Charisma and Messaging

As Democrats ponder their recent election losses and pundits wonder how it is possible that approximately 17% of the electorate could support President Obama, but voted for Donald Trump, many simply shake their heads and wonder how this could happen. There are, of course, many theories: sexism and Democrats allegedly abandoning the working class and rural America are commonly mentioned. However, almost nobody mentions the one thing that President Obama and Donald Trump have in common. They both have tremendous charisma which enables them to convey powerful messages. Indeed, when I googled “images for charisma” these are the first two photographs that showed up.

Understanding both charisma and messaging are critical to any successful political campaign. Of course, charisma matters more when discussing specific candidates and messaging goes beyond candidates as it also includes issue campaigns.

In the case of charisma, Hillary Clinton conceded that she simply does not have it. That may have been wise for her to simply be honest about it. But acknowledging a flaw does not make the flaw go away. Of course, nearly 65 million people voted for Hillary Clinton, nearly 2.5 million more than voted for Donald Trump, which means that charisma is not the only deciding factor and for many people, Hillary Clinton may have been more charismatic than Donald Trump. But, given our electoral college system, as well as the results in the Congressional and gubernatorial elections, serious political analysis cannot ignore the fact that Donald Trump was able to galvanize far more people to attend his rallies which helped to generate media attention in a way that smaller attendance at Hillary Clinton’s rallies simply could not match.

It is true that charisma alone does not automatically result in winning elections. One need only look as far back as Richard Nixon to understand that Americans will occasionally elect candidates who simply have no charisma. But in order for those candidates and their issues to prevail, they must overcome their lack of charisma with powerful messaging that enables them to win elections. Whether by coincidence or design, it is worth noting that both Nixon and Trump used silent majority messaging to win their elections.

A quick look at some of the hot button issues of our time demonstrates why many traditionally Republican issues have galvanized such a strong following. For example, if you put your own views aside, and you do not have strong feelings about abortion, it is fairly easy to see why the message of: pro-life is more compelling than pro-choice. After all, who is against life?

In the case of the private school voucher debate, the pro-voucher campaign succeeds because it wisely uses the phrase pro-choice and in this case, the anti-voucher campaign simply has no galvanizing message other than it is anti-voucher.

Although it was ultimately abandoned as failed policy, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind reform of federal education law passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in 2001 and remained the law of the land despite widespread acknowledgment of how poorly it was working until 2015, because of its name. After all, who could argue with the basic concept of no child left behind? Regardless of how the law failed, the name carried such a powerful message that it sustained despite years of bi-partisan recognition that it did not come close to fulfilling its mission.

Although President Obama was able to get the Affordable Care Act through Congress, and the name appeared to carry a good message at the time, it is likely to be abandoned or at least significantly modified by the next Congress not just because of the election results. The simple fact is that unless you receive a subsidy, the Affordable Care Act is not affordable! This is a case of the original messaging running so contrary to reality, that its name may help to bring its own demise.

On the charisma front, it behooves any political campaign to keep this critical factor in mind as it searches for successful candidates, especially in large scale statewide or national elections where TV appearances will be frequent. Failure to do so will result in losing elections in most cases regardless of whether voters agree with the views of the candidate.

Messaging is manufactured and its success starts with listening to what voters care about and testing messages with focus groups. Although I am not a political insider, I am a keen political observer and I have heard enough whining about voters who vote against their own interest to understand that such whining does not win elections or issue campaigns. Listening to voters and crafting messages that they want to hear and are congruent with the values of the candidate, party or issue is how campaigns are won. Patience and perseverance are critical as voters have demonstrated that they will easily switch parties based on charisma and message.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Keep on Moving

Many Americans feel stuck right now in a post-election malaise. They have good reason to be fearful for themselves, their families and loved ones as the President-elect surrounds himself with people who pride themselves in denigrating whole categories of people–Muslims, Mexicans, Jews, homosexuals, women, people of color and the list goes on. While many are taking to the streets in protest, calling their members of Congress or taking other concrete steps to protect the civil liberties most Americans hold dear, many others are simply frozen in fear.

