Tag Archives: students

Can advocacy be taught? We try.

This semester, I am back teaching a class that has, over the years, been one of the most rewarding experiences in my academic career: Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice.

It’s controversial, I know, this idea that advocacy can be ‘taught’. I view social work practice the same way, though. Can we really ‘teach’ practice? Absent the context in which to apply the skills and the knowledge?

I view this class, then, as part building blocks–exposing students to some of the components of advocacy practice and, perhaps even more importantly, the resources to which they can turn when they need guidance and assistance in navigating advocacy–and part semester-long pep talk, since I see reluctance to tackle advocacy as, itself, one of the biggest reasons that more social workers haven’t successfully integrated advocacy into their work.

What I love about this course is the moment–maybe as part of practicum, maybe as part of a class assignment, maybe in the course of a class discussion or online discussion board–when students begin to identify as advocates.

Their language begins to change, often, as advocacy becomes ‘something that I do, as part of being a social worker’, instead of something vague and foreign and threatening.

To get there, we do fairly traditional academic exercises: readings, discussions, guest speakers, written assignments.

But I also do a lot of mentoring, even more than I do in my policy courses, and certainly more than students would normally see, as part of graduate study. It is my hope that, as a result of the semester, they not only have a better sense of what needs to go into an advocacy practice, and how to do those things, but also at least one real example of what trying to be an advocate, as a social worker, looks like…as part of their journey to figure out what it could, and should, look like for them.

My plan for this semester is:

  • Help students craft their own definition of ‘advocacy’, so that they can begin to articulate where and how it fits into their social work practice. There’s a real benefit in having these conversations at this point in their nascent careers, when their overall practice is, itself, an evolving work in progress.
  • Critically examine the realities of nonprofit social service agencies as locations for advocacy, so that students have as few illusions as possible about the advantages and disadvantages of their organizations as venues for social change.
  • Encourage self-awareness, one of an organizer’s greatest tools in the long slog that is working for justice.
  • Articulate how being a ‘social work advocate’ is different than other professions’ pursuit of social change, with particular emphasis on helping students navigate the ethical dilemmas that often arise for macro practitioners.
  • Sharpen students’ skills in social problem analysis and, especially, ‘cutting’ issues–while we teach problem analysis from an academic perspective in other courses, students usually have little experience translating their concerns into issues that have a real chance of making it onto the public agenda. This is certainly as much art as science, but we need to help them see that problems aren’t necessarily ‘problems’, just because we think they are bad.
  • Confront power–our own, our clients’, systems’, our targets’…I spend time in just about every class I teach helping my students become more comfortable with power, and power analyses, because no one wins when we pretend that our power doesn’t exist…or, conversely, that it is sufficient.
  • Expose students to real examples of what community organizing and mobilization looks like, which, admittedly, is the hardest piece to replicate in an artificial classroom environment. I try through using readings that bring in different perspectives, copious use of very generous guest speakers, and some film representations.
  • Build frames, because so much of advocacy rests in how we communicate about what our communities need, and why it is in our collective interest to deliver it. This is usually students’ favorite part of the semester, because it’s fascinating to learn new things about how we think about what we think we know…and why.
  • Prepare students for participation in coalitions, often their first opportunity to experience community efforts in action and, unfortunately, often a rather disappointing one.
  • Engage in legislative advocacy, which I intentionally put towards the end of the course, because it’s often the first (and sometimes only) way that students think about ‘advocacy’, and I want to break them out of that more narrow conception of the forms social change can take.
  • Discuss and experience electronic advocacy and the influence of the rise of social media on how people identify as ‘community’ and how they organize themselves.
  • Make plans for integrating advocacy into practice, including (new this semester) assessing students’ current organizations’ advocacy capacity.

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. While most of the students I’ve taught in this course in the past 5 years have not gone on to be full-time advocates, I believe that they are more politically and macro-engaged than most, although that certainly cannot be causally inferred from their time in my class, since they have to identify as interested in advocacy in order to opt in (and they’re awesome, it should be said, especially since many of them are regular readers!). At some point, it would be cool to do some research about the impact of academic offerings like this. For now, it’s a bit of a walk of faith; I build the best experience I can, promise to walk beside them, and hope that the journey is a fruitful one.

From the outline above, what do you think is missing? What do you wish you had known as you had embarked on your advocacy career, that could have been taught in class? What kinds of experiences are most important for new social workers who hope to have a macro impact? Where would you like to see instructors build these in?

It’s all about the orange. Really.


