Building Community through Queerness

While our nation celebrates the historic Supreme Court ruling embracing marriage equality nationwide for same sex couples, it is worth pausing to remember that love and community are built in many different ways and often not in marriage. This past weekend, along with about 80 others, I learned that community can be built through queerness.

My niece, Gabriella Spitzer, has had a profoundly loving relationship with the man she lives with, Sandy Johnston, for 5 years. My wife and I first met them when they were undergraduates in New York City, and quickly noted how much they loved each other. After their graduation, they moved in together where they now live in Albany. They both come from very observant Jewish families, but the concept of a traditional marriage simply did not fit their very unique personalities. As they wrote in their Siyyumfesto:

We…chose a format that doesn’t ask us to fit our…expansive selves into narrow boxes…For Sandy, that means honoring his introversion, and making a retreat that celebrates our learning with a ritual that reflects our teaching….For Gabriella, that means honoring their queer and genderqueer identities and not asking them to contort into genders or sexualities that simply do not fit well.

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Instead of a wedding, they asked their families and friends to join them at a lovely camp in the Berkshire Mountains in upstate New York for a weekend long Siyyum, this past weekend, and my wife and I are were pleased to be able to join them. A siyyum typically marks the completion of a course of study or the writing of a Torah. In Gabriella and Sandy’s case, they chose to study Jewish texts together and present what they learned to their family and friends in lieu of a marriage ceremony.

But, before the siyyum’s conclusion, they created an environment which built community between and among their families and friends. They did so in many ways, from hosting communal meals together, convening Shabbat services, and organizing 16 workshops during 4 sessions, for their friends and families to learn from each other. I was honored when Gabriella asked me to teach a workshop on disability law. It was with great pleasure that I attended her sister Leora’s workshop on Theater of the Oppressed where she taught us about how she engaged in this process with students at the Ferguson High School. Sandy’s Aunt Karen led a wonderful meditation workshop which I enjoyed. Gabriella’s grandmother (my mother-in-law) Gloria Spitzer led an enlightening workshop on Volunteerism, tzedakah and philanthropy.

There was so much beauty and joy during this entire weekend. By having us share meals and learn  together in a pastoral environment, we all got to know each other better, and truly built a community through queerness. As you can see, happiness enveloped both of their families.

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So, thank you Gabriella and Sandy for providing us an opportunity to learn from you and with you. You opened our hearts and minds, and built community for all of us. May you be blessed with many years of love and learning together, continuing to build communities wherever you go.

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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.

Pushing Back Against Regressive Systems Change

When I started Systems Change Consulting, nearly 3 years ago, my intention was to use the expertise I have acquired over my 30 year professional career to help those interested in progressive systems change accomplish their goals to make the world a better place, particularly for those with the greatest needs. While I have had a great deal of success in this endeavor, I have also noticed that while living in Wisconsin during the past 5 years, many progressives are simply shaking their heads in wonder at the ever accelerating regressive direction our state is heading, decimating many of our fundamental institutions, such as public schools, state and local government, and the University of Wisconsin, which were designed to allow as many people as possible to live healthy and sustainable  lives.

Never before have I heard so many friends and colleagues consider leaving Wisconsin as they become convinced that resistance to the regressive laws and policies put in place over the past 5 years is futile. Perhaps, some wonder, that is the plan of those in power, to simply change the face of Wisconsin, by showing those who do not care for the direction our state is heading, the exit door.

While I have no easy answers, history suggests that there has never been a political party that has stayed in power forever. Indeed, the more the party in power acts like it will maintain its majority forever, the less likely it will stay in power, because over time, it will create disillusionment amongst enough of its supporters that the pendulum will swing in the other direction.

Wisconsin has long been a state of extreme ideologues. Shortly after World War 2, Wisconsin elected Sen. Joe McCarthy, who wreaked havoc on many lives with his anti-communist crusade, until he was finally discredited in 1954, and died at the young age of 48, in 1957, of hepatitis, which was widely assumed to have been caused or at least exacerbated by his alcohol abuse. This tragic chapter of American history, ironically, came on the heels of the progressive creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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McCarthy’s death was followed by Wisconsin’s election of one of the greatest environmentalists of his era, Gaylord Nelson, who was first elected Governor in 1958, and then served as a U.S. Senator from 1963-1981, founding Earth Day in 1970.

Currently, Wisconsin’s U.S. Senators, Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, have been rated as the most ideologically split Senators of any state in the country. Sen. Johnson is running for re-election in 2016 against the progressive former Senator Russ Feingold.

This brief political history demonstrates that political power is in constant flux. Therefore, political engagement provides constant opportunities for change, despite the frequent frustration that lack of immediate success may bring.

How can progressives push back? Stick to the fundamentals of progressive systems change which a review of what I have written since starting Systems Change Consulting includes:

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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.

Motivation: the Key to Success

Whether you are a parent, a teacher, an employer, or in any other position where your goal includes getting others to achieve success, an often elusive key is discovering the motivation that will create an environment for success.

