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.

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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.