Welcoming the Homeless to our Neighborhood

For nearly 3 decades, my family has lived in the Tenney Park neighborhood in Madison. It is well known as a welcoming neighborhood where diversity is appreciated and generosity towards our neighbors is the norm. I have previously written about how our neighbors build community by opening up their front yards to neighborhood children, and how our sidewalks facilitate community building.

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But, last week my neighbors, elected officials and I were all surprised when we read the news that the County had signed a contract to purchase a recently closed restaurant supply store to use as a permanent day resource center for people who are homeless. The surprise announcement resulted in many of my neighbors immediately questioning the process amid concerns about how it will impact the neighborhood.

Fortunately, our city alder, Ledell Zellers, and County Board Supervisors Heidi Wegleitner and John Hendrick, have agreed to convene a neighborhood meeting at the Messner’s site on October 7th at 7 PM. This morning I met with Supervisor Wegleitner to learn how this project has the potential for being an integral component to address the needs of Madison’s chronic homeless population, and I plan to attend the October 7th meeting to learn more. She expects County staff and a facilitator to help the meeting run well.

As an attorney, I am well aware that process is important. But, I am equally aware that it can be used destructively. In this case, the County failed to engage the neighborhood before announcing the purchase and plan publicly, which was a genuine breach of good neighborhood planning. However, while my neighbors have every right to complain about the bombshell manner in which this project was announced, that initial mistake should not be used as a cover for yet another neighborhood to invoke the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome to kill a project that our community desperately needs.

Today’s front page news included both our community’s ability and inability to effectively deal with the people who are homeless in our midst. The positive: the first shelter for homeless teens will open tomorrow. The negative: those who are homeless will be no longer be allowed to sleep on the City-County building’s front porch, coincidentally also starting tomorrow.

As I observed some of my neighbors raise the genuine process problems, and other siting concerns, rather than welcoming a needed service into our community, I have chosen to learn more and while questions remain, I am cautiously optimistic that this new day resource center could be an integral piece of solving the long term needs of our neighbors who need housing and other services.

First, some facts:

  • The County board has not yet approved this purchase, and will not consider it until November;
  • The City of Madison must issue a conditional use permit in order for the resource center to operate, and fortunately our Alder serves on the Planning Commission;
  • There is neither a design plan yet, nor an operator for the proposed resource center; and
  • We have had a temporary, but inadequate, resource center just a few blocks closer to the Capitol that has operated without significant problems.

Next, some possibilities:

  • The shelter is intended to provide needed and centralized resources in order to connect people to the services that are integral to gaining housing for them;
  • There is a prioritized wait list for the most vulnerable people who need housing, and local service provider Housing Initiativesrun by Madison school board member Dean Luomos, has had great success providing housing for 550 people who have a mental illness, and will hopefully work with this resource center to provide more housing for those in need;
  • Given the proximity to elementary schools, middle school and a high school, the school district can potentially bring educational support services into the resource center; and
  • There are good models, such as Carpenter’s Place in Rockford, and the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul. We should learn from them.

Of course, proper planning needs to be done, including how to make effective use of the large parking lot next to the building, which could include recreational space and community gardens. But, this planning should be done with a mindset towards making this project a model of success to help our neighbors in need, rather than pushing them away. It was not that long ago that many of my neighbors opposed the siting a village of tiny houses for the homeless near East High school, but the project is now widely considered a success.

Madison is a wonderful place to live: for most of us. But too many of our neighbors struggle every day just to survive and put a roof over their heads. Indeed, when it comes to many quality of life indicators examined through racial disparities, Madison is the worst place in the nation. So, as I have long advocated, let’s use this new resource center as another opportunity to move Madison from worst to first.

