something just because it contradicts Justice Brennan’s majority opinion?

Because the truth is, Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, turning our teachers into immigration agents is a horrible idea. Keeping children, most of whom will eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, out of school and on the streets is really terrible policy. Sending ripple effects through mixed-status families and communities, depressing the educational attainment of an entire generation, just because we hope that it might make some parents leave the country, is a nightmare scenario. Kicking kids out of Kindergarten because we don’t approve of their mom and dad is not an action of a place worthy to be called the United States of America.

Those need to be our arguments, not recitations of precedent, even that which is based on a legal principle as important as the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

We can win this.

I truly believe that a majority of Americans opposes this idea, and that we can convince state lawmakers that this is not the way to prove a point on immigration reform. I think that we can find new allies–in teachers and administrators and law enforcement officers and business leaders–and that we can emerge from this struggle poised for more success on other fronts.

But we’ve got to fight.

It was bad policy in 1982, and it’s bad policy today.

We don’t need a precedent to tell us that.

That sounds about right…

In preparation for the upcoming state legislative session(s)–they’ll be here before we know it!–I’ve been working with some folks who are reviewing policy trends at the state level, nationwide, to identify sources for these new initiatives, messages and strategies that can combat them, and (because I’m ever the optimist!) positive legislative agendas that can chart a way forward, at least in the states where I spend most of my time.

Looking back, especially over the last couple of years, I was reminded of a quote that I bookmarked in Backlash, a book that I read during my maternity leave.

Will Bunch, the author, referred to some of the legislative developments that took precedence in Congress over job creation priorities, as “impulsive acts of rage with imprimatur of law” (p. 164).

And, you know, that sounds about right.

I have an obvious interest, in particular, in the anti-immigrant attacks that are odious not only for their sheer meanness but also for their foolishness, given that almost all of them are completely unlawful (which, if you think about it, is really kind of ironic: What part of “illegal” do they not understand?). Of course, immigrants aren’t the only ones hurt by these attacks: do you want to be waiting in an emergency room in Arizona while personnel are trying to verify proof of citizenship? (SB 1405–I don’t make this stuff up) Or, what–you don’t carry your original birth certificate on you in case of a life-threatening injury? Wasteful, ill-conceived, hateful, ridiculous…and popular, in states with very different demographics and even political landscapes.

But, of course, immigrants were not the only ones targeted by vengeful acts of childish rage. One of my students wrote a paper this year pointing out how the attacks on women’s reproductive rights threaten our economic viability as a nation, given the link, worldwide, between women’s ability to control their own fertility and their labor market participation. People who work for a living, despite their overwhelming strength in numbers, were demonized, devalued, and, in terms of meaningful access to redress for grievances and some power to right tremendous imbalances in the workplace, nearly destroyed.

States went after children’s health insurance, early childhood education, and safety-net services for those with mental illness, in many cases while simultaneously purporting that businesses need tax “relief” because of their horrible struggles. (In this, of course, they were echoed by the U.S. House of Representatives, whose penchant for oil company incentives over children’s health even my 5-year-old called “wacky.” Indeed.)

We cannot afford to bemoan these policy proposals (some of which made it into law, and some of which were forestalled only by the courageous efforts of advocates and policymakers who deserve our support in November 2012). What we need to do, first, is call them what they are: distractions and assaults, not legitimate plans to address the challenges facing our states.

We need organizing strategies that address their root causes–the maligning of the “other” and the fault-finding borne of desperation and preyed upon by those with a horribly unjust way of seeing the world. We need coalitions that see a threat to one as a threat to all. We need an agenda that offers a promise of real solutions.

We need a new year, and a commitment to make great things happen in it.

If we all gave like Sam…the abundance of a four-year-old


This thing was pretty heavy when he turned it in!

First of all, a slight disclaimer: Sam would want everyone to know that he is actually four and a HALF years old, not four.

It just made the title a little unwieldy.

With the legislative session in Kansas (and many other states) pretty recently concluded, and the damage wrought by the devastating budget cuts only beginning to take hold, and nonprofit organizations around the country struggling with the combination of public cuts and declines in private donations, I was struck by my oldest son’s reaction to a recent giving campaign at our church.

After the pastor explained that we were raising money for community development activities that help families living in poverty in the U.S. and around the world gain the skills and assets they need to live healthy and sustainable lives (livestock, small business capital, clean drinking water, core health services), he carefully assembled his cardboard bank, like kids have been doing for decades in the developed world.