When I was a young adult, I learned an important lesson about my own need to keep moving regardless of physical or emotional pain. It was 1981 and I was 21 years old. I had already graduated from the University of Michigan after just turning 20, and spent the next year traveling around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, including working on Kibbutz Ein Gev during the winter of 1980-81. After returning to Michigan, I became the night manager of Ann Arbor’s popular Pizza Bob’s where I had worked part time while I was a student.

During the spring of 1981, I noticed that my fingers were stiff, painful and swollen, making it difficult for me to do all the manual labor required of managing a busy pizza parlor. I sought medical attention  and my doctor said I had arthritis and should go on high dose aspirin and stop working. It was the worst medical advice I ever received.

The aspirin caused extreme tinnitus (ringing in my ears which I still have) and quitting work did not improve my arthritis. Worse than that, the double whammy of an arthritis diagnosis at such a young age, combined with stopping work, sunk me into my first major depression.

During my many hours of depressed contemplation over my sorry state of affairs, at some point I made a commitment to myself. I theorized that if I kept moving (contrary to my doctor’s advice), my body would not be able to stiffen up completely. As I had always enjoyed swimming, though I had never previously swam for regular exercise, I correctly surmised that swimming would enable me to keep moving without deteriorating my arthritic condition. Slowly, but surely, I increased both my distance and intensity of swimming and since 1981, swimming has been a regular part of my exercise and I am pleased to say that my arthritis has largely gone into remission. I also gained a calming meditative practice through counting my laps while swimming.

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Of course, I am not suggesting that the answer to what promises to be the largest roll back in civil liberties in the United States since the McCarthy era is for everyone to go swimming. However, I hope my personal story of how I decided to move instead of freezing up  both physically and emotionally, will inspire readers to decide how they can best move their bodies and use their own advocacy tools to resist freezing up and allowing American civil rights to be steam rolled away.

Great suggestions of how to respond to the President elect’s agenda are coming out on a daily basis. Today, the marvelous author Barbara Kingsolver wrote:

We refuse to disappear. We keep our commitments to fairness in front of the legislators who oppose us, lock arms with the ones who are with us, and in the words of Congressman John Lewis, prepare to get ourselves in some good trouble. Every soul willing to do that is part of our team, starting with the massive crowd that shows up in DC in January to show the new president what we stand for, and what we won’t.

Latina activist Marisa Franco plans on applying the tools she used to successfully bring down the racist Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to the national scene. She understands that we cannot allow the President elect’s regime to manipulate us through a divide and conquer strategy. Instead, she said, the key

is to build on the successes and lessons learned from every group that has ever fought back against discrimination, and to see this moment as protecting humanity, not just one group’s rights.

Each of us must decide our own path. Some of us are willing and able to take more risks than others. I have lost 2 jobs when confronting Executive Directors of agencies who were bent on ruining the advocacy mission of the agencies they directed. In each case, although I suffered emotionally and financially, I knew I did the right thing, and my career as a systems change advocate only became stronger.

For each of my readers, find the path that works for you. There is no one right way. If you are shy, read this excellent primer on How to contact your representatives when you have social anxiety for helpful hints on how to become an advocate.

But, choose something to keep moving forward. Our future history is not yet written. It may look scary right now, but none of us can afford to allow our fears to freeze us into inaction. The stakes for each and every one of us are simply too high.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Responding to Hate

As a civil rights attorney, I have spent over 3 decades using the tools of my trade to respond to hate that has been unleashed upon my clients. However, until recently, society has generally supported victims of hate and vilified the hate mongers. Sadly, the campaign and subsequent election of our president-elect has resulted in something I had hoped I would never see in my lifetime-the legitimization of hate.

Even a casual news observer cannot help but notice the daily occurrences of swastika graffiti, beatings and even killings of Muslims, and shaming of schoolchildren of color. On the Saturday night before this past Halloween, I went to see friends who perform in a local band at a nearby neighborhood club. Many were dressed up in a wide variety of costumes. Before the show, a complete stranger sitting next to me wearing a long Pinocchio nose, apparently thought it was completely ok to tell me a vile anti-semitic joke. Whether he knew I was Jewish does not matter. What was most disturbing was that he felt completely free to spew his hate in public to a total stranger.