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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 through Music

A couple of weeks ago, I received a lovely invitation to a musical jam session in a nearby park hosted by a very talented local klezmer band, Yid Vicious. The invitation mentioned that they were celebrating their 20th anniversary and wanted to get 20 musician friends together to help them celebrate. I love klezmer music and we had Yid Vicious play at our son’s Bar Mitzvah party 5 1/2 years ago, which inspired virtually everyone there to dance the night away. In fact, they were nice enough to allow me to rehearse a couple of tunes and join the band during the party, which was a lot of fun and truly a memory I will treasure forever.

Much to my pleasant surprise, what I thought was going to be a jam session, turned out to be a rehearsal, as Yid Vicious wanted us to join them for the last 2 songs of their 20th anniversary show at the 38th Annual Willy Street Fair.

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The band asked us to join them at the end of their set for the last 2 songs, but I arrived in time for the beginning of their set to enjoy the music and watch dozens of people dancing on a beautiful day. The band informed the crowd that they had invited 20 musicians to join them for their 20th anniversary and when the time came, the band members got down off the stage to mix in with their musical friends. The sound was beautiful. The dancers kept dancing. But best of all, through their generous sharing of their special musical moment, Yid Vicious helped build community by inviting so many friends to join the band in celebration.

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Photo by Paula A. White

Music carries great powers. I have written about how it can combat racismand improve academic performance and behaviorBut like all great powers, it achieves its greatest strength when used wisely. My hat goes off to Yid Vicious, whose band members understand that the value of their music expands tremendously when they build community through sharing the stage. A heartfelt thanks for a wonderful community building experience.

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

The Wisdom of Elder Dialogue

It has long been my firm belief that big problems cannot be solved without dialogue. Since my business, Systems Change Consulting, is to help solve big problems, I have spent the past two years working to expand the dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayimhosted a few Jewish Dialogue sessions for our members, nearly 2 years ago, I recognized the need to expand this remarkable process, which allows for all opinions to be shared and understood by all participants, to the larger Madison Jewish community. To that end, I was able to convince the other 2 Madison synagogues, Temple Beth El and Beth Israel Center, as well as the Jewish Federation of Madison and the UW-Hillel to co-sponsor 3 dialogue sessions that were held during April-May, 2014.

Those sessions were so well received, that we submitted a Social Innovation grant to the Jewish Federation of Madison, which agreed to fund monthly dialogue sessions during 2015. These sessions have been held in a variety of locations around Madison and continue to be well received. Some of the sessions have targeted specific segments of Madison’s Jewish community, such as University of Wisconsin students and Board members of the sponsoring Jewish organizations.

But, last night’s session was truly remarkable. As many elders are unable to travel, we decided to convene a session at Capitol Lakes, an independent living retirement community. Unlike all of our other sessions, where we adhered to a fairly strict advance registration policy to ensure that the sessions did not get too large to engage in meaningful dialogue, the Capitol Lakes social worker informed us that advanced registration would not be practical there, and we could not exclude any of their residents who wanted to attend.

So, I worked closely with our Rabbi, Laurie Zimmerman, and our facilitator, Harry Webne-Behrman, to modify our typical dialogue arrangement in order to prepare for what Capitol Lakes expected would be 30-35 attendees. Rather than place everyone in a circle, as was our usual practice, we decided to set up tables for 4 participants to talk with each other.

I arrived early to make sure the room was set up appropriately, and to make final plans with Harry. As elders often do, participants started showing up 20 minutes before the scheduled starting time. I had fascinating discussions with one gentleman from Ireland, who clearly remembers the radio announcement of the Germans invading Poland, and another who shared a joke about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

As the room filled, we quickly realized that we needed to add more tables, as over 50 residents had joined us.

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Harry did his typically wonderful job informing everyone that the purpose of the session was to learn from and understand each other. After all, this was a dialogue, not a debate. The participants revealed themselves to include many who had been to Israel, some who had lived there, and many who had never travelled there. Their views were from across the political spectrum.

Participants included both Jews and non-Jews. At one point, one non-Jew asked whether she and other non-Jews were welcome, and we informed her that everyone was welcome. To my great pleasure, one of the Jewish participants told everyone that she felt the dialogue was enriched by having both Jews and non-Jews attend. Indeed, as Harry and I wandered around the room, we witnesses everyone deeply engaged in meaningful dialogue.