And then he proceeded to put all of his allowance, saved from the past few weeks (not in anticipation of this, but just because he hadn’t gotten around to spending it yet) in the bank.

I reminded him that he gets $1 each week specifically to “share”, and that he could use that money instead of his spending money. And then I realized what I was doing and stopped talking.

He hadn’t forgotten about his “sharing” money. He was simply recognizing this giving opportunity as a good way to spend his allowance, more worthy than any of the ideas for personal consumption that he might have had. He gave joyfully, and rather effortlessly, with no angst over what could have been or what might come, but with an uncomplicated embrace of this chance to be part of something bigger than he.

I’m not suggesting that state legislatures, or even individual adult donors, give exactly like a preschooler. I mean, Sam’s basic needs are obviously all taken care of, and he gave out of truly disposable income that’s admittedly limited in many households and state capitals.

Except there is something to learn from his approach to money. It reflects a philosophy of abundance that’s not, really, unrealistic at all, but rather a hope-filled and somewhat self-fulfilling attitude that treats money as a tool (which it is), rather than something to be revered in its own right. He knows that he’ll get more satisfaction from hearing those coins clink in the big jar at church, and from hearing the stories about communities his money has helped, than he does from seeing the money sit on his dresser. And he knows that, quite honestly, other people need and can use that money much more than he.

And he’s right.

It reminded me, in a perhaps odd way, of a legislative forum I attended early in this session, where one of my favorite Kansas Senators lamented how we’re approaching the whole budget quandry from the “wrong end”, asking not “what are the functions that state government should perform, in order to achieve the prosperity and health and security and quality of life we desire (and deserve)”, but, instead, “how much money can we rather painlessly come up with, and how should we divide those limited dollars?”

Which question we ask does matter, and which question we choose will determine the kind of state government we end up with. The first looks at outcomes and believes that investments create abundance, while the latter approaches governing from a scarcity mentality and likely sows more scarcity in exchange.

And a similar cycle plays out in nonprofit organizations, too, even those that don’t rely on government funding. As donors, we more often give from what we think is left over, rather than starting with a question about what we want our donations to accomplish and what support we think the organizations to which we give really deserve.

Nonprofit organizations that depend on our gifts know that this is the giving reality, and they respond in kind: figuring out what they can possibly do with the money they can find, rather than setting goals and pursuing revenue that makes those dreams possible.

None of this is designed to berate nonprofit administrators, who confront nearly impossible choices these days when they do their books. Or even state legislators, who receive scarcity messages as they door-knock in their campaigns and find it difficult to imagine operating from another perspective.

It’s just a reminder, that perhaps we could build a better world, the world we all imagine if we allow ourselves that luxury, the world we know that we really deserve, if we approached the prospect of sharing, whether our public funds or our charitable contributions, with the gleeful abundance of a four-and-a-HALF-year old, who seems to know instinctively that, indeed, much is possible.

Guest Post: From classroom to capitol, literally

*One of my students, Jody McCready, was a Kansas legislative intern this past session (in addition to her practicum and a full load of classes!). She kindly agreed to share her experiences here, and I know that she’d welcome your comments, too! What can you do to increase your engagement with your state legislature? How should our social work curricula be modified to encourage these experiences? Which piece of advice speaks most to you?

I was interested in interning at the Statehouse this year because I figured given the political environment and economic status there would be much to learn and observe. I was correct in this assumption. Some days I left the Statehouse extremely confused, irritated, and hopeless. I will try to share with you some of the lessons I have learned from my year with the legislature in a precise manner. Here are my top twelve lessons from the Statehouse:

12. Say “Hi” to everyone in the hallways, and start small talk with other people- even those who you disagree with. Talk to all legislators and develop a personal relationship. While talking to representatives, use your clinical skills and gather information about them- what they are experiencing. Talks should not just revolve around professional topics; really dedicate yourself to getting to know elected officials as the person they are. AND create relationships with the secretaries and support staff- they are the gatekeepers to the legislature.

11. Sometimes it is all about the money. Unfortunately, sometimes your goals and mission are overriden by the economic status. This year is a prime example. While this is frustrating to experience, you must not give up on educating elected officials about your mission and the needs of the population you are advocating for.

