So Many Reasons to Learn a Language

Do you know what this means?

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Does it scare you?

Apparently, hearing this word for those who do not understand it scares some airline employees enough to kick someone who says it off an airplane. This was not an isolated incident as kicking innocent Muslims off airplanes happens far too frequently.

Communication is the key to understanding. Unfortunately, English speaking nations tend to be the worst at learning foreign languages. In the United States, most students who study a foreign language only do so for 2 years, which pales in comparison to the 9 years which most European Union students study a foreign language.

As this infographic by Middlebury Interactive Languages shows, learning a foreign language has many practical advantages besides the obvious ability to communicate with others who do not speak your native tongue, including:

  • Higher college placement test scores in reading, writing and math;
  • Higher rates of pay; and
  • Translation and Interpretation are among the fastest growing careers.

Remarkably, despite these advantages, the percentage of US elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction has fallen dramatically.

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On a recent visit home from college, my son wisely commented that he believed that a lot of fear in the world would be reduced if people only understood each other’s languages. He is currently studying  both Hebrew and Arabic in an effort to bridge and reduce the fears that exist between Jews and Arabs. He made note of how important it was that he could understand both the Spanish and Arabic on this sign in our front yard.

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While it is true that no one can learn every language in the world, it is also true that even if one is not fluent in a language, when one travels or meets people who speak another language, it goes a long way to find out how to be courteous by learning how to say, please and thank you in the native language.

Since last November’s election, our President and his allies are fanning the flames of xenophobia, highlighting Islamophobia and deportation of many of our neighbors with Latin American roots. But each of us can do our part to counter these fears by learning even a few words of Spanish and Arabic (or other languages of your neighbors and co-workers). For my part, while not fluent, I have studied and speak Spanish, Hebrew and German.

Oh, you want to know what that Arabic word above means? Inshallah literally translated means, “God willing.” It is often used at the end of a sentence to add a hopeful note of success to whatever good wishes the speaker is conveying, such as, “our team will win tomorrow’s game, inshallah.”

Indeed, the Spanish word, ojalá is borrowed from the Arabic inshallah and means the same thing: God willing.

So, the next time you hear a word you do not understand, rather than sinking into fear, you may discover that the speaker is sending you good wishes from above.

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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.

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Five Years of Systems Change Consulting

Five years ago this month, I launched Systems Change Consulting. My goal then and now, is to provide consulting and training to 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.

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I am pleased with what I have accomplished to date, although the state of our local, state, national, and international affairs means that I have a lot more work to do. While I continue to provide training and consulting to non-profits and public entities, a significant portion of my work involves individual representation. However, even when representing individuals, my clients usually retain me because they appreciate that when I represent them, I often try to leverage the results in their case into larger progressive systems change to help others. They often tell me that they are retaining me because they do not want anyone else to suffer as they or their children have suffered, which is the essence of systems change.

Early on in this venture, one of my best friends suggested that I start a blog. Initially, I dismissed his suggestion, but in October, 2012, I decided that he was right and that this blog could be another vehicle for systems change. Little did I know that nearly 5 years after launching this blog, I would have written 235 posts, and that my blog be viewed nearly 40,000 times in close to 120 countries all over the world. A review of my 10 most viewed posts gives a snapshot on the wide array of issues in which I have engaged over these past 5 years. You can read them by clicking on the title.

  1. Disrespectful Justice: discusses an appalling view of our legal system as presented by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley.
  2. Special Needs Voucher Scam Fully Revealed: in which I expose how special needs school vouchers are really a scam.
  3. The Morning After…the Sun Still Rises: which reminds us that even after bad election results, we have accomplished a lot and will continue to accomplish more.
  4. Welcoming the Homeless to Our Neighborhood: describing a proposed homeless day resource center in my neighborhood, which I am pleased to report is about to finally open, albeit in a location about a mile away from where it was originally proposed.
  5. Building Community: Now More than Ever: reminding readers that in order to improve our world, we need to focus locally and build community.
  6. Wisconsin’s New Law on the use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children: points out all the protections we achieved when we passed Wisconsin’s first law to protect school children from the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.
  7. Building Community through Queerness: in which I describe how my niece and her partner created community with family and friends through their open queerness.
  8. If it Ain’t Broke…: in which I use words of a dearly departed young man to urge us not to fall into complacency.
  9. Sun Prairie Police Brutality Case Headed to Trial: it turns out that I settled this police abuse case on behalf of my middle school age client before trial.
  10. Key Protections for Students with Disabilities: describes critical protections by students with disabilities issues by the Obama administration which advocates will need to fight to preserve under the current administration.