Though I consider myself a strong advocate, I was so stunned when that stranger shared his anti-semitism with me that I failed to respond. I have been thinking about this incident ever since to try to understand my failure to respond. Beyond just being in shock, I also did not want to cause a scene at an otherwise festive public affair. But after I posted this incident on Facebook and a number of friends said they would have responded strongly, I realized 2 important things:

  • Never judge how someone responds to a crisis because you never know how you will respond if confronted with the very same crisis; and
  • It is often easier to respond on behalf of someone else than to actually defend yourself.

Sadly, once the election was over, the president-elect moved quickly to make sure the world understood that he would continue to legitimize hate when he appointed a purveyor of hateful prejudice, Steve Bannon, as his Chief Strategist, a position in the White House that has never previously existed. For those who are unaware, Bannon was the editor of Breitbart.com before joining the president-elect’s campaign. In that capacity, he regularly denigrated Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, people of color and women, and he did so in vile and hateful language. Until recently, such a man would not be accepted in civil society, but since the president-elect has normalized hate and prejudice, he has now welcomed it, through Bannon’s appointment, to the highest level of his White House.

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Fortunately, yesterday, I was given a chance to respond belatedly to the anti-semitism I experienced, when a local TV news reporter called me in my role as President of my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim, to ask if I would be willing to publicly respond to my Congressman Mark Pocan’s call that the president-elect withdraw Bannon’s appointment. I gladly agreed to do so and you can watch my interview at this link.

During this interview, I was able to convey the following in response to Bannon’s appointment and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s acceptance of it:

“Our president-elect has chosen to legitimize hate within his own administration. We had a big Bat Mitzvah this past weekend (and) people are worried. They’re very worried. He has an opportunity – Speaker Ryan – to say directly to the President of the United States – hate does not belong in the White House. I understand that he was just renominated as Speaker of the House, but that’s not leadership to duck a question like that.”

This TV news story not only provide me with the opportunity to delegitimize hate, but as the story has been shared widely, local leaders have approached me to work with them to strategize on an organized local response. I look forward to doing so in the days and weeks to come. Unfortunately, given the results of our recent election, this will just be the first of many battles which good people simply cannot shy away from. The timing and manner of each of our responses to hate will vary, but respond we must.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Building Community: Now more than ever

Like many people around the world, the election of an American President who has actively engaged in and encouraged racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, frightens me. It reminds me of why I never bank on electoral politics to provide the solutions to our nation’s and our world’s problems. Of course, I vote, but in the end of the day, I only have one vote, and in this particular instance, even when the candidate I favored won a majority of the popular vote, our political system nevertheless gave the Presidency to her opponent.

I have spent my entire professional career working for progressive systems change. This election does not alter that. In fact, it will only cause me to work harder on behalf of the disenfranchised people I represent. A former colleague once called me a “good loser.” At first I did not understand that she was giving me a compliment. Then, she explained, that I never give up even after losing a hard fought battle. I simply examine the new situation for the best way forward and get back to working on making our world a better place. That is what we all must do right now.

Starting last night, many people have asked me what they can do in response to America electing perhaps the scariest President in its history. My sister-in-law just called me in tears. The vast majority of our nation was targeted by our President-elect, including women, people of color, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, and people with disabilities, as somehow less worthy. But we know better. We also know that, now more than ever, we need each other, and together we can still accomplish great things.

So, here are a few suggestions (with underlined links to prior posts for more detail):

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So, today, give hugs to friends and family. Tomorrow, start looking for local projects that you can dive into to make your local community a better place. Together we can build community and create a better world for everyone.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

The Strongest Woman I Know

To engage in systems change, one must have deep inner strength. It also helps to have role models who demonstrate how they use their deep inner strength for positive change. Yesterday, it dawned on me that the strongest woman I know is my wife of over 34 years, Sheryl Spitzer-Resnick.

To be clear, my wife is not an athlete or weight lifter. However, since she was 8 years old, she has faced numerous life threatening maladies, including 8 abdominal surgeries and a recent lung lobectomy. At 8 years old, due to probable medical malpractice and doctors refusing to listen to her mother, Sheryl suffered from peritonitis when her appendix burst.  She was fortunate to survive, but she lost a lot of weight and missed a lot of school. It is perhaps this childhood trauma that set her on a trajectory to become a doctor.

