“Vote as if your Life Depended on it…Because it Does” (Justin Dart, 1930-2002)

govt_ADASigningJustin Dart, considered the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is seen here wearing his trademark hat as he watches the first President Bush sign the bill he worked tirelessly to pass.  But Justin Dart understood that those of us who need our government to serve us well must first exercise the responsibility of voting.  Yet, US voters continue to vote at appallingly low rates, especially in mid-term elections.

ResizedImage600351-turnout-chartAs shown in  this chart put together by FairVote.org, mid-term election voting rates are typically mired in the low 40%, never exceeding 50% since WW II.  Even Presidential elections only increase voter participation to the high 50% to low 60% rates.

There are probably many reasons for this, including a feeling of helplessness, cynicism wrought by incessant negative ads, voter suppression laws, and perhaps worst of all–too many Americans simply take their right to vote for granted despite the very real implications of how those who govern us, by receiving our votes, impact our day to day lives and long term futures.

In most other democracies, people take their right to vote far more seriously than Americans.  A recent article lists 58 countries with a better voter turnout rate than the United States, led by Uruguay at 96%.

A few years ago, I was hiking in the remote Copper Canyon in Mexico, home to the indigenous Taramuhara people, who fled to these remote mountains to escape Cortez & his murdering and enslaving Spanish troops.  Due to their remoteness, many Taramuhara walk the mountains barefoot and live a simple, subsistence life.  Many do not speak Spanish. They are famed for their long-distance running ability.

tarahumaraDuring my hike, one Sunday, I noted far more Taramuhara than usual walking out of the  mountains towards the local village.  I asked a local if he knew why so many were walking barefoot out of the mountain.  He informed me that there were municipal elections being held and they were going to vote. I was stunned as I am sadly confident that there probably isn’t a single American who would walk barefoot out of the mountains to vote in a local election.

But we can and must change that.  As election day approaches, let’s remember Justin Dart’s words.

Vote as if your life depended on it…because it does.

As I have done for the past 2 years, I will serve as a local election official.  I look forward to seeing very long lines of neighbors exercising their right to vote.

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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.

My Wife is My Best Friend

A few days ago, a dear friend of mine, Ruth Brooks, passed away, after a long struggle with multiple ailments.  As soon as I found out she had died, I called her husband, one of my dearest friends and mentors, Michael Brooks, to extend my condolences, see how he was doing, and reminisce about Ruth.

I have known Michael & Ruth for over 40 years.  When I first met Michael, I was in high school and he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan.  We met because he was my Hebrew high school principal and taught a number of my classes.  We quickly bonded and have remained close friends ever since.  In fact, he officiated at our wedding over 32 years ago.

Although Michael mentored me in many ways, perhaps the important way is the way that he and Ruth opened my heart to the possibility of a loving & respectful marriage. Unfortunately, I grew up with parents who did not love or respect each other and between watching their dysfunctional relationship and observing our media’s portrayal of so many dysfunctional marriages, before I met Michael and Ruth, I was convinced that marriage was something to be endured for the purposes of procreation and social acceptance, but not to be enjoyed.

That changed when I moved to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan and regularly visited Michael and Ruth’s home, often for a Sabbath lunch.  I marveled at their love for each other and the way they respected each other.  At one point, I told Michael how his marriage impressed me tremendously.  He responded by saying that, “my wife is my best friend.”

This truly stunned me as this type of marriage was completely foreign to my existence, and I told him so, to which he responded, “I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”  This heartfelt declaration which Michael and Ruth lived with such great mutual fulfillment for so many decades truly opened my heart and mind to the possibility that I, too, could find a woman who could be my wife and my best friend.

A few years later, I fell in love with Sheryl who has now been my wife and best friend for over 32 years.  Here we are celebrating our anniversary a couple of months ago.

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When Michael & I spoke about Ruth and I reminded him of this story, he told me that the last words she said to him was to thank him for making her life more exciting than she ever could have imagined it would be.  In turn, he thanked her for keeping him more grounded than he would have been without her.