In addition to my blog, I also used the media to accomplish systems change. My most recent articles include (click on title to read article):

I have often joked that I wish the world was a place in which my work was no longer necessary. Sadly, I do not expect that to happen in my lifetime, so I continue to roll up my sleeves and work for progressive systems change, using every tool in my varied arsenal.

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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.

 

If Not Now…

One of the most revered Jewish sages, Hillel, famously asked three important questions that continue to have relevance to this day:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?

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Every one of us should ask our selves all three of these questions on a regular basis. The first question reminds us to take care of ourselves, as while empathy for others is important, failing to engage in self-care and self-advocacy will ultimately result in an inability to thrive as a human being and care for those who matter most.

The second question reminds us that those who engage in purely selfish behavior must ask themselves why they are on this planet as their purpose cannot simply be to ignore others to simply engage in self serving behavior.

The third question is a call to action. Specifically, it challenges each and every person who may be tired of the endless bickering of politicians and pundits that if you are not prepared to take action now, when will you do so?

Hillel’s questions have inspired a movement which calls itself If Not Now which is dedicated to ending American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It is a non-violent movement striving to win the hearts and minds of the Jewish community.

As important as ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is, Hillel’s questions go far beyond any one specific issue. Regardless of one’s background, we live in communities, nations and indeed, an entire world that demands that no one sit on the sidelines.

Of course, many may lament the state of the world but simply not know what they can do to change it for the better. Indeed, nobody can engage in every single issue that seemingly cry out for our help every day. In fact, doing so, will result in violating Hillel’s first question as those who try to fix everything ultimately fail to take care of themselves and will end by crashing and burning.

If you are inspired by Hillel’s message and want to take action, but you are unsure of where to start, I suggest taking the following steps:

  1. Identify an issue that you really care about;
  2. Find an organization that is working on the issue you care about in a way that resonates with your values;
  3. See if that organization needs volunteers, and if it does not, or you are unable to volunteer, donate funds within your means to help the organization do its work; and
  4. Support candidates who seek to make the positive changes in the world that are consistent with your values. This can include volunteering for the candidates, sending donations to help their campaigns, and remembering to vote.

While I have spent my entire career doing my best to follow Hillel’s sage wisdom, I understand that for many, it is difficult. There are many challenges that we all face: personal, emotional, financial, and in today’s world, simply a feeling of helplessness due to the overwhelming nature of need. My advice to those who feel frozen in inaction is to start small. Just pick one issue to work on. Ask yourself every day,

what am I doing to make the lives of others just a little bit better?

We all have the ability to lend a helping hand to a neighbor, vote for a candidate who represents our values, or provide support to a charitable organization doing good work. This will not only help improve your community and the world, but it will make you feel better about yourself and less of a victim of those powerful forces which degrade our world on a daily basis. Doing so will allow you to answer all three of Hillel’s questions in a positive manner.

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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.

Hard Won Independence

In over 32 years of civil rights legal work, I have represented a wide variety of unique individuals in a lot of unusual cases. Many of my cases involve people with disabilities fighting for the right to live the independent lives that all of us wish to enjoy.

Some of my cases involve people who have to fight for independence on multiple fronts. One such case came my way earlier this year, when I was contacted by Nick Rabinowicz, who left his parents home in Massachusetts in late December, 2016, upon turning 18, and moved to Madison. His parents petitioned a Massachusetts court for guardianship over Nick and were awarded temporary guardianship without a hearing. Nick retained me to fight for his independence and get his parents’ petition for guardianship dismissed.

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When Nick came to meet me, he informed me that he was a transgender man who was a high functioning person with autism. He showed me his parents’ petition  for guardianship which alleged that Nick was incompetent because, among other things, he did not shower every day. Although failing to shower every day is certainly not an indicator of legal incompetence, I asked Nick about this, and he provided a perfectly rational response. He told me that on days he does not work out, he might not shower, and on days, he does get sweaty, he might shower twice.