Fortunately, her health recovered and she remained generally healthy until we tried to have children. Her reproductive system did not cooperate and multiple abdominal surgeries and two attempts at in vitro fertilization brought us our miracle son, Josh. However, her pregnancy was extremely challenging requiring surgery for a bowel obstruction while 27 weeks pregnant. Fortunately, both she and Josh survived that difficult episode and she carried him to term over 19 years ago.

Just under a year ago, my non-smoking wife discovered she had lung cancer, necessitating a partial lung lobectomy last December. While Sheryl could have decided to go on disability or to simply retire, she made a very different choice, exemplifying her deep inner strength once again.

After recovering from her latest surgery, Sheryl decided to leave her medical practice which has been successfully based at Wildwood Family Clinic for 28 years and take a few months to open up her new clinic, A New Way Forwardwhich opened for business yesterday. Her new clinic is the culmination of her tireless work to help women live healthier, happier lives.

I stopped by her new clinic with some flowers yesterday to help celebrate her opening, and I was fortunate to encounter the happiest patient I have ever seen at any medical practice as she was paying her bill and setting up her next appointment. She wanted everyone to know that she called on October 1st (the first day the new clinic started taking appointments) so she could see Sheryl on November 1st, the day the clinic opened.

What I also saw was that Sheryl’s staff, the amazing Nurse Practitioner Pat Stretcher, and tireless office manager, Lisa Marks, were smiling from ear to ear, with the joy of knowing that they had just opened the clinic of their dreams that would help many women find, “a new way forward.”

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My admiration for Sheryl is simply boundless. Many people would have given in to defeat or depression given all that she has been through. Less than 1 year ago, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and then had major surgery to remove 1/3 of her lung. Instead of giving in to defeat and despair, my beautiful wife dug deep into her inner strength not only to recover physically, but to assemble a phenomenal team to build her dream come true which will help countless other women fulfill their dreams. Sheryl is, quite simply, the strongest woman I know and she inspires me to keep moving forward even when I have my own difficulties. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Bereaved Parents Wage Peace

Yesterday afternoon, I had the great privilege of being part of a group that hosted the Parents Circle Families Forum during which 3 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved parents gave a moving presentation about the personal losses of their children and how that motivated them to fight for a just and peaceful resolution of the longstanding conflict between their peoples. My role was as Chair of J Street Madison and President of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, both of which served as co-sponsors along with other churches and peace groups.

The presentation started with a moving video, Taking Steps (click here to watch). Then Israeli Rami Elhanan described his own background: his grandparents died in the Holocaust, his father escaped the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel and Rami fought in the Yom Kippur war.

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Then, one day, in 1997, everything changed. His 14 year old daughter, Smadar, was murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem. While he could have succumbed to anger and hatred, he made a very different and profound decision to use the power of his pain to bring light and hope to others seeking peace in his troubled nation. Rami stated quite eloquently that despite his personal tragedy and the tragedy of so many other families who have been scarred by losing an innocent child to senseless violence, he insists that,

We are not doomed.

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Israeli father Rami Elhanan speaking with Najwa and George Sa’adeh in the background

Rami used the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank as a metaphor as he believes that the Parents Circle helps to create cracks in the wall and through those cracks, each side can see each other and begin to break down the wall and create peace. As he put it, “our blood is the same color, our tears are made of the same salt water.” As Rami introduced the next speaker, Palestinian George Sa’adeh, he called him his brother.

George’s great-grandfather was the Mayor of Bethlehem in 1860 and his family has resided in Bethlehem for many generations. His dream was to work in the aerospace industry, but since Israeli security will not allow Palestinians to work in that field, George studied aerospace engineering at UCLA. However, when he returned to Bethlehem, he was only permitted to work as a mechanical engineer.

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Palestinian father George Sa’adeh

One tragic day in 2003, his family was driving in Bethlehem. George noticed the streets were empty, except for Israeli army jeeps, though he did not know why. All of a sudden, Israeli soldiers opened fire, shooting approximately 300 bullets into his vehicle, striking George, his wife Najwa and both of his daughters. His 14 year old daughter Christine was killed in the gunfire. George, Najwa and their other daughter survived after surgery and hospitalization.

