Tag Archives: youth

The most fun I’ve had in a long time

A lot of my time this fall has been spent working on implementation and outreach around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy announced by the Department of Homeland Security on June 15, 2012.

For me, that day has joined the list of other momentous occasions when I ‘remember where I was’–getting the kids ready to go to the pool, quickly checking the weather on the computer, and then freezing as I read the news.

The requirements for young people to receive deferred action, which means, in most cases, protection from deportation and a work visa, for a period of two years, potentially renewable, were announced in early August, and DHS began receiving applications on August 15th (coincidentally, my son’s birthday, which I thought was a pretty nice present for him, not that I expected Secretary Napolitano to buy him anything).

I helped organize a forum for El Centro, Inc., still one of my consulting clients, on August 16th, and more than 400 young people and their families came. I still can’t decide which story moved me most, the 24-year-old new mother who hugged her newborn daughter tightly and whispered, “they won’t be able to take me away from you now,” or the 16-year-old son who embraced his father and, both of them crying, when the attorney told him that he could receive a work visa.

A week later, I participated in a clinic for deferred action-eligible youth, where I completed more than 15 applications myself, preparing paperwork to be reviewed by immigration attorneys. Again, there was the 16-year-old whose career dream is to go into inner-city youth ministry, armed with her guitar and her infectious faith. One young man, when asked if he had given any thought to what he wanted to do after high school, pulled out a college catalog with all of the courses he wanted to take circled, an annotated budget of what it would cost him, and a detailed, 10-year-plan for his post-college career. I guess he has thought about it some.

This policy is far from perfect.

Students still aren’t eligible for financial aid, and most will have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is prohibitively expensive. They could lose the ability to renew their work visas, and they are not getting any closer to permanent residency, even as they pay taxes and accrue lawful status.

It’s not the DREAM Act, and that’s what we need.

But, still, seeing dozens of kids and their parents lined up that Sunday morning, outside, wearing their church clothes and clutching all of their relevant paperwork, it felt like a victory.

Watching students diligently read and then sign the paperwork that will earn them a critical measure of security in the United States, it felt like success.

Hugging students I’ve known for 10 years and being able to congratulate them, with their parents–whose hard work and sacrifices are all for these children–looking on, it felt like, finally, winning.

On any journey for social justice, victories are critical for sustaining momentum.

These young people now know that refusing to give up and organizing in the face of high odds can make the impossible happen.

They’ve had a taste of it, and they’ll keep pushing for more.

It is a blast to get to stand alongside them.

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Youth, impatience, and social movements


DREAM students sitting in at Senator McCain’s office. All are now facing deportation charges.

I’ve never been arrested.

Yes, I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, even kicked out of church once. I’ve gotten a few threatening letters, a couple of nasty phone calls.

But I’ve never stood far enough afield of “respectable” comportment, even in opposition to laws that I find indefensibly unjust, to warrant arrest.

Which makes me think…have I been doing something wrong?

For the past year or so, there has been a tension simmering in the immigrant rights movement, one known to most other great, worthy causes that inspire social movements around them, between prudence and passion, strategy and sacrifice, “staying at the table” v. “heightening the contradictions”.

And here, as so often throughout history, those tensions have played out along the lines of established, funded, well-respected organizations v. young people demanding social justice on their terms and on their timelines, willing to use their own lives as the fodder for the change they seek.

I’ve straddled both sides of this divide, to an extent, advising the DREAM Act youth who are staging sit-ins (and being arrested for them) as well as working to support the call-in campaigns and legislative strategies of the immigrant rights organizations. I’ve made contributions for bail funds for DREAMers in jail, and, last fall, I talked with chiefs of staff about prospects for bringing a stand-alone bill to the floor.

And what I see is that, while the mainstream organizations aren’t wrong (the young people are doing risky things for which they may pay a tremendous price, and there’s no guarantee that it will have any result (as we saw, in fact, when DREAM failed in the Senate, and many of those students are now likely to be deported), and it does make people in power really uncomfortable and, at least temporarily, less willing to negotiate), they’re a little bit missing the point, at least at first, when there was a lot of whispering about the wisdom of the insider approach as contrasted to the renegade actions.