Image credit, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

My students and former students know this graph well.

One of my former students joked that he was going to create t-shirts for me with the figure on the back and “It’s all about the orange” on the front.

Yes, I have really great students.

I have shown this chart every semester for the past three years (thanks to the folks at CBPP for updating it and permitting me to share it!), and my students often comment about how it makes them think differently about how we got in the mess we’re in today.

This post is about how I struggle, sometimes, to engage my students in discussing issues and realities that are, often, pretty new to them: the deficit, congressional gridlock, Kansas’ bleak fiscal future, the looming entitlement crises…

Without engendering a “it’s all hopeless and politicians are corrupt so I’m just going to focus on helping this client” reaction.

How do I spark anger, instead of cynicism?

How do I cultivate hope, even while alarming them to the point of action?

Because, the truth is, I believe these are solvable problems.

They are hard decisions, obviously–a cursory reading of the news underscores that people of good will have real differences of opinion about the best way to ‘bend the cost curve’ on entitlements, for example.

They are both technical and adaptive challenges, then: those that we don’t exactly know how to solve, and those for which we struggle to generate adequate political will to solve.

But the worst thing we can do, of course, is throw up our hands and abdicate the discussion to those who don’t share our social work values. Especially when some of the problems reveal stark choices about different paths, and we know that taking a given course would have significant implications for the individuals and communities we are called to serve.

So, I return to my dilemma of sorts.

A few weeks ago, after class, one of my students told me that “everyone should have to take this class” (I couldn’t agree more!) about budget policy and its impact on nonprofit organizations. But so often, I can see their fear, and disdain, and panic, and, in a blink, resignation.

What keeps you from turning away in disgust? Where is the line between alarm and alarmist? How do I balance outrage and uplift?

How do I light a fire without watching their commitment to engage in policy change go up in flames?

Voting, and “our interests”

In class a few weeks ago, I acknowledged, in a discussion about the massive tax cuts enacted in Kansas this year, that my family’s own tax bill will be reduced–probably pretty considerably–under the new legislation. Combined, we make enough to be in an upper-income bracket, and what we pay each April will drop.

One of my students, then, asked, “So why don’t you support the tax change, if it’s going to mean more money for your family?”

I started to answer my student with a somewhat reflexive response about the importance of the infrastructure, and why I am ideologically committed to public education, and even what the erosion of public support for higher education would mean for a sizable piece of my employment.

But then I stopped.

And thought.

About economic ‘self-interest’. And social work values. And why I vote the way I do.

And, really, it’s about this:

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Jane Addams).

I chose it as the header for this blog for a reason.

I don’t believe in a ‘last one in shut the door behind you mentality”.

I don’t think that providing a ‘good quality-of-life’ for my kids is just about making sure they have money in the bank. Or even food on the table.

It’s about what we stand for together, what we consider ‘ours’, and who we consider to be part of our ‘we’.

It’s about what we’re willing to give up, in order to help others get what they need.

Not because we want to be ‘nice’ or generous, not really.

But because I believe that’s where real security and comfort and health come from.

Even if it costs me.

Did you hear the one about the social worker and the WTO?

This week, I’m starting my class on poverty in the global economy (it’s tons of fun–a month-long crash course in global economics with BSW students!) and reflecting on a book that my husband actually recommended I read, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.

One of the ‘dead ideas’ that the author contends is hindering our search for policy solutions to the real challenges we face is the belief that ‘free trade’ is always an economic good and, indeed, the equation of our current model of corporate-driven globalization with a free trade system.

The truth is, of course, that our global economic structures today, with free trade zones where labor laws are sparse and enforcement even rarer, and with nearly unfettered travel of capital around the globe, without corresponding movement of people, and with very little corporate accountability to any national–or even international–good, is bound to create winners and losers.

That means that it’s a good for some, and a threat to others, and that we need not only an economic system but a public commons that recognizes that and accounts for it.

For many of my students, this class is their first exposure to, well, almost everything we talk about in class: the connection between NAFTA and Mexican immigration rates, the linkage between pharmaceutical patents and the high lethality of HIV in the developing world, International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity packages and the privatization trend that has swept the world (including the U.S.).

The purpose of the class, the way I teach it, is to help social work students, who will spend most of their practice focused on social problems within a U.S. context, understand how small our planet really is today, and why, then, the way that multinational corporations behave, or that multinational economic agreements are structured, matter to, say, Kansans.

The challenge, sometimes, and the book talks about this some, too, is not not fall into a reactionary protectionism, which would simply replace one dead idea (all globalism=progress) with another (we can seal off our own economy).

