A few weeks ago, it dawned on me that it was 10 years ago this month when I established my firm, Systems Change Consulting. Although I have always engaged in systems change work during my 37 years of legal practice, the past 10 years have been the first time when I not only have done this on my own, but I formally named my firm after what my mission is, i.e., to: provide local, statewide, and national consulting and training for individuals, non-profits, and public entities with a focus on making progressive systems change in the areas of civil rights, disability rights, general and special education, and combating abuse and neglect of vulnerable populations.
As this youthful photo of me suggests, perhaps I was always meant to get on the phone and urge people to do whatever is necessary to improve the world.
These past 10 years have brought me many opportunities to engage in progressive systems change, but not necessarily in the way I expected when I set up my firm. I had hoped to provide consultation to non-profits to help them with their systems change work and I offer them a very low rate (less than 25% of my normal rate) to do so. Indeed, some non-profits, such as: Wisconsin FACETS, Wisconsin Family Ties, the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, the Kenosha Education Association, MadTown Mommas, Nothing Less, Inc., Urban Triage and the Madison Children’s Museum, have retained my services. However, while my work with these non-profits has been very satisfying, it has only been a small portion of my work in the past 10 years.
The bulk of my practice has involved individual, and occasionally group, representation, usually in education matters although I have worked on other civil rights cases as well. My clients often share my quest to utilize their cases to help others through engaging in systems change efforts and in many cases, I have achieved those goals, often time through use of the media as well as the legal system.
Here is a sample of the media that has covered my work over the past 10 years:
- Some Schools Leave Out Details in Reports on Seclusion, Restraint of Students: Green Bay Press Gazette, November 30, 2013
- Civil Rights Attorney Urges Involvement in Update of Madison School Discipline Code: The Cap Times, January 30, 2014
- Student Discipline and the School to Prison Pipeline: Wisconsin Lawyer, September 2014
- Increase Intensive Support to Help Close Madison’s Achievement Gap: The Cap Times, June 10, 2016
- Taxpayers are Funding a Special Needs Voucher Scam: The Progressive, June 29, 2016
- Wisconsin Child Advocate Calls Solitary Confinement Counterproductive, Wisconsin News Service, February 1, 2017
- Trump Wants to Protect the Nursing Home Industry from Consumer Lawsuits, The Progressive, September 25, 2017
- “Swamped” with Special Needs Kids?: The Isthmus, November 2, 2017
- Open Letter from Civil Rights Attorney to Baraboo School Board: WKOW, November 13, 2018
- Q&A Session Will Attempt to Clarify MMSD Restraint Policies: The Cap Times, April 9, 2019
- Panel Discussion Addresses Issues of Race, Student-Teacher Relationships in MMSD, WMTV, April 16, 2019
- Grafton District Ordered to Pay Student’s Private School Tuition, Ozaukee Press, July 31, 2019
- Disability Advocates, Parents Want Transparency When a Student is Restrained, WKOW, November 19, 2019
- Next Steps for MMSD After Ending Contracts with School Resource Officers, WMTV, June 30, 2020
- Unique Challenges: Special Education was Difficult for Families in the Spring, Will this Fall be Better?: The Cap Times, September 23, 2020
- Letter Calls on State Bar to Denounce Threatening, Anti-Semitic Attacks on Justices: Wisconsin Examiner, December 22, 2020
- Ashland Schools Quarantine Incident Sparks Discrimination Claims from Native American Family, Wisconsin Public Radio, March 3, 2021
- Republican Voted to Give This Minocqua School Extra Funding, But Evers Said No: PBS Wisconsin, July 19, 2021
- Menomonie Parents Take Legal Action Demanding School Take COVID-19 Safety Protocols, WEAU, October 6, 2021
- Disability Rights Activist Says State Building Code Violates Civil Rights Law, Wisconsin Examiner, October 8, 2021
- A Chasm Between Wisconsin’s Special-Ed Needs and Resources, PBS Wisconsin, November 22, 2021
- Selective Enrollment, Isthmus, April 8, 2022
- Special Needs Students Disproportionately Subjected to Seclusion, Restraint, Wisconsin Examiner, May 19, 2022
- Prayer in Public Schools? The Supreme Court Changed Everything We Know About the Separation of Church and State, Parents, July 22, 2022
Of course, not everything I do gets into the news and that is often by design as my clients have a right to keep their legal affairs private, which I completely respect.
I have also conducted many trainings, the most popular of which were about the rights of students with disabilities during COVID. As I believe consumer trainings are empowerment, I make the presentations available free of charge when they occur and afterwards, on my website. In addition, I have published articles and chapters for books designed for both consumers and professionals.
As far as this blog goes, which also launched 10 years ago, this will be my 376th post. My blog has been read in well over 150 nations and territories around the world. I have covered issues I am paid for and many issues for which I receive no compensation. In fact, my most widely read blog continues to be “Losing Sheila’s Smile” calling for common sense gun control after my friend lost her life needlessly when someone had a gun who never should have been allowed to have one.
Readers may wonder what I have learned about systems change over the past 10 years. Some things about systems change simply have not changed. As I wrote 9 years ago in my post: How Systems Change Happens, the following elements are critical:
- Have truth on your side.
- Educate those who need the change, the media, and the decision makers required to make the change.
- Organize supporters of the change.
- Litigate when necessary.
- Be persistent.
- Use these tools strategically and effectively.
Keeping in mind that I have spent 2/3 of my career working for non-profits, and I had a previous stint in private practice, I also learned to keep a close eye on the business end of things and to get used to ups and downs in my income.
Perhaps the hardest lesson comes from my experience of turning away cases on almost a daily basis. While it does not bother me to turn away cases that have no legal merit, it does trouble me when someone calls with a legitimate claim and I am too busy to help them, or they cannot afford to hire me and there are no free legal services available for them. While I did succeed in convincing the Madison school district to hire a special education ombudsman, the need for representation is far greater than the available resources, and if we believe in justice for all, than that must be addressed.
As I approach the age for Medicare eligibility, I honestly do not know how much longer I will keep doing this, but I am certain that I will always continue to engage in trying to make our world a better place through engaging in progressive systems change. As my friend, and current President of the Madison school board, Ali Muldrow, recently said during a talk she gave to our synagogue on Yom Kippur:
“The only thing fun about living in an unjust world is working to change it.”
For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact me, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, by visiting my website, Systems Change Consulting.