I mean, social movements aren’t just about winning legislation. They’re also about changing people’s lives, forcing a new public consciousness, and giving people the amazing opportunity to act on their deepest values.

In the first place, the students point out (echoing what Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members had to remind the Southern Christian Leadership Conference adults in the 1960s), the closed-door negotiating sessions, with much reasonableness on both sides, aren’t exactly yielding the gains we know we deserve, so (as youth tend to argue), what have we got to lose?

As adults on the sidelines, we get worried (because these kids may get deported, and some of them have families, and how will they finish school?), and kind of skittish (because now we have to answer, not just to the haters who opposed us from the beginning, but also to those sympathetic to our cause as long as it’s not too loud or too combative). So did the African-American parents whose six-year-olds went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

Social change is often really scary, especially for those who have to forge it. We get nervous when people are honest about their anger, especially if they don’t direct it at the targets we choose or express in the way we’d like.

But the truth is:

in the search for justice, patience isn’t necessarily a virtue.

In the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, sounding much like the SNCC students whose side he often took in battles between the youth and the elders, reminds that “time is neutral”, that waiting never produces inevitable progress, and that “the time is always ripe to do what is right”.

Even if the Senate Majority Leader disagrees.

Today, the courageous immigrant students whose tenacity and moral witness are almost single-handedly keeping immigrant rights on the national agenda are teaching us new and needed lessons about the power of direct action, the meaning of civil disobedience, and the promise of unity. And I think that those who make their living, as I used to, from advocating alongside and on behalf of immigrant communities, are being challenged and stretched in wonderfully exciting ways, and, in many cases, are rising to those challenges, albeit with some reservations, out of acknowledgement and admiration for the movement youth are creating.

On February 1, 1960, four college students, steeped in nonviolence but not closely associated with any civil rights organization, decided, almost on a whim, to sit in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s lunch counter.

They didn’t issue a press release, or prepare talking points, or form a coalition.

They just sat, and refused to move.

And now that lunch counter sits in the Smithsonian and the student movement their silent action sparked helped to right centuries-old wrongs.

And that’s part of what makes me a bit ashamed to have never seen the inside of a jail cell.

Where do you stand on the “inside v. outside game” divide? What are you willing to sacrifice for the causes in which you believe? How has that changed as you’ve aged? How can adults support youth movements, without co-opting or patronizing or pressuring them? And why does figuring out how to build movements with a place for more radical action matter, to our quest for justice?

Social Work Education and Millennials

Today is my first day of class for the fall semester. It’s going to be a big one, with my first forays into “blended” (part-online, part-classroom) instruction, a commute between our two main campuses, and a lot of evaluation, on my part, about how to best engage students in the study of social policy within this new context.

My graduate students (which is what I’ll have this semester) are older and, for the most part, more diverse than our undergraduates, but, still, the majority of my students are in their 20s, which places them within the Millennial generation. My reading and thinking this summer about the power of this generation to transform the American political landscape has sparked some new insights about how this generation’s unique attributes may shape them as students, too, and how my teaching needs to reflect their styles of engagement and modes of inquiry. I certainly haven’t reached any definitive conclusions, but I’ll look to them, this semester and in the future, to help me sort through some of what I’m seeing in the classroom (and, increasingly, in our online discussion boards) and how to best navigate this ‘generation gap’ as an instructor.

Some thoughts:

