What’s the End Game?

As the United States government continues to abuse children in unprecedented fashion by ripping them out of their migrant parents’ arms, there is one question no one has addressed? What’s the end game?

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From Politico

As of May 2018, the United States government was holding nearly 11,000 migrant children in detention. The numbers are growing so rapidly that the administration is now holding nearly 1,500 of these children in a former Wal-Mart store in Brownsville, Texas, which is now the largest licensed shelter in the country. Even worse is the plan to house children in a tent city in Tornillo, Texas to hold an additional 450 children. Indeed, the the U.S. government has already proven it cannot handle the number of these children as it has lost track of nearly 1500 of them last year alone.

Although the administration claims that its practice of forcibly separating children from their parents is a deterrent to migration, that claim has no merit, because the numbers of families crossing the border continues to rise. There were over 50,000 arrests for illegal border crossings in May, which was the third month in a row that the number was so high. This is up 160% over May, 2017.

Since ripping children away from their parents and placing  them in tent cities has not proven to deter parents who are fleeing horrific condition from taking their chances to come to the United States, in addition to  demanding family unification, the Administration must be asked the following questions:

  1. How many children does the United States government have the capacity to detain?
  2. How long does it intend to detain migrant children?
  3. What services will it provide to detained children while they reside in U.S. detention centers?
  4. Is there any plan to ever reunite migrant children with their parents?

In addition to feeding and clothing these children, the Administration has probably forgotten that in 1982, the Supreme Court decided in a case called Plyler v. Doe that immigrant children have just as much of a right to an education as American children. As the high court said in this landmark decision.

“[B]y denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation. Such discrimination can hardly be considered rational.”

Even the dissent noted that,  “is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children—including [unauthorized immigrants]—of an elementary education.

Of course, the right to a public education includes the right of children with disabilities to special education. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), parents have a legal right to participate in the evaluation and education planning for their children with disabilities. How will the Administration comply with this provision when it is responsible for removing these children from their parents?

The most likely reason no one is discussing the end game of mass detention of children is that the United States government has rarely engaged in such horrific human rights abuses. Even the shameful detention of Japanese-Americans during World War 2 did not include separating children from their parents.

As all decent Americans work to end this horrific practice of mass child detention, advocates should ask these questions of both the Administration and their members of Congress. Perhaps after thinking just a little further down the road, the United States government will realize that it has started down a path with no good outcomes, and will begin to wind down and ultimately end its human rights abuse of these migrant children and their parents.

You can make these points by contacting the Administration and your members of Congress. You can also support the many groups fighting this horrific practice. Click here for a great article which includes links to many ways you can play a role to end this nightmare.

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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.

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The Persistence of the School to Prison Pipeline

Recently, a local reporter contacted me to comment on a case in which a 16-year-old African-American boy with disabilities, who was a sophomore at Madison West High School, and under Dane County Juvenile Court monitoring when he ran away from home. While he was gone, the student’s home detention court monitor in charge of checking up on his school attendance and behavior, asked West High’s dean of students to write a letter to the court about him. The letter characterized the student as a troublemaker who was a bad influence on other students.

As the front page story stated, the dean of students’ letter to the court opened with the following statement, “I write because I think (the student’s) transfer here from (a suburban high school) has ultimately not been good for him and frankly not good for West.” Despite this statement, the boy had not been expelled. The boy’s mother believes that letter resulted in her son being ordered to remain in juvenile detention for another 3 weeks.

As if the dean of students’ letter did not cause enough harm to the boy, according to the newspaper report, “the court commissioner decided to extend the student’s detention, referencing “impulsiveness” described in his individualized education plan (IEP) and the need to come up with a plan to address it.”

I did not represent this student, but due to my background in school discipline and special education matter, the reporter contacted me, and as she reported, I told her that I had never heard of an IEP being used in court to detain a student. I went on to say that this scenario:

is a direct example of the “school to prison pipeline,” the idea that students — particularly children of color and students with disabilities — are pushed out of school into the criminal justice system due to discriminatory discipline practices, lack of resources to support students with special needs, police in schools and other methods.

“In (this example) you’ve got an administrator contacting the juvenile justice authorities about what’s going on in school, and you’ve got an IEP being used against a child.

“You see that children of color and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the school to prison pipeline… It is disturbing that we even have such a thing in our society. Schools should be designed not to end up incarcerating children but to educate them.”