Instead, the answer is justice.

What’s good for one can really be good for all, if we choose the right goods.

If we build real protections into our economy–a solid safety net, meaningful access to retraining for displaced workers, strong labor unions that make work pay–then we won’t be tempted by protectionism.

If we build alliances across national divisions, we can create people power sufficient to check the excesses of global capital.

If we open our minds to new ways of structuring economies, we can resist the pull of a dead idea.

And it starts, at least for me, with 5 1/2 hours of connecting the dots on a June afternoon.

Using our whole bench

I have tremendous respect for those who run social work organizations.

In my consulting practice, I work closely with CEOs, and I don’t envy their mix of responsibilities–managing people, meeting budgets, evaluating programs…all the while (we hope) charting a vision that inspires people, mobilizes allies, and solves core social problems.

All of this is to say that my thoughts about how we can better utilize our resources within social work organizations are in no way intended to suggest that I could do that work any better. Because I could not.

But some of my conversations with former students, and some parts of Zilch, have me thinking about the very limited resources that constrain many nonprofit organizations, and about how we might overcome those limitations. It’s more than just an academic interest of mine, since “we don’t have anyone who can do that” and “we are already so overworked” are two of the most common objections to the idea that organizations should integrate advocacy into their services.

We can’t afford that.

But I get it that organizations can’t afford to do staff advocacy campaigns the way that they’d like to, either.

So, it has me wondering: are we really using everything we have?

I know, that sounds obvious. Of course, all of our folks are working hard, and everyone thinks that we’re doing as much as we can.

But, are we?

There are three groups of people I think we’re not adequately utilizing. And, if we’re going to be able to do more, even with less and less, we’ve got to bring everyone into the game.

  • Interns and volunteers: I’ve never bought into the idea of staffing something really mission-critical, like advocacy, with an entirely ‘intern squad’–that’s not a reflection on their qualifications, certainly, but rather the recognition that, too often, that’s code for “we don’t really take this seriously.” But too many of my students complain that their practicum organizations don’t give them adequate opportunities to engage in policy, community organizing, or other macro activities, and that’s a waste, not only for their current organizations but also as an investment in their future practice. We need to cultivate a culture of advocacy in our own organizations AND in our profession, and students are the best place to start.
  • Board members: Some of my students also tell me that they hardly ever interact with the Board of Directors and that, indeed, the Board seems somewhat sequestered, not engaging too much with the daily operations of the organization or, certainly, its social change campaigns. I see this in my consulting practice, too, with staff who are very protective of their Board members, reluctant to ask them to contact their legislators or contribute to strategy planning, or, even, make donate financially. I don’t get that. I mean, what’s the use of ‘keeping your powder dry’ if you never intend to fire a shot? What are we saving them for? Our Board members are fully capable of taking care of themselves, and their time, and it won’t be the end of the world if we lose a few Board members because their idea of service is significantly less involved than ours. This same principle extends to our donors, too; why do we think that asking people who already give their money to give 15 minutes of their time (to make a phone call to a policymaker, for example) is just way too much to expect?
  • Former employees: This was an idea from Zilch that I thought was genius. We have a lot of turnover in social work organizations, and, most of the time, those employees who are leaving are doing so in search of new opportunities, but not because they are no longer committed to our missions. Why don’t we ask them, then, to stay involved with our work? In exit interviews, why don’t we invite them to continue to receive our e-newsletters? Why don’t we tap their expertise to ask them to contact their policymakers? They’re more likely to respond than a random member of the general public, and yet we’re often even less likely to ask them. It doesn’t make sense; these valuable former employees are resources we can’t afford to leave on the table.

What about you? What ways have you found to fully leverage all of your human resources? How have you learned to do more advocacy, even in the era of less? What stops you from putting in all of your reserves?

Happy Week! The best things this blog has done for me

It’s still Happy Week, and I’ve been thinking about the reasons that I started this blog in the first place, and what I hoped to get out of it, and what it–and, more importantly, the practice of writing it–has done for me over the past few years.

My life has changed a lot over the past 3 years; when I started the blog, the twins were still babies, I hadn’t really started consulting, and, of course, I had 3 kids instead of 4, none of whom were in school full-time.

But, in other ways, it hasn’t changed that much, really. My biggest challenge, then and now, is trying to balance my role as a mom and my passions as an advocate. I still feel pulled into direct advocacy, and then struggle with how family-unfriendly a life that revolves around media work and legislators’ needs is. I still get a huge thrill on the first day of a new semester (and feel like a graduating senior on the last day of class!). I still wish that I had more time to read blogs by really smart people, to get through the ever-growing list of titles to read in my calendar, and to eat a meal uninterrupted.