No, we did not bring peace to the Middle East last night. But 50 elders engaged in meaningful dialogue and learned a lot from each other. Many thought that educating Israeli and Palestinian youth together was the long-term answer, though others expressed skepticism that the current generation, with so much history of conflict, could provide appropriate educational models for the next generation. Fortunately, there are some successful examples of such Israeli-Palestinian schools, which were shared with the group.

It is my belief that through dialogue, these elders made achieving peace one step closer to reality. We have submitted a grant application to continue these dialogue sessions next year, when we hope to deepen the sessions to explore specific hot-button topics such as settlements, water rights, the Iran nuclear deal, and boycott, divestment and sanctions. If the grant is funded, I look forward to returning to Capitol Lakes once again to learn more from these elders.

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

Can Nations Set Aside Self Interest to Solve the Refugee Crisis?

Europe is struggling with a refugee crisis the likes of which it has not seen since World War 2. Images of drowned children haunt anyone with a conscience.

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Yet, hand wringing will not solve this crisis. Nor, will finger pointing. As European countries debate how many refugees to accept, there is a shocking lack of effort to solve the root cause: war and unstable governments, the worst case of which is in Syria.

There are over 4 million Syrian refugees, which does not include those displaced within Syria, the vast majority of whom are migrating to Turkey, where the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), has budgeted over $320 million to aid Turkey with this crisis, approximately 75% of all UNHCR aid to Europe in 2015.

We have seen this before as wars always cause desperate people to flee their homes. Providing safe passage and refuge are important, but ultimately, these are band-aids, as the refugees will continue to escape their war torn lands as long as their homes remain unsafe.

Towards the end of the 20th Century, Europe grappled with the Balkan crisis, while witnessing the slaughter of many innocent civilians. After much delay, NATO ultimately intervened to stop the slaughter in Kosovo. The question now is what lessons were learned from that intervention and whether they have any application in Syria.

The stated grounds for the NATO Kosovo intervention were humanitarian. While there will always be arguments about whether the intervention was purely humanitarian. most analysts conclude that despite possible mixed motives, it was ultimately the humanitarian impulse that forced the US to join NATO with a strong response.

Articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter implore:

all Members [to] pledge themselves to take joint action in cooperation with the Organization for the achievement of…universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.

Accordingly, as well stated by the non-partisan Wilson Centerthe UN Charter not only permits intervention on humanitarian grounds, in cases of gross and systemic human rights abuses against civilians, it requires it. As the Wilson Center further points out, humanitarian motives and grounds, also require humanitarian means of intervention. The NATO air bombing in Kosovo is subject to question about whether it was humanitarian. While the resulting end to the immediate crisis was certainly humanitarian, the aftermath which included revenge killings raises legitimate concerns.

What can be learned from this approach to resolve the Syrian crisis which to date, has pitted Iranian and Russian support for the ruthless Assad regime, against an ineffective and scattered effort by the US and others to support so-called moderate rebels, leaving ISIS free to wreak havoc, death, rape and destruction in the resulting void?

It has been clear for too long, that without a cohesive worldwide response, the Syrian civil war will rage on, and the resulting humanitarian crisis will only continue. The Syrian civil war has so many factions that one commentator called for,

A solution akin to the one that ended the long-running civil war in neighbouring Lebanon: a shotgun wedding and delicate balancing of diverging sectarian and political interests, in addition to possible self-rule but with no territorial break up.

In the end, the world’s most powerful nations must ultimately realize that it is in their self interest to come together to solve the problem. Just as Britain, the US and the Soviet Union figured out how put aside their differences in order join together to defeat Hitler, so must NATO, Russia and Iran put aside their legitimate differences and come together to resolve the Syrian crisis. As long as they fail to do so, the refugee crisis will continue to fester and dead children will continue to wash ashore.

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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.