  • Millennials are more religiously-motivated in their progressivism than any previous generation since the GI (“Greatest”) Generation. I’ve certainly seen this in my classroom, which means that I need to figure out how to help students sort through their faith, and how it brings them to our profession and towards social justice, and how to use it ethically and appropriately in working with diverse client groups.
  • Millennials are very relationship-focused. As I’ve discussed here before, the increasingly fluid relationships that I forge with students, especially through the use of social media, come with new ethical quandries that it is, obviously, my responsibility as instructor to navigate. My students have always wanted to know a lot about me personally, but these students seem particularly interested in reciprocity, bringing me into their networks as they find allies with whom to work on the issues they care about. This also means that they don’t want to work in silos; the idea of totally “independent” work product is fairly foreign to them, and they prefer instead to collaborate in ways that add to their learning. This means, for me, thinking creatively about group projects and how to foster processes, not just products, that promote knowledge and community at the same time.
  • There’s an inherent distrust of authority, but it comes from a concern that elites are trying to control their access to information, not from an automatic disdain for institution. My students want to see detailed citations, they want transparency, they want to be able to look at data for themselves. They question where conclusions are coming from not because they have a reflexive antipathy for all authority but because their ways of relating to each other, and to content, are more dynamic than organizational rules often allow. I think that the blended course format, with its layers of content, will feed into this, but I need to always be prepared for students’ challenging, rather than being defensive or dismissive.
  • There’s increasing consensus among Millennials about many social and economic issues, which, while it bodes well for public policy reform, can create a sort of ‘groupthink’ in class, that not only may cause older students to feel excluded (even more than they may naturally) but also deprive younger students of the opportunity to debate, hone, and defend their ideas with diverse audiences. I need to think about how I bring other perspectives into the classroom and how I give space to dissenting views.

    I’d love to hear from my current and former students, Millennials and not, about how generational differences impact your social work education, and about how you’d like to see instructors adapt to students’ experiences. Other instructors and instructional experts (and generational scholars) looking at these issues, I’d appreciate any resources you have on how to best grapple with the challenges and best build on the tremendous strengths of this latest generation in the classroom.

    To all, here’s to another wonderful semester of social policy study!

  • An idea that needs to be revived–Votercall.org

    photo credit, moonjazz, via Flickr

    This is officially my most favoritest thing in the whole world right now. I am so totally bummed out that it doesn’t seem to be activated for the 2010 election, and trying to figure out how/who can bring it back!

    It brings all of my favorite things: technology, crowdsourcing, progressive politics, and those civic-minded Millennials–together in a totally awesome idea: together, let’s get out the vote in November (and August, I’d add)!

    In the 2004 elections, Votercall created a database of newly-registered voters compiled from organizations like True Majority, Rock the Vote, and Res Publica, and to allow anyone anywhere to access names of these newly-registered voters (this is public information, folks) and call them to encourage them to vote in the upcoming election. Even better, many of these new voters are themselves Millennials, totally comfortable with the idea of building relationships with unknown, like-minded peers and of sharing information through an open-source public platform like this. You sign in, access names, and make a call. The site has frequently asked questions to guide callers through the process and resources towards which to direct voters with questions.

    In 2004, on the Monday before elections, VoterCall reports that 50,000 volunteers all over the country, working on their own, were making 1000 calls/minute. Awesome.

    So, here’s my question: why no VoterCall in 2010? Does anyone know of a similar, broad-based, crowdsourced get-out-the-vote campaign underway? Or how I can help to start one? Or how you’re going to help to start one? Even once we achieve universal, same-day registration, we still have to get people to the polls, and this is the most innovative and cost-efficient model I’ve seen.

    A Millennial Social Policy Agenda for the Millennium

    Last week I had a post about the Millennials, their tremendous potential for good in this country, and how advocates for social justice can build on their promise. I’ve been doing some more research, both about the characteristics and conditions of this generation, and about their public opinion preferences, and I’ve been thinking about what a social policy agenda for this “Millennial Era” (as it’s called in Millenial Makeover) would look like.

    What excites me the most? How much potential for overlap there is with My Top 10 Things we Should be Thinking about in 2010 list. Maybe there’s hope for me being an ‘honorary Millennial’ after all!

    But the greatest lesson for this whole exercise, I think, is how we can learn to talk and think like Millennials regardless of our particular policy priorities, in order to both gain new perspectives on our issues and also to increase the likelihood that they’ll gain support from this large and increasingly influential cohort. Below are some of the values and concerns that the authors identified in Millennial Makeover, with my take on how to frame social work policy priorities to align with them:

  • Concern about debt and fiscal sustainability: Millennials will deal with record personal and national debt as they age, and they’re right to be concerned with how it may weigh down their pursuit of their goals, and our collective pursuit of national well-being. Social work advocates can talk about tax reform as a step towards a stronger fiscal foundation, and should also have ideas for how stronger education investments (see below), prevention programs, immigration reform, and other social work priorities will also reduce costs and, ultimately, shrink the federal deficit. This doesn’t mean that we back away from priorities that have significant costs, but it should add another tool with which we can make our case. It also means that we need to address the rising economic insecurity even among highly-skilled workers, for whom the economic recession and increasingly ‘temporary’ attachments to employers have resulted in tenuous and very leveraged lives.