But, this week, I’m reflecting not just on how I have changed in the time since I started this blog, but also how it has changed me…or, in some cases, kept me from changing. The 6 (2 a year, no?) awesomest things, then, that this blog has done for me, in no particular order.

And, please, because it’s Happy Week: has it done anything even somewhat awesome for you? Would you be willing to share?

  • Kept me in touch with former students: It is truly a delight to get a comment from a student I had a few years ago, or to see a former student and hear that he/she has been impacted in some way by our ongoing relationship through the blog.
  • Expanded the walls of my classroom: While former students are much more engaged than current ones–likely because they no longer have so much reading to do for class!–it is a real asset to my teaching to be able to use the blog as an extension of a conversation we’re having in the classroom, or as a way to connect my students with other thinkers in and outside of the profession.
  • Introduced me to some insightful, passionate people: Some of my favorite people I have never met in ‘real-life’, yet I feel so blessed by the generous way they share their reflections, and even their guidance, online, in their own spaces and here.
  • Kept me engaged with scholarship: While I’d never pretend that my writing here is of peer-reviewed caliber, it is such good discipline for me to have to write, and read, regularly, in order to produce content for the blog. Especially with the demands of my family, teaching, and my consulting work, it would be so easy to let those practices slip by, and I believe that I would suffer, personally and professionally, for it.
  • Connected me to the social media sphere: I don’t think that I would have embraced social spaces online as thoroughly as I have without the blog; it was definitely my motivation to try Twitter, for example, and it complements my personal Facebook engagement, too. I can’t really imagine my life without those outlets, and those relationships, now, and so I’m grateful.
  • Given me an outlet: There’s no denying it; I’m happier now that my husband isn’t the only entity to whom I can vent about policies that are maddening, or rave about organizing campaigns that are inspiring. When I finish a book, I have something to DO, actually, with the sticky notes that I’ve littered it with. And that’s really therapeutic.

    Thank you, those who read and, in so doing, both enrich my thinking and justify my pursuit. YOU are, without a doubt, the awesomest of the awesome things that this blog has brought to me.

    Happy Happy Week, to you!

Taxes Matter. For Real.

Source, The New York Times

I love those moments in class when you can almost see the lightbulbs going off for my students, when something clicks in a way that you know means that they not only know more, but really understand more, and that that understanding will influence the way that they practice social work.

It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s tax time.

Or, here at Classroom to Capitol, the time each year when we celebrate all that a robust public infrastructure and strong social contract can do for us.

They’re basically the same thing.

And so this year’s reminder that taxes matter come from my students, and from one of those lightbulb moments, when a woman in the back of the room raised her hand and asked, “Why do all of these charts about income inequality start in 1979? What changed in the 1980s that made such a difference?”

And we talked about Reagan.

And about taxes.

And the class grew animated as, together, they realized that we make intentional choices about how we want to redistribute income, or not, and that those choices have lasting repercussions.

And that, if we’re not careful, we can forget how we got here, and start thinking that, for example, a rising income gap is “inevitable”, when we know that it’s anything but.

Here in Kansas, there has been a lot of talk this year about taxes–what kinds we have, how many of them, how much they should raise, and, of course, what we should do with them. It’s a discussion that is unfamiliar for many social work advocates, but it’s one that sorely demands our input, because the past 30 years don’t lie: not all taxes are created equal.

On this tax day, when you’re done celebrating how wonderful it is to live in a place where most people pay their taxes because we mostly still believe that having government services is important, take a minute to think about how the charts might look different if we’d made a different set of choices. And about how we could bend those curves still today.

And about the fact that, for real, taxes matter.

Grown-ups need villages, too

"Happy Villages" quilt

By far, my absolute favorite part of teaching is when my students come up with insights that make me think about social work, or social justice, in a different way. In those moments, it goes beyond the “I’m learning just as much as you are” (which always sounds a little false to me, honestly, even though I certainly do learn every semester) to produce these real “lightbulbs” of understanding, for which I am always truly grateful.