This type of mutual assistance is critical to a strong, loving, respectful relationship that allows a marriage to endure the trials and tribulations of life.  In the case of Sheryl & I, we provide many things to each other, but to boil it down, I believe that Sheryl has softened my approach to life and I have helped her gain self-confidence to speak up for herself when necessary.  We both hope to live and stay happily married to each other at least as long as her dearly departed grandparents, Eugene & Lillian Fishgoll, who died 2 weeks apart at the ages of 98 & 92, after 74 years of marriage.

A happy, healthy marriage is good for the couple and any children they may have.  In this era of high divorce rates, reminiscing with Michael about his marriage to Ruth and reflecting on my own fulfilling marriage with my dear wife Sheryl, helps me get over my grief of the loss of my dear friend.  I am forever grateful to Michael & Ruth’s example.

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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.

Be Strong, Be Strong & Let us Strengthen Each Other

[Prefatory note: I was recently honored by my Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, to give this talk during our synagogue’s Kol Nidre (all vows) service which begins Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)].

Life is hard, and on the night when we begin to contemplate those whom we have wronged, and those whom we need to forgive for wronging us, it seems even harder.  Of course, some days are harder than others, and some of us struggle more than others, but without question, life on this earth is often hard.

Over 42 years ago, when I had my Bar Mitzvah, it just so happened that my Torah portion happened to end one of the 5 books of Moses.  It is Jewish tradition that when we finish each book, the entire congregation stands up and says aloud, Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek, which means, Be Strong, Be Strong, & Let us Strengthen Each Other.

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So, my mother thought that putting these powerful Hebrew words on my Bar Mitzvah invitation and thank you notes was a good idea, and those words have had profound meaning to me ever since.

I was raised as a fairly observant Conservative Jew. I attended Hebrew school through High School, and attended Jewish camps and started traveling to Israel at age 17.  But, by the time I finished college, I had become disillusioned with much of what mainstream Judaism had to offer and did not belong to a synagogue for a number of years.

However, almost 25 years ago, I realized that I had both a spiritual and communal void in my life, and recognized that I had never abandoned my Jewish faith and traditions. So, along with my wife, Sheryl and a small group of other Jews looking for a more meaningful Jewish community, we founded our synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), as a progressive, inclusive Jewish Reconstructionist & Renewal congregation, where I now serve as Vice-President.

When Jewish sages analyze the repetition of Hebrew text, they recognize that the repetition must add meaning, and not simply be superfluous.  As I examine my life and my various struggles, as well as the struggles of others around me, in the context of this 5 times per year, communal declaration, “Be Strong, Be Strong, Let us Strengthen Each Other,” I now realize the 3 aspects of strength brought to us by this beautiful Jewish tradition.

The first “Be Strong” speaks to oneself.  As I said earlier, life is hard, and when it is particularly hard, we must remind ourselves to find the inner strength to get through those difficult moments.

The second “Be Strong”, is a reminder that at many times in our life, simply being strong alone is insufficient to get through life’s most challenging moments.  At these times, we need to receive strength from our close friends and family, and of course, to return that strength to them when they are in need.

Finally, “Let us Strengthen Each Other”, reminds us that we need community in order to truly survive our most difficult challenges and through community, we can and do strengthen each other.

So, when life is hard, and it often is, remember these powerful words from the Jewish tradition, and then put them into practice:

Be Strong, Be Strong & Let us Strengthen Each Other.

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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.

US Dept. of Education Addresses Disparities in Education Resources

In a landmark proclamation today, the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) addressed states, school districts and all schools which receive federal funds to draw attention to disparities in access to educational resources.  This “Dear Colleague” letter makes clear that:

Chronic and widespread racial disparities in access to rigorous courses, academic programs, and extracurricular activities; stable workforces of effective teachers, leaders, and support staff; safe and appropriate school buildings and facilities; and modern technology and high-quality instructional materials further hinder the education of students of color today.