In telling me the story of how he left home, took a train to Chicago on his own, got a ride to Madison, rented an apartment, enrolled in high school, and ultimately found and retained me to fight for his legal independence, it was very clear to me that Nick had every right to live a free and independent life and not have his rights stripped and given over to his overbearing parents through guardianship. As I am not licensed to practice law in Massachusetts, I attempted to convince his parents’ attorney to drop the case, but his parents were unwilling to do so. Even worse, his parents were interfering with Nick’s ability to live independently by refusing to provide him with his health insurance card, his passport and his Social Security card.

Fortunately, despite the barriers presented by his parents, Nick successfully enrolled in La Follette High School in Madison, and graduated this past June. In fighting his guardianship, he was able to obtain very supportive affidavits from his teachers, who were very impressed by Nick. One of his teacher’s beautifully described Nick:

He is an informed citizen of local, national and international news and demonstrated the ability to critically evaluate sources of information and to use acquired information to inform personal decision-making and support his thinking.

In all my years of teaching, Nick’s creative writing is some of the highest quality and most compelling student work I have read. He demonstrates many cultural interests and the ability to both appreciate and create works of art that explore the human experience.

Nick demonstrated the ability to identify himself as a student with autism, explain his learning challenges, and advocate for his learning and social/emotional needs. I observed him respectfully ask to be seated in another area of the classroom where he could focus better, and on occasion during work time, request to move to a quieter location with fewer distractions. Understanding one’s disability and independently and appropriately explaining and advocating for one’s needs is a complex skill that I do not often observe in high school students.

Since the case was in Massachusetts, I arranged for Nick to retain Marty Flax, an attorney who practices in the Boston area, whom I have known for many years, as his local counsel. Recently, Marty and I were pleased to be able to tell Nick that the court had dismissed his parents’ petition for guardianship, and Nick was free to pursue his life as he sees fit.

While guardianship can be appropriate for some people, many do not realize that short of imprisonment, it is the most severe legal denial of civil rights that our law permits. While I do not know all the reasons why Nick’s parents believed that Nick was legally incompetent and sought legal control  over his life, I suspect that being a transgender man with autism had a lot to do with it. I am very glad that I was able to help Nick assert and obtain his legal independence and I look forward to watching him do great things with his life. As his recent picture shows, he is a happy young man, as he deserves to be now that he is free of his parents’ legal challenge to his independence.

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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.

Saying Kaddish for a Friend

Last week, one of my best friends, Stan Pollan, died. We both moved to Madison around the same time 32 years ago and met a few months after we moved here, when his wife Ellen was pregnant with their eldest son, Henry. Stan’s parents and my wife Sheryl’s parents had been friends for many years before we met and encouraged us to get to know each other when we started living in the same city. Stan, Ellen, Sheryl and I are forever grateful for the encouragement our parents gave us to get to know each other.

About two weeks before Stan died, he asked me to say the mourner’s kaddish for him after he died. Stan was born Jewish, but he was not very observant. We regularly invited his family to our house for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Passover, which they appreciated. However, the only time I saw him in a synagogue was on Yom Kippur, when he would come to my synagogue to say the mourner’s kaddish for his parents after they passed away. So, of course, while dismayed that my dear friend was dying, I was honored to be asked to fulfill one of his dying wishes.

What I did not anticipate was that as Stan’s death drew nearer, his family asked me to organize and officiate at his funeral. I am not a Rabbi and I have never officiated at a funeral, but despite the challenge, I was further honored by this expanded role. I worked closely with Stan’s sister-in-law, Cheryl Siegel, to whom I will be forever grateful for her deep sense of caring for what Stan and his family wanted at his funeral. As she and I both told each other, through Stan’s loss, we each made a new best friend in each other.

It was very important to me that the funeral honor Stan’s wishes, as well as those of his immediate family, so I talked with Ellen and Stan’s sons the day after he died to discern what they wanted. They made clear that they wanted the service to be short, simple and sweet, including some music, and to be sure that any Hebrew was both translated and transliterated so all those present could understand and participate. Over the next two days, working with Cheryl Siegel, Ellen and her sons, Stan’s brother Jim, our friend Jason Garlynd, who did a reading at the family’s request, and the musicians, Jeff Laramie and Bruce Wasserstrom, we pulled the service together. Just an hour and a half before the service started, I picked up the copies of the service we quickly created from the copy shop.

Jeff Laramie opened the service with a beautiful rendition of the Beatles’ song, In My Life, during which some thunder roared. I told the mourners that was Stan applauding. I also made clear to them that I was not a Rabbi and this was my first time officiating at a funeral. Despite that, I have since heard that many people told the family that the “rabbi” did a good job. Someone even asked me for my card after the service. I reminded them that I did not officiate funerals professionally.