The question, of course, is why the school to prison pipeline continues to persist. Many advocates have been fighting against it and while some reductions in suspensions rates have occurred, the trend lines in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest school district are troubling.

In the 2015-16 school year (the most recent data available), Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) suspended:

  • 10,267 students or 13.6% of all its students up from 10.6% the year before;
  • 8,227 African-American students or 20.3% of those students;
  • 436 White students or 4.4% of those students;
  • 3,044 students with disabilities or 19.7% of those students;
  • 7,223 students without disabilities or 12% of those students.

Thus, a disproportionately high number of MPS suspensions are of African-American students and students with disabilities.

Racine, which is the 5th largest school district in Wisconsin, had the second highest number of suspensions in Wisconsin that year. That school district suspended:

  • 2,151 students or 11.2% of all its students up from 9.5% the year before;
  • 1,292 African-American students or 25.5% of those students;
  • 395 White students or 5% of those students; and
  • for reasons that are unclear, Racine has not reported the number of its suspended students who have disabilities.

Despite lacking the disability information, the Racine data reveals the troubling trend of racial disproportionality in school discipline.

As this ACLU infographic shows, this is not an isolated problem, as the national data on the school to prison pipeline continues to persist.

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In the Madison case, the newspaper report concluded with a bit of good news. The dean of students who wrote the damning letter to the court conceded that:

“As an educator, I need to be an advocate for our students, and in this instance, I fell short. There isn’t any excuse for that, and I recognize the negative impact it had on this young person’s life,” she said. “I am learning from it, and I am committed to supporting and serving all students going forward.”

Moreover, the boy has since left West and enrolled in an alternative program in the district. Although his mother said she will have trouble ever trusting the district again, she told the reporter that her son is already doing better in the new environment.

“He really likes it,” she said.

When I sent a friend the article in which I am quoted, he noted the good news at the end of the article, but then he went on to say,

“Maybe this is the heart of things. Instead of focusing on a student’s needs for a smaller alternative program to further his education, it got framed as needing to protect the school from a dangerous student. In the name of “school safety,” we’re willing to harm individual kids-disproportionately kids of color and with disabilities. I think this is how Madison does racism. We never use the language of it but the impacts are just as bad.

While the persistence of the school to prison pipeline may have many reasons, one common theme is the persistence of racism and discrimination against students with disabilities. Until we tackle those issues, improved policies alone will not solve the problem.

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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.

Giving a Boost

I recently returned from a 5 day canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota, accompanied by my 21 year old son, Josh, and two good friends closer to my age, Bill Caplan and Marc Rosenthal. We had a wonderful trip, with great weather, outstanding natural beauty, and the joy of being on the water and off the grid.

It had been over 10 years since I had gone camping with my son, and during that time, not only has Josh grown into a young adult, but he had many summers of camping experience courtesy of attending Camp Nebagamon, which features a lot of camping and trains the campers in all the skills they need to survive in the wilderness. While I have a lot of camping experience, I never received the type of camping skills training that Josh received, so many of my skills are self-taught and not always executed with the highest degree of efficiency.

During any wilderness camping trip, there are many tasks that need to be accomplished, including map reading, setting up tents, cooking camp meals, and in the Boundary Waters, if you want to keep your food, you need to hang it on a high tree overnight, or you risk black bears stealing your food.

Hanging your food pack is usually a two person job, and involves filling a bag with small rocks which is connected to the rope that you will later use to lift the pack up in the air. Bill had a system that also included a couple of carabiners that function as a block and tackle to make raising the pack easier.

Since Josh and I have strong personalities, we often disagree about the best approach to particular problems, but we usually figure out a way to work together if we need to do so to accomplish a task. On the last night of our trip, while Bill was cooking dinner, Josh and I worked on getting the ropes over the tree limb so we could raise the food pack after dinner. It often takes a few throws to get the rope over the desired limb, but in this particular instance, Josh had incredibly bad luck as the carabiner caught on a small stick protruding from the top of the limb so the rope would not fall over the other side. That rope was now stuck on a limb about 20 feet high.

After Josh found it impossible to simply pull that rope down, he realized that he could tie another rope to the rope that was stuck, attach a rock to the other end, and then throw the second rope over the limb and pull the stuck rope over the side. After a few failed attempts to get that second rope over the limb, Josh finally got it over an even higher limb, but the momentum of the throw forced the end with the rock to wind around the limb 3 or 4 times. So, now there were 2 stuck ropes and we faced the possibility of being unable to hang our food pack.