The letter addresses access to advanced courses and programs by pointing out that:

  • almost one in five black high school students attend a high school that does not offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, a higher proportion than any other racial group;
  • In the 2011-12 school year, English language learners represented five percent of high school students, but only two percent of the students enrolled in an AP course;
  • of the high schools serving the most black and Latino students in the 2011-12 school year, only 74 percent offered Algebra II and only 66 percent offered chemistry as compared to  schools serving the fewest black and Latino students, where 83 percent offered Algebra II courses and 78 percent offered chemistry;
  • while black and Latino students represented 16 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of high school enrollment in 2011-12, they were only 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of the students enrolled in calculus.
  • Schools serving the most black and Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to employ teachers who are newest to the profession as compared to schools serving the fewest of those students;
  • Schools with the most students of color are more likely to have temporary, portable buildings and permanent buildings with poorer building conditions, including poorly maintained exterior features such as lighting and walls;
  • Intradistrict and interdistrict funding disparities often mirror differences in the racial and socioeconomic demographics of schools, particularly when adjusted to take into consideration regional wage variations and extra costs often associated with educating low-income children, English language learners, and students with disabilities. These disparities are often a result of funding systems that allocate less State and local funds to high-poverty schools that frequently have more students of color, which can often be traced to a reliance on property tax revenue for school funding; and
  • teachers in high schools serving the highest percentage of black and Latino students during the 2011-12 school year were paid on average $1,913 less per year than their colleagues in other schools within the same district that serve the lowest percentage of black and Latino students.

So, how will OCR analyze discrimination complaints based on disparate allocation of resources?

First, it will examine if there is intentional discrimination, by asking the following questions:

1) Did the school district treat a student, or group of students, differently with respect to providing access to educational resources as compared to another similarly situated student, or group of students, of a different race, color, or national origin?

2) Can the school district articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, educational reason for the different treatment? If not, OCR could find that the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race. If yes, then

3) Is the allegedly nondiscriminatory reason a pretext for discrimination? If so, OCR would find the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race.

However, many facially neutral policies have a discriminatory disparate impact.  In such cases, OCR will apply the following analysis:

1) Does the school district have a facially neutral policy or practice that produces an adverse impact on students of a particular race, color, or national origin when compared to other students?

2) Can the school district demonstrate that the policy or practice is necessary to meet an important educational goal? In conducting the second step of this inquiry OCR will consider both the importance of the educational goal and the tightness of the fit between the goal and the policy or practice employed to achieve it. If the policy or practice is not necessary to serve an important educational goal, OCR would find that the school district has engaged in discrimination. If the policy or practice is necessary to serve an important educational goal, then OCR would ask

3) Are there comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school district’s stated educational goal with less of a discriminatory effect on the disproportionately affected racial group; or, is the identified justification a pretext for discrimination? If the answer to either question is yes, then OCR would find that the school district had engaged in discrimination. If no, then OCR would likely not find sufficient evidence to determine that the school district had engaged in discrimination.

One key question is how OCR will respond to a claim of lack of funds. USDOE’s response is clear:

Lack of funds does not preclude the duty to act under Title VI. OCR may consider how States, districts, and schools distribute whatever funds and resources are available, as well as how they act to provide additional or sufficient funds, to ensure equal educational opportunities.

Equal educational opportunity requires that all students, regardless of race, color, or national origin, have comparable access to the diverse range of courses, programs, and extracurricular activities offered in our Nation’s schools.

This letter even addresses extracurricular activities by stating that:

Extracurricular activities, especially those that have been shown to support college and career readiness and high academic rigor, must be offered on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Regarding technology, USDOE makes clear that:

OCR evaluates whether all students, regardless of race, have comparable access to the technological tools given to teachers and students, along with how those tools are supported and implemented.

USDOE strongly urges school districts to engage in a self-assessment to determine if these issues need to be addressed at the local level.  However, if OCR finds resource discrimination in schools, it will engage in the following possible remedies as applied to coursework, staffing, leadership, instructional materials, school facilities and technology.

  • Remedies must effectively end the discrimination and eliminate its effects.
  • Remedies must be implemented in a timeframe that is prompt and appropriate given the nature and difficulty of the corrective actions at issue.
  • OCR encourages school districts to work cooperatively with leaders, teachers, and support staff (and their unions and associations).

Education advocates have long hoped for such a strong declaration from the USDOE.  Now, they must push these issues at the state and local level and file complaints at the federal level if educational resource disparities persist. Time will tell if OCR will effectively remedy these longstanding problems, but today’s declaration is a very good start.

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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.