Before we got to the kaddish, I led some readings that all the mourners said together. However, since the family wanted Jason Garlynd to do a reading, he agreed to read the following:

Ahavat Olam-Love of the World (interpretive version-Rami Shapiro)

 We are loved by an unending love.

We are embraced by arms that find us

Even when we are hidden from ourselves.

We are touched by fingers that soothe us

Even when we are too proud for soothing.

We are counseled by voices that guide us

Even when we are too embittered to hear.

We are loved by an unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift us

even in the midst of a fall.

We are urged on by eyes that meet us

even when we are too weak for meeting.

We are loved by an unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled…

Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;

Ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;

We are loved by an unending love.

The next day, we received a call from Stan’s eldest son, Henry, who invited my wife and I to join him and a few friends on a canoe trip the following day. We were honored to be asked so we gladly joined Henry, his best friend Ben, Jason and his son True on the Bad Fish Creek which due to heavy rains had swollen into a raging river. Henry wore his father’s captain’s hat and it made me think back to when Sheryl, Ellen, Stan and I canoed together when Henry was very young. Despite very challenging conditions, including capsizing, navigating logs through rapids and ducking under many branches, we all had smiles on our faces and felt that the blue heron that led us down the river may well have been Stan’s spirit guiding us along the way.

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From left to right, Jason, True, Sheryl, Henry and Ben, at the end of a lunch break.

There is a Jewish tradition that we say, May his memory be a blessing, after someone dies. I truly believe that Stan’s memory is and will continue to be a blessing and through the many memories of his kindness, his life will truly be eternal.

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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.

Fighting CAFOs & Hi-Cap wells

Last week, in my role as Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District, I attended a meeting of the Central Sands Water Action Coalition (CSWAC) Steering Committee, which was held in the barn at the Fresh for Life Organic farm in Central Wisconsin.

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CSWAC Chair Skip Hansen runs a meeting of the Steering Committee

CSWAC has been waging a battle to preserve Wisconsin’s precious groundwater for the past few years as huge corporate agri-business interests have pressured Wisconsin’s Governor and legislature to pass legislation allowing those concerns to drain Wisconsin’s groundwater through the use of high capacity wells. Sadly, despite overwhelming grassroots opposition to the legislation, and scientific concerns about how those wells drain Wisconsin’s aquifers and lower lake levels, the legislature passed SB 76 and the Governor signed the bill now known as 2017 Wisconsin Act 10, which among other things allows high capacity well permits to remain perpetually renewed even if a well goes bad or the land is sold.

Undaunted, CSWAC will continue to fight these water draining corporate activities, and is doing so in court. In addition, with its membership of nearly 70 lake and river associations, lake districts and conservation groups, representing over 50,000 members and their families, in a unanimous vote of the nearly 50 members of its steering committee present at last week’s meeting, CSWAC agreed to sign onto a moratorium of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) proposed by Sustain Rural Wisconsin.

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CAFO pictured on Sustain Rural Wisconsin’s website

The moratorium proposal states:

Wisconsin citizens’ right to clean water, clean air and a good quality of life is endangered by water pollution frequently caused by industrial agriculture. Wisconsin’s industrial animal factories generate more manure than crops can safely use as fertilizer leading to excess phosphorus and nitrate levels in the soil and groundwater. As a result, our local streams, lakes, and waterways are quickly becoming damaged beyond repair.

Therefore, we call upon Wisconsin to declare a temporary moratorium on the permitting and construction of new and expanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Before Wisconsin allows new construction or expansions of CAFO facilities, the state must provide a solution for our existing manure overload problem.  No facility should be allowed to pollute local waterways and groundwater without a set enforcement policy addressing the cleanup of contamination if a problem should arise.

Sustain Rural Wisconsin explains the rationale for this moratorium as follows:

Water Quantity – In certain areas of the state, primarily the Central Sands, lakes, streams and wells are drying up due to large-scale agriculture. A solid body of research shows that this loss of surface water is directly related to depletion of groundwater aquifers by high capacity wells. The depletion of groundwater not only impacts water loss but presents a public health risk as drinking water sources dry up and any pollutants such as nitrates and bacteria become more concentrated.