Josh and I are both problem solvers, so we kept looking at the tree and the limbs, trying to devise solutions to the problem we had. Josh thought he could use another rope to create a ladder so he could climb the tree, but that did not work.

I told Josh that I thought I could give him a boost to a lower limb and then he could climb close enough to the stuck ropes and use a long stick to free them. Josh was skeptical that I was strong enough to boost him that high and that he would be able to climb high enough to free the ropes. He and I went back and forth and perhaps because we are father and son, we remained stuck in limbo.

Of course, Marc and Bill were watching with a combined sense of amusement and frustration. Finally Marc suggested to Josh that I was strong enough to boost him up to the lower limb and that my suggested method to solve the problem would work. Thankfully, at Marc’s suggestion, Josh decided to allow me to give him a boost. As you can see, I was strong enough to boost him, and he was able to climb high enough to free the ropes with a long stick.

We live in a world where we regularly debate whether it is helpful to give people a boost or whether it is better to force people to succeed or fail on their own. While it is perfectly fine for people to succeed on their own when they can, the truth is that we live in a world which presents us with challenges on a daily basis. None of us can manage every one of those challenges on our own. When I can give someone else a boost, I am glad to help them succeed. When I need a boost, I do my best to graciously accept the offer of help. When we work together, we can accomplish far more than when we are forced to act alone.

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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.

Keep Your Hips Loose

Many years ago, a dear friend invited me to join him and and few other friends for a unique bachelor’s party before he got married. Rather than throw a party, he proposed that we enroll in a whitewater canoeing class at the Nanthala Outdoor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. It sounded like a lot of fun and a great way to improve my canoeing skills, so I gladly agreed.

On the first day, our instructors brought us to a flat water lake to orient us to the basics of whitewater canoeing. Although I had spent years canoeing on lakes, I had minimal experience canoeing in rapids, and the first thing I found out was that lake canoes and whitewater canoes are constructed in a very different manner.

Before we stepped into our whitewater canoes, our instructors taught us that every canoe has both primary stability and secondary stability. Those big aluminum canoes that many take out on lakes have excellent primary stability, which means that they feel very stable when you step into them, but they have very poor secondary stability, which means that they will easily capsize if they try to run rapids. On the other hand, whitewater canoes have very poor primary stability, but excellent secondary stability, which means they feel very tippy when you step into them, but have a much better ability to stay upright in rough water.

I discovered how little primary stability whitewater canoes have as soon as I stepped into the canoe for the first time on flat water, as I was so unprepared for how tippy it would be that I immediately flipped the boat and fell in the water. While I was somewhat embarrassed, I learned an important lesson that kept me upright through for the rest of our trip, including our “final exam” which involved paddling through an Olympic training course in very rough water. The lesson my instructors gave me after my early flop was to keep my hips loose.

I certainly took that seriously during the rest of our whitewater canoeing school and visualized my hips as shock absorbers. Instead of fighting rough water, I would absorb the shock with my loose hips, allowing me to remain upright.

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In the absence of any whitewater canoeing photos, here is a photo of me in Lake Superior Provincial Park in a sea kayak on a very calm day. During other days on that trip, keeping my hips loose helped me navigate rougher waters.

While I continue to enjoy canoeing and usually avoid capsizing by keeping my hips loose, I have realized that this lesson applies to many other situations. Whether in our personal lives or in the rocky political world we live in, we often confront situations that pose many challenges and threaten to capsize us. If we expand the concept of physically keeping our hips loose to a mental ability to stay flexible when we encounter difficulties, we have a much better chance of staying upright and finding a better approach to dealing with whatever dilemma we are facing, than if we remain rigid in the hope that our inflexibility will appear to be a sign of strength.

I am not suggesting that we do not need to be strong in the face of life’s challenges. Rather, my suggestion is that our greatest strength may be found in a flexible approach which allows us to utilize creative solutions to whatever challenge we may face. Keeping one’s mind and body flexible may allow us to better understand where our adversary is coming from and respond in a manner that may result in a win-win solution rather than remaining stuck in a win-lose scenario which so many of our leaders try to convince us is the only possible outcome available. The risk, or course, with pursuing inflexible win-lose strategies is that they often end up with both sides.