10. Understand that our representatives are not geniuses, and do not know it all. Many are honestly normal people. While some officials may have higher education, others may just have a high school education. For example, the representative I interned for only has an associate’s degree and has never had experiences with the population I am motivated to advocate for. Other legislators may reference religious morals as a basis for making political policy and votes. We must interact with representatives as if they know nothing about our mission and concerns. We must educate them on the basic concerns and needs of the population we are advocating. We also must know how to manage the topic of religion, especially how its tenets may contradict the realities of our populations. This takes precision and tact when in discussion with representatives who rely on such religious beliefs for policymaking.

9. Use your listening, paraphrasing, and “clinical” skills. Yup, engaging representatives (or consumers) through meaningful conversations is the way to connect. Your connection with an elected official will benefit you!

8. Prepare for uncomfortable situations, awkward statements, and boundary violations. It will happen. Some elected officials are not professional, and others may make inappropriate comments about your appearance or work. Be prepared on how you are going to deal with such situations.

7. Utilize resources supported by the state, like the research office and library. There are many resources supported by the State that are available to the public. Do not be afraid to call the research department when reviewing an issue, or consult the library to find resources.

6. Present professional, well-rounded information. Present professional-looking materials. Try to supply not only statistical information but also personal stories. Make suggestions for amendments for policies in the works; don’t just present problems. If you have a concern about a policy, don’t be afraid to supply amendments or suggestions to improve the policy. You would be surprised how many legislators are interested in hearing such improvements. Many representatives do want to represent their constituents but don’t how to address the gaps in policies. We as social workers are the experts and can supply suggestions close such gaps.

5. Don’t discriminate according to party. Just because a representative is a “Democrat” or “Republican” does not mean that they agree with the party’s stance on every issue. They all are humans and their path through life has led them to have different life experiences, just like us. By talking to representatives you never thought would support your cause, you may surprise yourself and find a new supporter.

4. Know yourself and what topics trigger you! Prepare yourself for stereotypical statements and testimony that will flat-out infuriate you. Prepare for this, create a plan on how to deescalate your feelings when you are getting worked up while in a professional environment, and how to deal with the stress that follows when you leave for the day.

3. Volunteer to attend political events, forums, and to assist in campaigns. I am volunteering to help a representative out of Overland Park this summer just to gain more experience. There is much to learn while interacting with representatives on their campaign, and vice-versa. Representatives do have much to learn from social workers given hot political topics.

2. Constituents need to be present and visible in the Statehouse. Bottom line- constituents are the most effective way to get a representative’s attention. Elected officials are devoted to their constituents and by bringing a constituent to them who can speak to your mission will achieve much.

1. Social workers are needed in the Statehouse DAILY. Social workers need to be visible and available to legislators. Being at the capital for one day does not create a lasting impression with legislature. You want to cultivate a relationship with a legislator? Be visible, available, and constant in the legislator’s day.

I personally suggested to the Dean to make capitol experiences a focus in our school intern curriculum, even for clinical workers. As social workers we learn the needs and concerns from our community through direct experience; this is why we must also have direct experience in the legislature. All social workers have much to learn from direct observation and presence in the legislature. We as social workers need to be present in the legislative session to fill the role of liaisons from policy development to current functioning of our communities.

I also feel that organizations need to continue contact with representatives after session. Organizations must invite legislators to educational events and trainings to inform them of their organization’s mission, concerns, service, and population’s need. There is just not enough time to do this while in session; therefore we must maintain the relationship with our elected officials and continue education with them as much as possible after the end of the legislative session.

Gross Injustice: State Legislatures, Inequality, and Why it will get worse

Some social workers blog as a form of personal therapy, a way to release at least some of the frustrations and heartaches that accumulate from trying to do enough with far too little, and feeling like we’re always losing.

I don’t. I think that’s because I have the world’s most supportive husband, who finally looked at me the other day and said, “Honey, I don’t like Kris Kobach either. I didn’t vote for him. I don’t think he’s a good Secretary of State. I promise.” And I promised to keep the ranting down to a minimum.

Instead, I try to use this public space to think outloud, to process what’s always running through my head, about how problems are connected and how we can be part of the solutions, about how to build power for the people we care about, about how to leverage that power into policies that begin to approximate a just and right society. And I try, although I may not always succeed, to plant ideas, and hope, to cultivate more momentum for social justice by helping people to feel part of a community, and to contribute to the essential conversations about how we can best get there, from here.

But this one, I’ll just admit, isn’t hopeful.

See, in the Kansas Legislature this year, they went after our Earned Income Tax Credit. Yes, our state’s EITC, the same one that has been proven to be the single most effective anti-poverty policy we have, the one that “encourages work”, just like they say they want to, that has very little administrative cost (making it highly efficient), and that, every year, makes it possible for families to pay down debt and purchase reliable cars and even save a little for their futures.