Phosphorus & Nitrate Overloading – Agricultural practices of CAFOs are a significant source of sediment and phosphorus in Wisconsin due to high erosion rates and high phosphorus levels in agricultural soils.  Croplands supply 76 % of the sediment and 65 % of the phosphorus load in Wisconsin runoff. Nitrate is the most widespread groundwater contaminant in Wisconsin and, on a statewide basis, about 90% of the nitrate detected in groundwater is from agricultural sources (fertilizer, manure, and legumes).  Phosphorus and nitrates contribute to algal blooms in rivers, streams, and lakes and have led to hypoxic areas (dead zones) in our estuaries, Great Lakes, and Oceans.

Human Health & Welfare – Industrial agriculture can emit toxins that cause a host of illnesses for neighbors and workers (asthma, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, burning eyes, other respiratory problems) and can cause mood problems (depression, confusion, fatigue, tension) for people living and working near factory farms. In addition, the overuse of antibiotics in CAFOs facilitates drug-resistant bacteria, which is a grave danger to people.

Economic Impacts – Counties with more CAFOs trend toward lower income growth, fewer business, and less commercial activity. In addition, property values can decrease near factory farms resulting in decreased property tax revenue to support local services such as road construction and maintenance, recycling, emergency medical services and police/fire protection.

I will bring this moratorium to the next meeting of the Goose Lake Watershed District to propose that we join the dozens of organizations and communities that have already signed onto it. You can ask your local unit of government or any other organization interested in preserving Wisconsin’s environment to join the CAFO moratorium by signing on here. Individuals can sign on here. After all, if we cannot preserve plentiful clean water for all of us to enjoy, what kind of future are we leaving for our children and grandchildren?

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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.

There is no Other

This morning, I was proud to join my Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, as President of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, at the public announcement of the formation of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition. Together with First Unitarian Society, Advent Lutheran Church ELCA, Community of Hope United Church of Christ, and Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ, with support from First Congregational United Church of Christ, First Baptist Church, James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation  and Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, our faith communities have joined together to provide sanctuary to immigrants and refugees who are under threat of deportation due to, “immoral immigration policies that threaten families, instill fear in our communities and violate the most basic ethical standards of our faith traditions,” as so eloquently stated by Rabbi Bonnie Margulis.

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When Kelly Crocker, Minister at the First Unitarian Society, with whom my synagogue shares space and thus joins us in offering sanctuary, gave her remarks, she offered a profound way of viewing the world.

There is no other, just a neighbor you haven’t met yet.

Her simple statement resonated with me as I stood behind her this morning. It is among many reasons why my synagogue joined this coalition and why we offer sanctuary in a public manner. We join together in order to build community, not destroy families and the communities in which they live.

Last week, the Dane Sanctuary Coalition wrote letters to local Mayors, the County Executive and law enforcement officials, to let them know that we are publicly offering sanctuary to immigrants and refugees under threat of deportation. We do so at some risk to ourselves and our faith communities. But we are willing to take that risk to help protect our vulnerable immigrant and refugee neighbors from oppression. After all, we are a nation of immigrants and virtually all of us are here because either we or one of our ancestors immigrated here.  We sincerely appreciate that Madison Police Chief Mike Koval responded by stating:

I am always appreciative when constituents step up to make Madison a more inclusive and accessible community for all.

In our congregation’s recent newsletter, which informed our community that our Board of Directors had voted to join the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, our Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman wrote:

As a Jewish community we are called to welcome the stranger and protect the oppressed. Out of a deep sense of social justice, we are responding to the urgent needs of Dane County’s immigrant communities, and we will stand with them in this act of solidarity.

Sanctuary can provide a deterrent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), thus giving the individual an opportunity to plead his or her case in court rather than being summarily deported. Providing sanctuary is a humanitarian act for an individual, as well as an opportunity to raise public awareness of deportations in our community. We are not hiding an individual; rather we are publicizing our action in the media and to ICE. This makes a powerful public statement that we will not stand idly by.

Offering sanctuary is a centuries old method which faith communities have offered to protect vulnerable people from oppression. I am thrilled that in my leadership role as President of my synagogue, we are now part of the growing New Sanctuary Movement which includes over 1,000 congregations nationwide offering sanctuary to immigrants and refugees under threat of deportation.

Providing sanctuary to people under threat of deportation will take a huge community effort, but I am confident that our faith communities will succeed in this effort and I look forward to the day when immigrants and refugees are welcomed in our nation and offering sanctuary is no longer necessary.