One of those moments happened in a discussion board interaction with a student in my community and organizational theory class. She was reacting to a post about the social work profession as somewhat uniquely, among the helping profession, focused on the person-in-environment, and relating this to the axiom that “it takes a village to raise a child.” She made the point that it is truly a bit bizarre that we can see (although we certainly don’t always live it out in policy!) how children are affected by their environments, and how crafting healthy institutions that surround kids with supports is an essential element in raising strong youth, but yet, somehow, when these young people grow up, we reflexively attribute their challenges to personal failings, and look for their internal pathologies, as though, well, grown-ups don’t need villages too.

I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the supports on which I depend to raise my children these past few months: the grandparents whose presence in their lives is constant and nurturing, the neighbors whose friendship and presence sustain us during our days, the public spaces that provide us with a greater quality of life, the schools that are shaping their minds.

But my student’s post prompted my thinking about how our need for these kinds of supports–both formal and informal–certainly don’t end when we magically become adults, or restart only when we ourselves become parents. In truth, our entire lives are bracketed by a mutual interdependence on the environments in which we either thrive or struggle to survive. And social workers (and policymakers) misunderstand this at our collective peril.

Certainly, children’s futures are shaped by the context in which they grow up. And I think there’s a growing acceptance of that idea.

But adults’ todays and tomorrows are just as influenced by these environmental factors, and not just in a carryover sense from their own childhoods, but in a very real way as “grown-ups”: the availability of jobs, their access to health care and transportation, resources for mental health care, supportive social networks, physically strong community infrastructure.

We obviously have a long way to go in order to build “villages” that will surround our children with the opportunities they need to succeed…and the nets they need to catch them when they fall. And adults will carry the legacies of these disparities and inadequacies until we can get that right.

But then, as my student to wisely realizes, we need to apply that same understanding of shared responsibility and linked fates to how we work with other populations.

Including the grown-ups we hope those kids will become.

Reserving a seat on the justice bus

When I’m registering voters or talking with my students about the importance of their civic participation, I fairly frequently hear this lament:

Why would I want to get involved in the political process, when all that politicians care about is their own reelection, not the issues that really matter to me, or to my country?

That’s a paraphrase, but the sentiment is there, and it’s real.

Why would we sully ourselves by venturing into an environment laden, so the story goes, with greed and arrogance and raw ambition?

I used to try to counter this with my normal blend of righteous indignation, cheery optimism, and Protestant guilt.

We should vote, and pay attention, and agitate, because someone needs to have our collective best interests at heart, because there are always ways to make things better, and because, well, because it’s our duty.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, that never worked too well.

So awhile ago, in the midst of one of these same lopsided arguments with one of my friends, a social worker who used to be pretty politically involved but has now largely retreated, I tried a different tack.

I just told a story.

I told a story about my friend David Adkins, a now-unfortunately-retired-from-elected-office former Kansas state senator, who, while as imperfect as all the rest of us, is, I think, one of the more compelling examples in recent history of an elected official who put policy above politics and virtue above ambition.

And he did it on behalf of arguably the most marginalized of populations in today’s political debate: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals seeking the protection of their core human and constitutional rights, in a system bent on denying them.

He stood up, essentially alone, against the proposed constitutional amendment barring gay marriage in our state, and he did so by constructing a passionate and procedurally solid debate that, ultimately, allowed his colleagues to avoid a recorded vote on this most contentious issue. In the process, he made compelling arguments about the wisdom of equality and about the inevitable march of justice. And he also, when asked, looked right into the TV cameras and answered another senator’s question (“Does the Senator support ‘homosexual marriage’?”) with a firm “yes”.

His vote, and his statements, attracted threats and effectively ended his elected career. But his actions also provided hope and inspiration to GLBT individuals in the state, who saw someone use his power to stand up for them, and to be willing to stand beside them.

And, when I contacted him recently to tell him how what he did that day, and on this issue, continue to provide a counterpoint to the perception that individual participation doesn’t matter in the scope of the political process, and that there is no longer any room to stand on principle, he responded in a way that, for me, provides new motivation in a landscape where, even I’ll admit, it can be hard to find spots of hope.

He said that what he said that day was true–you can’t stop the march of justice. “It wasn’t all that courageous to hop on the bus before all the good seats were taken.”

That’s modest, of course.

But it’s also true.

I’m in the state where Brown v. Board of Education originated. In 1953, there were a lot of seats left on the school desegregation bus. But time shifts opinions, and justice marches on.

Today, we see a lot of empty seats around us, and it can especially feel lonely to jump into the electoral process, wrapped in our social work values, when we don’t see many others who share our commitments.

But we are not totally alone, as this story shows.

And, if we want a good seat, we must mark our stance today, taking comfort in the fact that, eventually, right wins, and others will join us.