Approximately 50,000 people attended Christine’s funeral, the biggest ever in Bethlehem, but like Rami, after all those giving condolences were gone, George had to decide what to do with his grief. Like Rami, he chose the path of peace. He believes the region needs strong leaders who will work for peace, justice and human rights, instead of waging war against each other with hundreds of innocent victims. Profoundly, George stated that he and his wife forgive the soldiers who shot them and killed their daughter, as they have no hatred, because, “hatred will kill us.

The Parents Circle is a unique group as it is probably the only membership group that wants no more members. Rather, they have decided that,

from our pain, we make peace.

Finally, Najwa Sa’adeh spoke of her love for her daughter, Christine, who spoke of her  impending death during the year before she died, which puzzled her parents as she was a happy child who only wanted to help others. In fact, she told her parents that when she died, she believed she would be famous. So, now Najwa and George share her story so others can, “feel with us.”

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Najwa Sa’adeh

In addition to sharing their stories and demonstrating that despite the greatest loss, they can work side by side for peace, the Parents Circle does a lot to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, from summer camps to professional interest groups. They had received funding from the USAID and the European Union, but that dried up after the most recent so-called knife intifada. In fact, President Obama mentioned the Parents Circle in his speech to the Egyptian people in Cairo, as the only group that gave hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

When they took questions, someone asked about whether they support a particular territorial solution. Rami made it quite clear that the number of states is irrelevant. As he said, “nothing is sacred about a state. The key is respect.”

Rami closed with the following profound and moving statements:

We must work together, not alone.

We are  working for the security of our children.

You cannot clap with one hand (an Arabic saying).

You cannot make peace with yourself

We demand that you work for peace and justice.

It is people like these who will overcome power hungry leaders and bring peace to their peoples. After their talk, I let Rami, George & Najwa know that my son was returning to Israel that day to begin his sophomore year at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), and that he does what he can to meet those working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. All 3 of them let me know that my son is welcome in their homes and when we visit him next year, we are also welcome. I look forward to visiting them in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and continuing to help them break down barriers and work for peace and justice.

If you want to contribute to their work, you can go to this link.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Change Agents

Given that my business is Systems Change Consulting, it caught my attention when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) asserted that both he and Donald Trump were change agents during his recent debate with former Sen. Russ Feingold who is seeking his former seat back from Johnson. His claim reminded me of the time when someone from the Tea Party contacted me with an offer to improve my website. Needless to say, I did not accept his offer, but his offer gave me pause. What I realized then, and Johnson’s debate claim confirmed, is that those who desire systems change come from both sides of the political spectrum.

The mere fact that someone works to change the system does not mean that they want to make the system in question work better for the vast majority of people. Nor, does the fact that someone is a change agent equate to accomplishing change that will improve the lives of those who are most challenged by the status quo.

My firm, Systems Change Consulting, works on solving problems for those in greatest need so I focus

on making progressive systems change in the areas of civil rights, disability rights, general and special education, and combating abuse and neglect of vulnerable populations.

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In Sen. Johnson’s case, apparently he believes that being a change agent includes:

  • causing dysfunction in the U.S. Supreme Court by failing to hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s nomination for the now 7 month old vacancy on the court;
  • prohibiting all federal funding for abortion services;
  • insisting on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution regardless of the economic consequences to our nation;
  • supporting prayer in our public schools;
  • refusing to believe the clear scientific evidence that humans contribute to global warming and voted to oppose the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses;
  • voting against protecting ocean and Great Lakes ecosystems;
  • voting against banning high capacity (10 or more bullets) gun magazines;
  • claiming that the Affordable Care Act is the single greatest assault on American freedom;
  • opposing granting amnesty for any undocumented immigrants; and
  • claiming that Social Security is a giant ponzi scheme.

Indeed, if Sen. Johnson prevailed in every instance, he could properly be called a change agent. However, it would not be the type of change which would help most people or the people who need the most help.

