Having created progressive systems change in a variety of public policy arenas for over 27 years, many have asked me how I do it. There is no formula for achieving systems change. But my experience tells me that effective progressive systems change only happens if the following elements are present:
- Have the truth on your side. That requires assembling data and stories that back your cause. We did this in the 12 year campaign to pass a law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on children in Wisconsin’s public schools.
- Educate those who need the change, the media, and those who are the decision makers required to make the change. We accomplished this in 2011 by killing the Special Needs Voucher bill in Wisconsin despite a massive lobbying effort by the American Federation for Children (otherwise known as the lobbying arm of US Private Schools).
- Organize supporters (or opponents, depending on the issue). Especially when confronting powerful special interests, those seeking progressive systems change must have as many organized allies as possible. Convincing the Wisconsin legislature to add key special education provisions to last term’s Read to Lead legislation required great organization amongst progressive reading and disability groups.
- Litigate when necessary. The courts are the oft forgotten branch of systems change. Though years of unhelpful decisions often make systems change difficult in the courts, it still happens. Our class action settlement with the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), in our case against Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), created systems change in both of those massive bureaucracies.
- Be Persistent. Systems change is not for faint of heart. Nor is it for those who are not willing and able to work hard for many years. But remember, lack of persistence allows the other side to rule the day. It took us 10 years to get a hearing on our seclusion and restraint bill, and 12 years to pass it. We could have quit at any time before that and Wisconsin would continue not to have this important legislation.
- Use all the tools above, but use them strategically and effectively. Those who want to fight powerful, well-financed special interests, must be willing and able to use the truth, educate all concerned, organize well, litigate enough of the right cases, and be persistent. Moreover, they must do so strategically and effectively. Unprepared, ill-equipped advocates may cause more harm than good while fighting for a righteous cause. Getting Gov. Walker’s signature on our seclusion and restraint legislation required using all of these tools including strong media work and publishing Out of Darkness…Into the Light.
Many despair of the never ending legitimately awful things monied interests have foisted on the public. But there is nothing new about the rich and powerful exerting their will on those less wealthy and powerful than them. The challenge for those of us who want the world to be a better place is to apply these systems change principles consistently to push back on the never ending power grab by the select few.