  • Commitment to equitable health care policies: Millennials are more likely than any other cohort to be without health insurance coverage, and their employment histories (and, likely, futures) make an exclusively employment-based health care system untenable. Advocates for social justice need to organize and mobilize this population in pursuit of continual health care reform, connecting it not just to their own vulnerability but also to their concerns about equity, security, and fiscal solvency. Again, similar arguments can be used to shift risk from individuals to the federal government and other collective entities, not just in the area of health care, but more broadly across people’s lives.

  • Belief in the importance of education: There are two key points here: first, that Millennials will be a very highly educated generation, and one that knows first-hand the value of an education and, second, that some of the values and tools of this generation are well-suited to reforming our educational institutions in ways that have significant promise to improve outcomes for all kids–transparency, relationship, accountability, networking, anti-orthodoxy.

  • Commitment to public service: If our nonprofit organizations aren’t structuring volunteer opportunities specifically to appeal to young adult volunteers, we are totally missing the boat here. Over 80% of Millennials volunteer, so get busy and figure out how to connect them to your work. In public policy, we can build on this belief in shared fate, responsibility to others, and the value of altruism to promote policies that, while not directly related to Millennials’ individual well-being, appeal to their sense of civic-mindedness; this is where support for older adults and those with disabilities could fall.

  • Environmental protection: Millennials care about my kids’ future, too, even though they’re too young to belong to the same generation, and, in addition to being the generation that will (hopefully) stop climate change and reduce our footprint, the Millennials’ focus on future generations is a good argument for supporting investments like universal preschool, stronger supports for working families, commitment to juvenile justice reform, and other policies for a better tomorrow.

    The Millennial Makeover ends like this (I couldn’t fall asleep for hours later!):
    “The tectonic plates undergirding America’s political landscape are beginning to shift. The resulting cataclysm will wash away the current politics of polarization and ideological deadlock, putting in place a new landscape of collective purpose and national consensus that involved individuals and communities in solving the nation’s problems” (p. 267).

    I don’t know about you, but this is one wave I really want to ride. I apologize in advance to my kids’ babysitters for the dozens of questions I will ask you about your political beliefs when you’re just trying to get out the door, to my neighbors’ kids for asking them which issue frame most appeals to them, and to the random young people on campus I stop to ask you how you think the Obama Administration is handling xyz issue. It’s just that, well, I think you’re kind of a big deal. And so should we all.

    I’d love to see examples of how these issues and perspectives of Millennials are (or are not) reflected in this 2010 election season. A special treat awaits those who comment with links to political advertisements or other analysis of how candidates, parties, and/or nonpartisan groups are framing their priorities along these lines, and/or actively reaching out to Millennials in pursuit of their common policy agendas!

  • Voter Registration: It doesn’t have to be like this

    This week and next, Classroom to Capitol will focus on electoral trends, issues, and strategies that, together, can set the foundation for successful enactment and implementation of the progressive policies about which social workers so deeply care. We know that it does matter who is elected, that our clients’ voices will be heard differently by different elected officials, and that participation in electoral processes, in itself, holds potential to change clients’ lives. Primaries are less than a month away in many states, and it will be November before we know it. Ya es hora!

    Suffragettes gathering--Thank you, sisters.


    Today’s post is about one of my favorite topics: the onerous voter registration rules in the United States, and how we can and should change them. I could go on and on about this, so, to discipline myself, this is a post in three parts: first, what’s wrong with the status quo; second, what a truly just voter registration policy would look like (that’s the short part); and, third, interim steps that would make a big difference in voter registration and participation. If you’re so inclined, there’s a special treat for the first 5 readers who each register 5 unregistered voters; just leave a comment about how you accomplished it and any barriers you encountered (difficulty figuring out the rules, trouble navigating the forms, etc…).