My view of systems change is quite different. While many public and private systems could use a healthy dose of change, that change should be focused on providing the greatest good for those in greatest need. This includes:

  • improving public education for children with disabilities and other populations groups experiencing significant disparities in achievement;
  • providing food, shelter and affordable housing for those without these basic life needs;
  • protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities, people of color, women and other disenfranchised populations so that they can enjoy equal access to housing, employment, and all that life has to offer;
  • removing those who abuse vulnerable people in schools, healthcare settings and in the criminal justice system and compensating those who suffer from such abuse; and
  • making sure that high quality healthcare is available to everyone.

Of course, the list goes on as there are an infinite number of ways in which systems, large and small, public and private, can be changed to improve the lives of those with the greatest need. People like Sen. Johnson and Donald Trump, who work to change the system to the advantage of a small minority of wealthy people who are already enjoying the advantages of their wealth, are not the types of change agents who will benefit our nation.

Political Blunder-Judicial Crisis

While the U.S. Presidential race gets most of the media attention, one of the biggest political blunders of 2016, and perhaps one of the most historic mistakes ever made by the U.S. Senate appears to have fallen off the radar. Earlier this week U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) returned to her hometown to give a talk to the American Constitution Society’s kick-off event for its new Madison Chapter, in which she presented her concerns about the Senate Republican majority’s decision to refuse to fulfill its Constitutional duty to give advice and consent on President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the now 7 month old vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced before President Obama nominated Judge Garland that the Senate would neither hold hearings nor vote on any nomination made by the President to fill the vacant seat. His excuse was premised on the argument that the next President should choose the next Supreme Court Justice. Beyond the abdication of the Senate’s Constitutional duty under Article II to provide advice and consent to judicial nominations, McConnell’s blunder was apparently based on the likely mistaken assumption that a Republican would win the Presidential election and the Senate majority would remain with the Republicans. However, it was McConnell’s very blunder that exacerbated the likelihood that neither plan would come to fruition and that the next Supreme Court Justice will likely be nominated by Hillary Clinton and confirmed by a Democratic Senate majority. If that scenario comes true, while the Republicans could have declared a small victory with President Obama’s nomination of the very moderate Judge Garland, Hillary Clinton will be free to nominate a far more progressive Supreme Court justice instead.

It is important to note that McConnell’s political blunder would never have been sanctioned by our founding fathers. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers No. 76, by vesting the appointment power in the President, rather than Congress, the founders sought to avoid having appointments determined by,

the private and party likings and dislikes, partialities and antipathies, attachments and animosities, which are felt by those who compose the assembly.

He went on to say that in assigning the Senate the more limited role of advice and consent to presidential nominations, the founders believed that it was,

not likely that [the Senate’s] sanction would often be refused, where there were not special and strong reasons for the refusal. [Those] special and strong reasons [included] the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment or from a view to popularity.

Of course, none of these reasons apply to the highly respected Judge Garland, and it is worth noting that Sen. McConnell made clear that it did not matter whom President Obama nominated. The Republican obstruction would be total and complete regardless of the merits of the nomination.

Sen. Baldwin pointed out that the Republican obstruction of President Obama’s judicial appointments goes much further than one crucial nomination to the Supreme Court. Close to home, she pointed out that President Obama’s nomination of Don Schott to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has also been obstructed despite being vacant since January 2010. As of now, 77 of 673 U.S. District Court judgeships (11%) are vacant, twice as many as under President George W. Bush at this point in his presidency and 50% more than under President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush at the same point in their presidencies.

As this chart points out, the  Senate Republican obstruction of President Obama’s appointments is extreme and unprecedented.

Number of Judicial Confirmations During Final 2 Years in Office

  • President Ronald Reagan: 85
  • President George H.W. Bush: 122
  • President Bill Clinton: 73
  • President George W. Bush: 68
  • President Brach Obama: 20

In Chief Justice Roberts 2010 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, he made clear that,

a persistent problem has developed in the process of filling judicial vacancies…This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts. Sitting judges in those districts have been burdened with extraordinary caseloads….[There is] an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.

A tie vote on the Supreme Court means the lower court decision is upheld and is a monumental waste of time and money for the parties attorneys and Supreme Court justices. Important issues such as public unions and immigration have been stalled due to tie votes due the Senate Republican refusal to fill the empty seat and more ties may occur in the current October session of the Supreme Court.