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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.

The Greatest War: Empathy vs. Selfishness

Without diminishing the horrific civil war in Syria or the many other violent conflicts around the world, I believe that the greatest war is being fought between those with empathy and those who are selfish. In our own country we see it playing out on many fronts:

  • Health Care: do we empathize with those who cannot afford it or selfishly insist that healthcare is solely a personal responsibility?
  • Homelessness: do we look the ever increasing number of homeless people in the eye and reach out a helping hand, or do we look away and encourage our policymakers to criminalize homelessness so we do not have to see it as we walk down our streets?
  • Education: do we take real steps to improve public education for our most marginalized students to close the achievement gap, or do we siphon public funds to private schools which largely benefit those who can already afford to send their children to such schools?
  • Civil Rights: do we acknowledge and remedy the real discrimination suffered by people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups or do we undo the progress made by over 50 years of civil rights legislation by failing to enforce those laws?
  • Income inequality: do we build an economy that allows everyone to enjoy the basic necessities of life, including food, housing and health care, or do we continue down an accelerating path of haves and have nots?

I have long theorized that most of these problems could be solved if more people empathized with those who struggle with one or more of these challenges. Yet, a recent study showed that an decreasing percentage of college students have empathy for others by dismissing their attachment to others.

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While this presents a challenge for the future in a world that appears increasingly selfish, the good news is that there are methods to increase empathy and many people are working to implement these methods. Roman Krznaric wrote: Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get it a few years ago. In it, he suggests the following methods for increasing empathy.

  1. Stop and listen-Research shows that in employee-employer disputes, if both sides agree to simply repeat what the other side just said before they start speaking themselves, conflict resolution is reached 50% faster.
  2. Ask a stranger (such as a restaurant worker) how their life is going-Barriers to empathy are stereotypes and prejudices we have about others, often due to unconscious judgements based on appearance or accent.  A good way to increase empathy for those whom you do not know is to have a genuine conversation with a stranger at least once a week. Since most of us interact with restaurant and other retail workers who are strangers to us, this is an easy place to start.
  3. Expand your horizons through books and films-As Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” While we cannot do this in a literal manner, Krznaric has established an Empathy Library to provide resources to those interested in teaching and expanding empathy.
  4. Bring empathy instruction into our schools-The word’s most effective program, Roots of Empathy, began in Canada and is spreading worldwide: over half a million children have done it.  The teacher is a baby who visits a class group regularly over a year. The children sit around the baby and discuss questions: What’s she thinking? What’s she feeling? It’s a stepping stone to developing their empathic imaginations. It works by increasing empathy levels, boosting cooperation, reducing school yard bullying and even increasing general academic achievement.

Some may consider this naive, as it is also the case that studies demonstrate that those in power, both in the workplace and by income, tend to be more selfish. One way to combat the ingrained selfishness of the rich and powerful is to demonstrate to them that over the long run, empathy for others will improve everyone’s lives, including their own. For example:

  • improving education for all will provide better workers to improve the economy for all;
  • expanding access to health care for everyone reduces the need for hospitals to provide free high cost charity care in their emergency rooms driving the cost of medical care up for everyone as someone has to pay for this care;
  • providing affordable housing and supportive services for the homeless does a better job of removing the visible scourge of homelessness from our streets over the long term than jail terms when we criminalize homelessness;
  • protecting the civil rights of marginalized groups and individuals helps those people feel welcome in our communities and less likely to commit acts of desperation;
  • reducing income inequality decreases the resentment of those in poverty against the wealthy and generates a healthier overall economy for all.

Increasing empathy starts at the individual level, so I encourage my readers to start today. Find a stranger, open a conversation, and increase your empathy. You will feel better for it and one step at a time, empathy can win the war over selfishness.

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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.

 

 

Picking Asparagus across the Political Divide

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center Survey, we are now living in the first time that majorities of both parties have very unfavorable views of the other party. Worse yet,

More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.

These fears of each other are leading to greater social polarization and distrust, making interactions across the political divide increasingly difficult. No wonder that Congress and state legislatures find it so challenging to forge a consensus on difficult political issues.

Every year, as my wife and I drive through Wisconsin’s countryside, we pass by a local small farm where the farmer sells delicious fresh asparagus. We have bought dozens of pounds (maybe hundreds!) over the past 20 years and enjoyed it thoroughly. Last year, however, we noticed that the asparagus farmer, who has always been very friendly to us, wore an NRA hat. As the Presidential election heated up, we also noticed that he posted a Trump/Pence sign in his yard.