The attack on Kansas’ EITC wasn’t about cost savings. If it was sheer budget balancing they were after, they would have examined the other (much larger) tax cuts from the 1998 tax package.

But no, just the comparatively small part that goes to low-income working people.

It’s bad policy. And, what’s making me even more pessimistic, today, is the realization that bad policy is what we’re likely to get, from a seriously unequal process.

Because it’s not accidental, after all, that people in poverty are the targets of Kansas’ budget reduction efforts, the same way that working people around the country are bearing the brunt of the fiscal “belt-tightening” everywhere: in threats to collective bargaining rights, elimination of funding for Community Services Block Grants, and reductions in Pell Grants. The Missouri Legislature had a bill to abolish the state’s restrictions on child labor, for crying outloud, which would have been funny if it wasn’t so ghastly. When those who make the decisions are removed from those who pay the price, it’s natural that bad things happen.

It’s the reason that my four-year-old son can’t know which ice cream bowl will be his when he’s dishing it out. He divides everything more equally behind that veil of ignorance.

And, today, our state legislatures seem more distant from the lives of real people than ever before. It was quiet, many days, in the Kansas Capitol. There’s an air of inevitability, and of resignation, that’s translating into carte blanche to destroy people’s lives. And it’s what we see in Congress, too.

I really do believe in people power, really, but this chart depressed me a ton:

Image credit, Mother Jones magazine

That kind of distance has tangible policy consequences: regardless of party affiliation, all 10 of the richest members of Congress voted to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in late 2010. And then we end up with a debate like this, which looks utterly ridiculous (and, yet, again tragic):

image credit, Center for American Progress

In state legislatures, what separates the governors from the governed is often not money; it’s a preoccupation with ideology over impact, with politics over pragmatism. That sounds cynical, I know, and I’m really not a cynic. But it’s hard to sit through a committee hearing about how “tough times call for really tough decisions” on, say, cutting Early Head Start, and then go to another committee meeting where we’re adding new administrative positions with six-figure salaries in the same cash-strapped state government, and not start to feel disenchanted.

In Kansas, we know that the worst is yet to come, and we’re probably not alone. Some of our state senators spared us from the worst of the attacks, and they’re all up for reelection in 2012. We know that they’ll be targets, and that we’ll all have to suffer through test votes designed more for campaign postcards than for real policymaking. That means more attacks on those seen as easy targets: people with mental illnesses, low-wage workers, immigrants, little kids, older adults.

Of course, you know that I can’t end a hopeless rant like this without some admonition, as much to myself as to anyone, about how all of this means that we need to work even harder, and smarter, to level the inequalities within the process, so that we can achieve far more equal results. That means working now to prepare for the 2012 elections, and it also means refusing to allow ourselves the luxury of extended bemoaning.

So this is where it stops, or, rather, starts, for me. To a far more just future.

Pivoting to Congress: What the immigrant rights movement learned in this state legislative cycle

Immigrants protest Kentucky's "Arizona-style" bill, photo credit Chillicothe Gazette

Despite the kind of grandiose title, I don’t hold any pretensions that I speak for the large and diverse immigrant rights movement. It has been an honor and a joy, though, to be back in the struggle for justice for immigrants in a more sustained way than over the past four years, since I left my work at El Centro, Inc., and I am very glad to have been a part of some of the fights over this past year.

And, now, with state legislative sessions wrapping up around the country, the task for our immigrant rights coalitions here in Kansas and, from what I observe, for many around the country, is to pivot from the very important work in state legislatures to the arena of greatest challenge and also greatest promise: Congress.

Only Congressional action can address the broken laws that create so much of the chaos and crisis observed by frustrated citizens and elected officials within the states, and lived daily by immigrants and their families in communities in every state. In fact, if Congress really wanted to, they could use trade and economic aid policies to even address some of the root causes of our broken immigration system by working international levers that affect “push factors” in countries of origin.

But, especially in this Congress, that’s going to take a huge advocacy lift, and, especially after the failures in the last (decidedly more sympathetic) Congress, that’s a tall order. It’s one felt, I imagine, by every immigrant and ally, and certainly one that weighs on me when I conduct trainings on immigration policy and immigrant rights within immigrant communities.

