Insight not Incite

Last night, I had the pleasure of engaging in dialogue with fellow leaders in the Madison Jewish community about the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I was reminded once again why it is so important to create safe space for meaningful dialogue.  This was the 3rd monthly session this year, with monthly dialogue sessions to continue throughout the year. Dates and registration information are available herecover_image_for_constant_contact_e

At the outset of last night’s session, our facilitator reminded the participants that through dialogue, our goal was to gain insight and not to incite, which felt highly appropriate given the inflammatory nature of so much that is said about this conflict, and about those who are trying so hard to solve it.

Earlier this week, I attended the 5th J Street Conference in Washington, DC. Together with over 3000 pro-peace, pro-democracy, pro-Israel attendees, including over 1000 college students, I gained tremendous insight about both the challenges and opportunities for peace.

The challenges, of course, include Prime Minister Netanyahu’s renouncement of a two-state solution (which he later backtracked on after securing his election victory) as well as deep fractures within Palestinian leadership. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 13 minute mark). But despite these challenges, opportunities abound, and were demonstrated profoundly in a few ways at the conference.

First, during Monday afternoon’s plenary session, two remarkable things happened.  As was well covered in the media worldwide, President Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, made clear that the United States friendship with Israel remains strong.  But, he also made clear that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories must end in order maintain the viability of  Israel as the secure, democratic homeland of the Jewish people. He received multiple standing ovations from the crowd. (A web cast of this session is available here.  Start watching at the 44 minute mark).

Later in that same plenary, Hilik Bar, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party, sat side by side with Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s Chief negotiator.  They both spoke of their mutual desire to achieve a peaceful two state solution. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 2:05 hour:minute mark). These 2 statesmen continued their conversation during a packed workshop, during which it was clear that while they did not agree on everything, they did agree on the fundamental need to establish a Palestinian state for each nation’s mutual security. I would like to see them go on a world-wide Partners for Peace tour.

That evening, at dinner, former Secretary of State James Baker reaffirmed the longstanding bi-partisan support for Israel and for a 2 state solution.  He went on to support President Obama’s efforts to come to a nuclear agreement with Iran and chided those in Congress who have attempted to scuttle those sensitive negotiations. He reminded the audience that American opposition to Israel’s expanded settlement occupation of the West Bank has also been bi-partisan.  Indeed, when he was Secretary of State under the first President Bush, the United States withheld $10 million in loan guarantees to Israel when then Prime Minister Shamir insisted on expanding those settlements over US opposition. He added that Shamir’s actions were followed by his election defeat and the election of Prime Minister Yithak Rabin. (A web cast of this session is available here. Start watching at the 41 minute mark). Witnessing the staunch Republican Baker essentially agreeing with President Obama’s Chief of Staff made clear that these positions are indeed bi-partisan.

Yet, despite the ability of Republican and Democrat, Israeli and Palestinian to find ample room for agreement, journalists like the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin choose to incite by describing J Street as “anti-Israel” when she blasted McDonough’s speech at the conference. Worse yet, conservative talk show host, Mark Levin, fueled more incite when slamming Sec. Baker’s J Street speech, described J Street as a “left wing hate group.”

As Chair of J Street Madison, with family and friends in Israel, I can assure you that my work with J Street is premised on both my love for Israel and J Street’s support for Israel’s long-term viability as the peaceful, democratic homeland of the Jewish people. Hate? I saw no hate at the J Street conference.  Only insight on how to solve the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.



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


Life & Systems Change as a Game of Chess

About 4 years ago, my dear friend Leonard, a retired nurse, had temporarily moved in with his dying mother who lived in Chicago, to provide her in-home hospice care during the last few months of her life.  During that time, he asked if I would play on-line chess with him. At first, I was reluctant as I could not commit to spend long periods of time playing chess with him, but then he explained that the game can be set up to allow players to take as long as 2 weeks to make their moves, so I agreed to play with him.


His mother passed away under his loving care, and Leonard returned home to Madison.  But he and I continue to enjoy playing on-line chess and have now played nearly 700 games of chess with each of us winning about half our games, making for good competition.

Some people have questioned what may appear to be an obsession with playing chess  with Leonard, but in fact, these past 4 years of chess playing have taught me some important life lessons and systems change strategies, in addition to significantly improving my chess skills.

For those who do not play chess, it is important to understand that there is no luck involved in the game. There are no random cards, no rolls of the dice, no luck at all. To be clear, I do not consider it lucky when my opponent makes a bad move.  His bad move was in his control. It is not the same as drawing a bad card, or having a bad roll of the dice.

The same is true in life.  Although some may believe that luck determines life’s outcomes, the truth is that what may often appear to be luck or lack thereof is usually determined by actions or inactions which one has made to lead up to  the lucky or unlucky event. Of course, I am not suggesting that we can control everything that happens to us.  Some events are truly out of our control, such as succumbing to a disease or being hit by another car even if you were driving carefully. But since we can never control the uncontrollable, I believe that focusing on improving one’s ability to control as much as one can in life will bring one more success in achieving one’s hopes and dreams.

So what does chess teach about life?

  • Like life, chess is infinitely complex, providing a vast number of choices with each move. A few years ago, Popular Science described it this way:

After both players move, 400 possible board setups exist. After the second pair of turns, there are 197,742 possible games, and after three moves, 121 million. At every turn, players chart a progressively more distinctive path, and each game evolves into one that has probably never been played before.
According to Jonathan Schaeffer, a computer scientist, “The possible number of chess games is so huge that no one will invest the effort to calculate the exact number.”