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Readers of my blog should not be surprised that I abhor the policies of the NRA and the Trump/Pence administration. Indeed, I spend a great deal of time and energy working to combat the destructive policies supported by both of them. So, when asparagus season arrived, my wife and I had to ask ourselves whether we still felt comfortable buying asparagus from a supporter of politicians and a lobby organization whom we both abhor.

While we have not yet talked politics or gun rights with the asparagus farmer, we realized that our best chance of understanding where he comes from and possibly coming to a common understanding was to continue to buy asparagus from him. So, we continue to do so.

Please do not misunderstand. I have no problem with people who choose to boycott large corporate entities who take abhorrent political positions, treat their workers unfairly or do other destructive things. In fact, I participate in many of those boycotts. However, I see those corporate boycotts as vastly different from a person to person interaction of buying fresh asparagus from a small farmer. I am quite confident that if we stopped buying asparagus from him, he would not change his political views in any way. In fact, if we specifically told him that we would no longer buy asparagus  from him due to his political views, it would probably make him angry and embolden and harden his political positions.

So, last weekend we picked 9 pounds of delicious asparagus and had a lovely chat with the asparagus farmer and his son about how his crop was doing and his decision to start allowing customers to pick their own asparagus for half the price of the pre-picked asparagus. We will continue to pick and buy his asparagus and perhaps one day, at the right moment, we will have an opportunity to have an honest political conversation that does not degrade into hate and fear. These conversations need to be borne in trust and we can only gain that trust by engaging with people who disagree with us.

I will be sure to let my readers know how the conversation goes if and when we have that political conversation with the asparagus farmer. In the mean time, we will continue to build trust with someone whom we know disagrees with our views.

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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.

Small Class Sizes=Big Results

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education considers its budget for the coming year, some school board members are supporting an initiative to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools in kindergarten-third grade classrooms. This initiative is supported by at least 4 board members (Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz, Nicki VanderMeulen and Dean Loumos), but 2 board members (Mary Burke and Kate Toews) appear to need more research to demonstrate the benefits of small class sizes.

The STAR (Students-Teacher Achievement Ratio) project is a well-known study of a class size reduction program in Tennessee. The study was conducted with a controlled group of 10,000 students. Classes of 22 through 26 were reduced to 13 through 17 students. In addition, the schools in the study had an adequate number of quality teachers and adequate classroom space. The project found that smaller classes resulted in substantial increases in academic performance of children in primary grades, particularly for poor and minority children.

In the second phase of the Tennessee study, known as the Lasting Benefits Study, it was demonstrated that,

year after year, the students who were originally in smaller classes con- tinued to perform better than the students from regular-sized classes with or without a teacher’s aide.

This graphic shows that the lasting benefits of small class sizes for low income children extend all the way through significantly improved high school graduation rates.

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These results should not be surprising given the benefits of fewer students in a classroom such as:
  • Students receive more individualized attention and interact more with the teacher.
  • Teachers have more flexibility to use different instructional approaches.
  • Fewer students distract teach other than a large group of children.
  • Teachers have more time to teach due to fewer discipline problems.
  • Students are more likely to participate in class and become more involved.
  • Teachers have more time to cover additional material and use more supplementary texts and enrichment activities.

Improved high school graduation rates for low income students, students of color, and students with disabilities should be among MMSD’s top goals. A review of the district’s most recent report card shows that although the district on average meets state expectations, one of the district’s four main high schools (LaFollette) fails to meet state expectations and another (East) meets few expectations. Equally disturbing is the overall graduation rate disparity for children of color, low income children and children with disabilities as follows:

  • 93% of white students graduated compared to just under 58% of Black/African-American students, just under 70% of Hispanic/Latino students;
  • 94% of students who are not economically disadvantaged graduated, while only 62% of those who are economically disadvantaged did so;
  • Just under 92% of students without disabilities graduated, while just under 57% of students with disabilities did so.

Although MMSD has made some progress in closing these gaps, the remaining gaps are cavernous. The school board should consider closing these gaps of the utmost importance and the best evidence is that the most effective way to close these gaps is to reduce class sizes in high poverty elementary schools just as some board members have proposed. Hopefully, this important initiative will pass when it comes to a vote.

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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.