    The Broken Status Quo:
    In November 2008, approximately three million people were turned away or forced to vote provisionally due to a registration problem. Only 70-75% of US eligible voters are registered. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld restrictive voter registration schemes that will make it harder for low-income individuals (who often do not have primary identification documents or the money to request them) to comply with new rules. Young people, those without private automobiles, and people of color are among the least likely to be registered to vote, although voter turnout among registered voters in those populations is comparable to other populations.

    The Ideal:
    Automatic registration of all eligible voters–every citizen automatically ‘opted-in’ on his/her 18th birthday (I’d like to see the repeal of bans on suffrage for convicted felons, too; voting is more of an obligation and duty, than a privilege, as it’s understood in our society, and we need a policy that acknowledges that). There are minor technical challenges to overcome in making this happen, but they are minor. In the age of the REAL ID Act and rising intelligence, I’m hard-pressed to think of any real obstacle besides the obvious political one: we want to make it hard for people to vote.

    What We Can Do To Get There:

  • Same-day voter registration: It’s not as good as universal registration, but allowing people to show up and register on Election Day would give organizations more time to mobilize potential voters, send a message to voters that they are welcome at any point in the process, and reduce the uncertainty and confusion that surrounds current registration rules and barriers. It may require additional training for poll workers, to be able to verify voters’ eligibility, but it’s totally doable. Iraq allows people to fix their registration status and vote the same day, for crying out loud.
  • Pre-registration for young people: State Representative Milack Talia (Democrat from Kansas) filed legislation last session to pre-register young people (ages 14 and up) to vote; their pre-registrations would automatically be added to the voter registration rolls when they turn 18. The goal is to increase registration and turnout by increasing the time that organizations and individuals have to reach out to this population and streamlining the process. I think it’s another good interim step.
  • Election Day holiday: Even with same-day registration (or universal registration, for that matter), if low-income folks don’t have a day off to get to the polls, they won’t get there. We need to make Election Day a holiday (the way that it is in most of the world), and we need expanded advance voting options nationwide to reduce the lines and make sure that even essential workers who won’t have the day off can vote at their convenience.
  • Halt and repeal of repressive rules: I know how hard it is to get people to register to vote. I’ve stood outside in very, very hot weather for hours, begging people to complete a NONPARTISAN voter registration form and been cursed at and spat on. Seriously. So don’t tell me that there are so many people clamoring to vote illegally that we have to go to the extremes of requiring multiple forms of identification, cracking down on nonprofit groups trying to register people, and enacting other voter suppression tactics. It’s just not true, and it’s just not fair.

    We can’t expect to succeed in winning the policy debate if we don’t have rules that allow our folks to influence it at the polls. We need easy access to our democracy, for all citizens in this country, and then we’ll see that the best ideas and the best candidates for our nation’s future can rise to the top. Let’s change the rules so that, at the latest, the 2012 elections are our most open and vibrant yet.

    You know that I have to end this one with, Sí se Puede.

  • I wish I was a Millennial: the generation that could turn it around

    So, now that you’ve watched fireworks explode, enjoyed time with family and friends, and celebrated the democratic traditions that make this country great, it’s time to turn our attention to the reality that it is time, again this year, to make it great again: It’s an election year!

    This week and next, Classroom to Capitol will focus on electoral trends, issues, and strategies that, together, can set the foundation for successful enactment and implementation of the progressive policies about which social workers so deeply care. We know that it does matter who is elected, that our clients’ voices will be heard differently by different elected officials, and that participation in electoral processes, in itself, holds potential to change clients’ lives. Primaries are less than a month away in many states, and it will be November before we know it. Ya es hora!

    Image credit, futuremajority.com

    When I read Millennial Makeover, I couldn’t stop thinking about my cousin Caleb. He’s a junior in high school and chair of “Coalition”, which is an organization started by some peers a couple of years ago to…combat child slavery and human trafficking around the world. Seriously. They mainly hold fundraisers: selling concessions at football games, organizing concerts, hosting a 5K…and now they’re getting into advocacy, too. They use social media prolifically (I know, because I’m friends with him on Facebook!) And they make sure that all of their members register to vote when they’re 18. I mean, I was pretty hard-core social justice as a teenager, and I wasn’t involved in anything like this. It’s awesome. And, according to generational experts, it’s a movement.