History will be the ultimate judge, but thus far, it appears that Senator McConnell and his Republican Senate colleagues may have made one of the biggest political blunders in history, and in the mean time denied justice to thousands of Americans waiting for their day in court.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

My Rabbi’s Granola Bars

Earlier this week, Jews all around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins the 10 day period known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance. During this period, Jews consider how they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them in the year to come.

As the High Holy Days are typically the time when Jews attend synagogue in higher numbers than at any other time of the year, rabbis often take extra time and effort to send inspirational guidance to their congregations through their sermons. At my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), which my wife and I helped to start nearly 30 years ago, and where I currently serve as President, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman gave a very personal and compelling sermon on Rosh Hashanah that struck a chord with many.

Rabbi Laurie described a very personal moment that virtually everyone in Madison experiences. Over the past few months, many people who are homeless have taken to seeking donations by holding cardboard signs at concrete median strips at major intersections that say things like, “Homeless: Any Assistance Appreciated.”

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Madison’s Mayor, Paul Soglin, who has repeatedly attempted to criminalize and demonize those who are homeless, has sought to make such solicitation, or even standing on those medians, illegal. Thus far, his efforts to criminalize this type of panhandling have been rebuffed by Madison’s City Council. Sadly, rather than trying to provide needed services and housing to Madison’s homeless, Mayor Soglin continues to try to criminalize harmless behavior such as sleeping outdoors and keeping their possessions outdoors, even while Madison fails to have a much needed homeless day resource center to store their possessions and provide employment, health care, and housing services.

Many of us are unsure what to do when confronted with a homeless panhandler. We may not want to confront the problem. We may worry that any contribution will be spent on alcohol or illicit drugs. We may be concerned that the panhandlers are not truly homeless and are just operating a scam.

Rabbi Laurie pointed out that Jewish teaching about tzedakah (charity) admonishes that it is better to help one impoverished beggar even if 99 out of 100 are not truly needy, than to fail to help any of those in need, rather than allow that single hungry person to starve. She described the Jewish attitude towards poverty as rooted in two key biblical concepts:

  • b’tzelem elohim which means that humans are made in the image of god and therefore all humans must be treated as we would treat god; and
  • achicha which means your brother and Jewish teaching admonishes us to treat everyone as if he was your brother (or sister).

As I have written before, when I have the time and opportunity, I will ask panhandlers if I can buy them a meal, and I have been able to do this a number of times. But, that is generally impossible in a moving traffic situation.

Rabbi Laurie realized that she simply did not want to explain the possible moral complexities of which homeless people may or may not deserve charity to her two young daughters who are often in the car with her while driving around Madison. So, she made a simple, helpful, and incredibly powerful decision. She now carries a box of granola bars in her car and offers them to anyone who is seeking assistance. While she acknowledges that her granola bars alone will not solve Madison’s growing homelessness problem, they will provide a little nutrition to those who receive them from her. Perhaps equally important, they will make each of them feel more human through Rabbi Laurie’s acknowledgement of their need.

As I was contemplating writing this post, it just so happened that as I was driving home from a meeting, my car was stopped at a light where someone who was homeless had a cardboard sign saying, “Homeless: any assistance appreciated.” Mindful of Rabbi’s Laurie’s sermon, I reached into my briefcase, pulled out a granola bar and offered it to the gentlemen, who gratefully accepted it.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I will buy extra granola bars and keep a stash in my car so I can continue doing my small part to help my brothers and sisters who are made in the image of god be a little less hungry and a little more dignified.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Seclusion & Restraint Surges in Madison

In response to an Open Records request, I recently received the 2015-16 school year seclusion and restraint use data from the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). As MMSD has not published this data on its website, contact me at through my website if you want a copy of the data.

The use of these dangerous, aversive techniques rose significantly from the previous year, which had increased from the year before that as the numbers below reveal. Even more troubling is the wide variation of use of seclusion and restraint between schools and particularly high use in elementary and alternative schools, as well as among children with disabilities.