  • As in life, one has more success in chess when one analyzes the available choices carefully before making the next move.
  • Concentration and focus are critical skills to succeed in chess, just as they are in life.
  • Learning from one’s mistakes (rather than simply blaming mistakes on bad luck) to avoid repeating them in the future is a key to success in both chess and life.
  • Recovering from mistakes can happen in both chess and life.  The success of the recovery depends on the care and thoughtfulness taken and the response by the other side.
  • Recognizing that one must wait for others to respond or act before one takes further action on a given issue is akin to the turn by turn nature of chess.

Although chess is an individual game, the various pieces have different amounts of power. Thus, a successful chess player knows how to use the different strengths of each piece towards the ultimate goal of checkmate, just as for those of us engaged in systems change, we must utilize the different skills and strengths of the team we assemble to accomplish the change that we seek.


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

Ubuntu: I Am because You Are

My wife and I recently attended a wonderful concert performed by the South African musical legends Hugh Masakela and Vusi Mahlasela.  During the concert, these musicians, who played key roles in South Africa’s struggle to break free from apartheid, and are now touring to celebrate 20 years of freedom, introduced the concept of Ubuntu.  While the literal translation of this Nguni Bantu term is “human kindness,” Masakela and Mahlasela presented it as a Southern African existential philosophy: I am because you are.


I have been thinking of this strong belief in connectedness as my community struggles with the recent police shooting of Tony Robinson, an unarmed African-American teen, just a few blocks from my home, which has led to peaceful protests and calls for change in police practices.  Much has been written about this tragic event, which is still under investigation.  One of the best statements comes from the YWCA, which concludes by stating:

we need to remember that justice for Tony isn’t only about Tony. It is about justice for all.

There are many ways in which our community can move forward.  As I have written previously,  Ending Racism Requires Systems ChangeThe racial disparities in Madison are among the worst in the nation, but that should only motivate us to work harder to change that equation.  I have previously proposed the concept of Moving from Worst to First: Creating the Madison Model and  perhaps transforming Justice for Tony into the change we want to be is the best way to create Justice for All.

However, until each one of us recognizes the core value of UbuntuI am because you are, through which everyone understands that we will never overcome hatred and racism and achieve justice for all until we all recognize that each of us exists for each other, the hopes and dreams of all those who want to transform Justice for Tony into Justice for All will remain elusive. Everyone is responsible for building the community we want to be: police, civic leaders, our neighbors and the strangers amongst us.  Everyone is because we are.


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

Madison’s School Discipline Gets National Attention

UCLA’s Civil Rights Project recently released a comprehensive national report, entitled, Are we Closing the School Discipline Gap?  


As the authors state:

The egregious disparities revealed in the pages that follow transform concerns about educational policy that allows frequent disciplinary removal into a profound matter of civil rights and social justice. This implicates the potentially unlawful denial of educational opportunity and resultant disparate impact on students in numerous districts across the country.

The authors go on to draw the connection between excessive discipline and and poor academic performance.  As they mention:

missing three days of school in the month before taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress translated into fourth graders scoring a full grade level lower in reading on this test. New research shows that higher suspension rates are closely correlated with higher dropout and delinquency rates, and that they have tremendous economic costs for the suspended students…

The authors conclude that:

the large racial/ethnic disparities in suspensions that we document in this report likely will have an adverse and disparate impact on the academic achievement and life outcomes of millions of historically disadvantaged children. This supports our assertion that we will close the racial achievement gap only when we also address the school discipline gap.

The report contains an addendum which highlights 20 school districts, including Madison, Wisconsin. It is important to note that the report uses data from 2009-2012, before the inception of Madison’s new Behavior Education Plan at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year.  The authors describe the data from the earlier period as “deeply disturbing.”  They highlight the following:

in 2011-12, over 46% of all Black students with disabilities and over 49% of all Black males with disabilities were suspended at least once at the secondary school level. The district’s overall rates are also above the national average at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Equally troubling is that the Madison Metropolitan School District’s suspension rates increased between 2009-10 and 2011-12:

• Overall suspension rates at the elementary level increased, with roughly 595 students suspended at least once in 2011-12, or 4.2%. This represents an increase of 1.7 percentage points from the 2009-10 rate of 2.5%.

• Overall suspension rates at the secondary level increased, with roughly 1,620 students suspended at least once in 2011-12, or 12.9%. This represents an increase of over one half a percentage point from the 2009-10 rate of 12.3%.

With this national attention in mind, it is worth examining how Madison’s new Behavior Education Plan has impacted this disturbing situation. Coincidentally, on the exact same day that the Civil Rights Project released its report, the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) released its Behavior Education Plan Mid-Year Review.

First, the good news, suspension have dropped significantly from the 2013-14 school year to the current year.  However, the disparities in discipline remain.

  • 35% of all suspensions were of children with disabilities even though they only represent 14% of the total district population (this is somewhat better than the 39% rate in 2013-14);
  • 84% of all suspensions were of children who receive free or reduced lunch due to their low income status, far greater than their 48% of the total student population (and somewhat lower than the 87% rate in 2013-14);
  • 64% of suspensions were of African-American students despite their only being 18% of the total district population (this is worse than the 59% rate in 2013-14); and
  • the best news was that Hispanic student suspensions dropped to 9% from the previous year’s 13%, both of which are lower than their overall 20% of the student population.

The question for Madison is not whether the Behavior Education Plan is having an impact. It clearly is reducing suspensions.  However, given the stark disparities which still remain, as I have repeatedly stated, until MMSD sets measurable goals for the Plan, neither it, nor the public at large will be able to determine whether it is accomplishing what we believe it should, namely more time in school resulting in improved academic performance and closing the achievement gap.


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