If we approach the challenges that await us as though we’re starting from scratch, or even picking up where we left off in December 2010 when the DREAM Act failed in the Senate, well…that’s enough to make me want to head back to the sandbox full-time.

But if we can leverage the lessons learned and the capacity built in dozens of state legislative battles over the past six months, we are much better positioned to pull off some real victories. Translating local and state activity to the national stage isn’t easy; coalitions often break down, communication between field and D.C. can suffer, and the intensification of power and prestige within the halls of Congress can intimidate even the most seasoned state activist. But it must be done, if we want to avoid reliving this session over and over again (please!), and if we want a real chance at real solutions, the kind only Congress can deliver.

  • There is tremendous latent power in immigrant communities. The conventional wisdom among some organizers, at least around here, has been that the racheting up of the anti-immigrant drumbeat, and the heightened official repression, has made immigrants too afraid to assert their rights in the political process. But this session saw significant activism among immigrants in Indiana, Kentucky, and other parts of the country once seen as unlikely locations for robust immigrant movements. That suggests that the key, nationally, is to craft a compelling vision for immigration reform that feels relevant to immigrants’ lives. They didn’t make it to the United States, and make it here every day, despite the fear and the danger, because they’re unwilling to risk in pursuit of a better tomorrow.
  • Compromises don’t make the best rallying cries. One of the most vivid memories of my immigrant organizing was when we had virtually spontaneous rallies of thousands of people, in Kansas City and around the country in the spring of 2006, opposed to H.R. 4437 (which, among other things, would have criminalized aiding an undocumented immigrant). But what was particularly instructive wasn’t just that incredible outpouring of activism, it was the comparative dearth of engagement in the “pro-comprehensive immigration reform” rallies that we organized in the following months. We had great turnout at the first one, building on the momentum from the earlier, grassroots effort (and our established organizing structure), but then, as people started to ask “what is comprehensive immigration reform, anyway?” and started to express some doubt and disappointment with the specifics of the legislative compromise, attendance tapered off. We know that what will take shape in Congress will be a compromise, and has to be, but the truth is that what worked for mobilizing in Kansas and elsewhere this year was much more of a “kill the bill” message, with relatively little nuance. Nuance doesn’t work well on protest signs, and we’ll have to figure out how to base legislation on core principles that resonate in people’s souls if we want to move them to action.
  • We need to invest in organizers to do the work between crises. In summer 2010, I was telling everyone around here that we needed to build a coalition to combat the anti-immigrant legislation we were going to see in 2011. That was before the November 2010 elections made those threats much more real. But, unless that kind of laborious organizing work is someone’s job, it doesn’t get done, not until there’s an emergency and it gets moved up the priority list. That’s what will be hard about upcoming Congressional battles, too; the landscape looks so bleak that it’s hard to sustain the momentum we need in between fleeting opportunities, but, unless we do, we’ll be behind all the time. When a coalition came together in Kansas, quite quickly, in February 2011, it was an impressive force, but it was never able to accomplish some of its goals, because they just required a longer timeline than we had. And now, of course, the challenge will be to keep it going, focused on those unattained goals, so that they can become attainable before 2012. That requires distinguishing between organizing and mobilizing, and knowing that the latter will always be harder without a strong emphasis on the former.
  • We need to expect more from our allies. In Kansas, some from the immigrant and faith communities were fairly shocked when some of the business groups with which we formed alliances of necessity actually turned out to be pretty committed, ideologically and not just pragmatically, to humane immigration laws. Sure, some were really focused on their bottom line and ready to cut deals that would minimize the impact on their businesses, regardless of the human toll, but others were definitely not. That experience, and others from my past, make me think that, if we get to know those with whom we’re working in a deeper way, figuring out why they’re in this struggle and connecting to them as fellow travelers, we might find some partners that are really kindred spirits, so to speak. And we’ll know who isn’t, so we can strategize around them, too. We need to bring law enforcement and business and faith and local government leaders into our work not just as figureheads for a press conference but as real allies, when and where we can, which is going to require doing some real organizing within these constituencies. Doing that in a way that preserves the authentic leadership of immigrant communities isn’t easy (I know, that’s a theme here, hunh?), but, if we don’t, we’re leaving some of our cards on the table. And we can’t afford that. Not this year.

    What about you? What are your goals for the national stage, as state legislatures prepare to come home? How are you working with your grassroots leaders to translate their skills and knowledge to battles in Congress? What do we need to do, and know, to win in both arenas? And how can we build on what we’ve lived this session to make changes nationally?