    Millennial Makeover has to be the most optimistic book I’ve read in a long time. It’s like being with Caleb and his friends for an afternoon–they use some acronyms that I don’t immediately understand, but their enthusiasm for justice and fervent belief that they can help to achieve it is infectious. Here, the authors assert that the Millennials are a ‘civic’ generation, characterized by an orientation to societal challenges, problem solving, and institution building. They point to the 2008 Presidential election as a highpoint in this generational cycle (actually begun a few years earlier)–rising voter participation, unprecedented involvement by young voters, and positivism about the role of government in improving people’s lives. And they claim that, historically, most generational shifts like this last about 40 years.

    Not yet convinced that’s there’s reason to be excited? The authors point to the New Deal and the presidency of FDR as the last civic realignment, and we know what that period did for social workers and the causes we care about.

    I won’t try to restate all of the considerable (and really fascinating) evidence the authors include to draw comparisons between the GI Generation (the last civic generation) and the Millennials (relative diversity, adoption of new technologies, group orientation). Perhaps the most important parallel, for electoral purposes, is the most obvious one: both generations are larger than the ones immediately preceding them. That means that, quite soon, the Millennials will be big enough to make their preferences dominant, which is why it’s important for social work advocates and organizers to understand what those preferences are and how to mobilize them. We know that demographics are not destiny, though, and that social movements are built and sustained, not magically derivative of vital statistic patterns.

    So, what we need to “get” about Millennials to build electoral and broad-based movements that will make their power felt:

  • The old divisions don’t work–we need new coalitions.
    Identity politics will have to evolve to resonate with Millennials, whose social lives don’t break down along the same lines. While, importantly, Millennials’ neighborhoods and schools are highly segregated, their own attitudes about race, sexual orientation, and gender roles are much more egalitarian than current generations in power, which opens up considerable opportunity for progressive policy, but only if we can find new ‘hooks’ to bring people into politics (around ideas, not identity).

  • They’re not just shiny new gadgets–they’re whole new ways of connecting.
    We know that nonprofits, campaigns, and social movements will fail to authentically engage Millennials (and, quite possibly, anyone) if we view social media and other emerging technologies as just new platforms on which to broadcast our same messages. Millennials just don’t relate to technology that way; Caleb hardly ever buys CDs and rarely even subscribes to e-newsletters, but he shares weblinks and photos and other content through social media all the time, and creates his own content, too, around the justice issues he’s passionate about.

  • They’re not kids, and their ways of doing things are just as valid.
    There has been some good debate in the nonprofit world about how organizations (including the Generation X and Baby Boomers who currently control them) need to adjust some of their practices and behaviors to be more open to Millennial participation and influence. Candidates and campaigns will have to learn this, too. Some might dismiss this as pandering, but I think it’s essential that we ask ourselves two questions: first, aren’t there some significant ways in which the “Millennial way” of doing things is actually superior to current practice (um, transparent, relational?) and, second, what do we possibly have to gain from alienating a large group of enthusiastic advocates/voters for many of our causes? Exactly. For me, the biggest challenge of this will be getting decentralization rightyou know how I feel about devolution for its own sake, but Millennials will want to see nimble and responsive organizations (and government), and they’ll have good evidence on their side from all of their experiments with collaborative decision-making.

  • This is not a phase; it’s a shift.
    There’s considerable data that the political orientations of a generation are much less pliable than some would think; in other words, today’s 20-year-olds are likely to have many of the same core values when they’re 40. And 70. For many Millennials, for example, their belief in the importance of a strong government was cemented by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the current economic recession, both of which occurred during their formative years. Our challenge, then, is to connect our policy issues to these core values in a way that will resonate–as usual, framing is key.

    So, Millennials, I know you’ll have something to say about all of this! How do you view your world? And these 2010 elections? How are the organizations where you’re working, volunteering (in record numbers!), and advocating including you and your peers (or not)? How can we ‘get it right’, to turn it around?