In school, how students’ teachers provide feedback to students can make a huge difference in their students’ success. Sometimes it does not take a huge change in behavior. For example, in a recent study, 7th grade students were asked to write an essay about a hero. In addition to providing typical feedback, researchers added one of two sticky notes to the students’ papers. One note blandly stated, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” The other note said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them” Then the students were given the option to revise their essays.

As reported in the Atlantic,

The results were striking. Among white students, 87 percent of those who received the encouraging teacher message turned in new essays, compared to 62 percent of those who got the bland note. Among African American students, the effect was even greater, with 72 percent in the encouraged group doing the revision, compared to only 17 percent of those randomly chosen to get the bland message. And the revised essays received higher scores from both the students’ teachers and outside graders hired for the study.

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concluded that students were more motivated to take an extra step academically when they perceived their teachers’ critical feedback as a genuine desire to help rather than as an expression of indifference or disdain toward their racial group. To further test that hypothesis, Yeager and Cohen surveyed students’ trust of their teachers going into the study and found that the encouraging note had the largest effect on a subgroup of African American students who had previously reported trusting their teachers the least (as measured by survey questions such as, “My teachers … have a fair and valid opinion of me”).

Parents, teachers and employers often find that procrastination is a huge barrier to success. Once again, finding methods to motivate people to move out of a state of procrastination is the key to their success. We must account for emotions in order to motivate people to achieve success. This often means that simply providing someone who is stuck with a rational explanation for why it is better to move forward will often not succeed. Motivation requires finding what will improve the person’s mood. It is not the same for everyone and is often elusive, but if found, the likely result will be improved performance.

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Sometimes, providing a reward will help to reinforce the positive motivation that is necessary to accomplish one’s goal. Once again, however, the reward required to motivate someone will vary with the individual and the task to be accomplished.  What is clear, however, is that simply punishing someone for failing to accomplish a goal is unlikely to provide the motivation necessary for success.

Finally, positive peer pressure is often essential to motivate success. It is often the case that the last person someone who is stuck wants to hear from is their parent, teacher or boss. Even if the parent, teacher or boss tries to convey a positive message, it is often perceived negatively. That dynamic changes if the person who needs motivation is encouraged by peers to move forward.

Of course, this all sounds easier to accomplish than genuine motivation often is, but one thing I have learned in 18 years of parenting, and over 30 years of teaching and managing employees, is that sometimes even showing your child, student or employee that you are searching for a way to motivate them, will help the 2 of you find that elusive key to their motivation.

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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.

Charter School Expansion: Whither Accountability?

Wisconsin’s powerful Joint Finance Committee recently approved a dramatic change to Wisconsin’s charter school authorization law. This change would expand so-called independent charter schools to over 140 new school districts. More troubling is that the new charter school authorizers would include the University of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee and Waukesha County Executives, tribal colleges and Gateway Technical Colleges, adding to the already confusing maze of Wisconsin school choices.

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Sen. Alberta Darling acknowledged that this provision did not include any oversight for these new charter schools. Perhaps she and her colleagues who passed this provision failed to understand that they cannot change federal law which contains quite a few obligations for charter schools.

As I wrote about a year ago, charter schools are public schools and they must comply with federal civil rights laws. In fact, perhaps due to the confusion wrought by charter expansion, the U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance letter last year that made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.

In summary, that letter confirms that:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability)

all apply to all operations of charter schools.

including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

Specifically,

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions, meaning:

Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions information and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreter and/or translation services. Also, communications with parents with disabilities must be as effective as communications with other parents. Appropriate auxiliary aids and services (such as Braille materials or a sign language interpreter) must be made available whenever they are necessary to ensure equally effective communication with parents with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities.

Of course, this means that charter schools may not have admissions criteria which discriminate on their face. But, in addition,

a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification. Charter schools also may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.

  • Regarding children with disabilities, OCR makes clear that,

every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability. Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.

  • For English Language Learners,

charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs. A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content.

Together with the U.S. Department of Justice, as I have written previously, the U.S. Department of Education has also clarified that, like all other public schools, charter schools must also administer discipline in a nondiscriminatory manner, which is an important component in stemming the tide of the schools to prison pipeline.

If this highly problematic provision passes the full Wisconsin legislature and is signed into law by Governor Walker, it will be interesting to see how all of these new charter entities will implement state and federal special education law, which requires them to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), and includes many protections to prevent discriminatory disciplinary exclusion of children with disabilities. Each one of these new chartering entities will need to be sure that it assigns a local education agency representative to each Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting who has the knowledge of all the charter school’s resources and the authority to commit them to students with disabilities whose IEPs require such services.

Of course, in order to be effective, civil rights laws must be enforced. Concerned parents and advocates can contact OCR at (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov, since OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate any civil rights laws. Contact information and complaint forms can be found here. It will be up to parents and advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

Parents who believe charter schools have violated state or federal special education law may file complaints with the state education agency. In Wisconsin, you can find information about how to file a complaint and a sample form here.

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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.