584996

U.S. Senator Tom Harking introduced the “Keeping All Students Safe Act” in 2014

MMSD 2015-16 Seclusion & Restraint Data highlights

Numbers of Students Impacted

  • Elementary School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 7.09
  • Elementary School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 5.23
  • Elementary School with Highest Use: Orchard Ridge: 16 students with disabilities/33 students without disabilities (lowest numbers were redacted by school district to protect confidentiality)
  • Middle School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 5.62
  • Middle School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 3.46
  • Middle School with Highest Use: Whitehorse: 7 students with disabilities/ 0 students without disabilities
  • Middle School with Lowest Use: O’Keefe had 0 incidents of seclusion or restraint
  • High School Mean Use on Students with Disabilities: 3
  • High School Mean Use on Students without Disabilities: 1.6
  • High School with Highest Use: East: 18 students with Disabilities/ 19 students without disabilities.
  • High School with Lowest Use: Shabazz had 0 incidents of seclusion or restraint

Numbers of Incidents

  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 56.29
  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 74.6
  • Elementary School Mean Incidents of Seclusion  and Restraint Used in combination: 36.6
  • Elementary Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 94.29
  • Elementary School with Highest Use: LEAP (Olson Elementary Alternative Program): 435 total incidents (note as number of students was redacted, this means that 5 or fewer students were secluded and/or restrained a total of 435 times)
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Restraint Only: 12.38
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Only: 10.38
  • Middle School Mean Incidents of Seclusion and Restraint Used in combination: 6.62
  • Middle School Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 16.15
  • Middle School with Highest Use: Sennett: 27 total incidents (note as number of students was redacted, this means that 5 or fewer students were secluded and/or restrained a total of 27 times)
  • High School Mean Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 7.33
  • High School Mean Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 5.17
  • High School Mean Incidents of Seclusion and Restraint Used in combination: 3.5
  • High School Mean total Seclusion & Restraint Incidents: 9
  • High School with Highest Use: East: 49 total incidents

Districtwide Totals

  • Students with Disabilities Secluded and/or Restrained: 324
  • Students without Disabilities Secluded and/or Restrained: 231
  • Total Incidents of Restraint Use Only: 2,136
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion Use Only: 2,749
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion & Restraint in Combination: 1,369
  • Total Incidents of Seclusion and/or Restraint Use: 3,516

MMSD Analysis

  • 2% of MMSD students experienced seclusion and/or restraint
  • 5.6% of MMSD students with disabilities experienced seclusion and/or restraint
  • Seclusion and restraint use is highest in elementary schools (16.49%)
  • Mean incidents of restraint use in elementary schools was 56.3/building with a range per building of 1 to 436
  • Mean incidents of seclusion use in elementary schools was 74.6/building with a range of 0 to 309
  • There has been a steady increase in use of seclusion in restraint since data was collected for the first time in 2013-14 as follows:
    • 2013-14: 975 incidents of restraint and 1,387 incidents of seclusion
    • 2014-15: 1,266 incidents of restraint and 1,688 incidents of seclusion
    • 2015-16: 1,452 incidents of restraint and 2.064 incidents of seclusion
  • A small number of elementary schools account for the vast number of incidents with 23 elementary schools reported increased use and only 12 elementary schools reporting a decline.
  • MMSD hypothesizes that the increased use is simply due to better data collection
  • MMSD concedes that, “for those elementary schools that have consistently demonstrated increases in the number of incidents of restraint and seclusion, a pattern of over-reliance on restraint/seclusion may be evident.” MMSD plans training and follow up for these schools.

Conclusions

When I helped to pass Act 125 in 2012 to document and regulate the use of seclusion and restraint in Wisconsin schools, one of the chief goals was to reduce the use of these aversive techniques. Sadly, MMSD has gone in the opposite direction, and has failed to:

  1. hold principals of schools with continually increasing rates accountable for these increases;
  2. correlate the increased use of seclusion and restraint with a decreased use of suspension; and
  3. establish clear goals for the reduction and eventual elimination of the use of seclusion and restraint in MMSD schools.

Simply blaming the increasing numbers on better documentation is insufficient in the face of an ever increasing use of dangerously aversive techniques that are well known to traumatize children. In order to reverse this troubling trend, MMSD must insist on better training in the use of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and accountability for its staff and administrators who fail to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of seclusion and restraint.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.