We can see the results of this I win-you lose mentality playing out in Congress and the current President’s administration, with both sides generally unable to find room for compromise resulting in persistent stalemates dotted with occasional unilateral actions that opponents scream about with outrage. Where this all goes from here is hard to predict, but it is my great hope that if more of us keep our hips loose and minds flexible, we will survive our current challenges and progress to better days ahead when difficult problems are solved in a way that serves most people, instead of just a few.

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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.

 

5 Million Children

Yesterday, I joined over 400 people who attended Madison Urban Ministry‘s (MUM) Partner’s for Change luncheon, to celebrate all that MUM has accomplished to bring justice to our community, including:

community-based solutions (that) invest in residence, employment, support, transportation and education that reduce recidivism and reconnect returning prisoners with their families and neighborhoods. Since 2006, the two-year recidivism rate (return to prison for either a new crime or a violation of supervision rules) for MUM re-entry services participants is between 5-14% compared to a statewide recidivism rate of 67%.

University of Wisconsin Prof. Julie Poehlmann-Tynan was the keynote speaker at the luncheon. Her focus is on the impact of mass incarceration on children. I have had the good fortune to get to know her previously, and to speak about the school to prison pipeline to her students. With over 2 million Americans in jail or prison, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world. Remarkably, the U.S. even incarcerates more people than China, despite China’s reputation as a repressive regime and its much larger population than the U.S.

What Prof. Poehlmann-Tynan revealed was that incarcerating so many people has a traumatizing and long lasting impact on our nation’s children, including:

developing negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, including substance abuse, externalizing problems, cognitive delays, school failure, truancy, criminal activity, and persistent internalizing problems.

She informed us that:

  • 5 million American children have an incarcerated parent.

This equals 1 in 14 American children. Of course, since our nation has incarcerates a much higher rate of African-American and poor Americans, this also has a disparate impact on poor and African-American children. Prof. Poehlmann-Tynan informed us that:

  • 1 in 8 poor American children have an incarcerated parent; and
  • 1 in 9 African-American children have an incarcerated parent.

These numbers are shocking, and have both a current and long range impact on how children with incarcerated parents learn and develop into adults. While there are more alarming statistics about the impact of these absurdly high incarceration rates, a systems change approach requires examining solutions to stem the tide of mass incarceration.

Fortunately, there are rays of hope. Last week, Philadelphia announced its intentions to close its notorious 91 year old House of Corrections by 2020 due to reforms initiated 2 years ago. For those concerned about safety, it is notable that these reforms have already dropped Philadelphia’s jail population by 33% without causing an increase in crime.

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The reforms instituted in Philadelphia include:

  • Defense attorneys working harder to get defendants released quickly with no bail or low bail, typically without opposition from prosecutors, and support from the city’s judges who are releasing them.
  • Philadelphia police taking more defendants to treatment rather than jail.
  • More petitions for early parole from longer sentences are being granted.
  • More space is now available in the city’s six jails for rehabilitation programs, and less overtime pay is needed for jail guards.

As Philadelphia’s Mayor Jim Kenney said:

The system didn’t work. It didn’t have outcomes that were acceptable. We had a revolving door. Rather than holistically treating people, we’d just lock them up, they’d do their time and then they’d be right back. It’s difficult to take care of your kids, or your parents, if you’re not there.

Kenney attributes two new approaches for making this progress.

  • Early bail review for people still in jail after five days with bonds of $50,000 or less. Kenney said 84 percent of those reviewed were released within five days, and more than 92 percent had shown up for their subsequent hearings; and
  • Police diverting drug-related offenders to treatment clinics, and since December “no one who’s been in the program has been rearrested,” Kenney said.

The city’s chief public defender, Keir Bradford-Grey, told the Washington Post that getting a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation “brought all of us together to really examine what’s going on in our system.” She went on  to report that:

One thing the city’s defender system launched was to place lawyers at police district stations to represent clients immediately after an arrest during their first appearance before a bail commissioner. The lawyers are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have handled more than 1,400 cases in the past two years. “Now that we’re able to give judges much better information,” she said, “they have found it very useful when they make decisions. Usually they have no more information than the current charges and the criminal history.” But with more context about the defendant’s past, living arrangement and employment, “people are more likely to be released without a cash bond or with more affordable bond amounts.”

Another key player is Philadelphia’s newly elected district attorney, Larry Krasner, who announced in February, that:

his office would no longer ask for cash bail for low-level offenses, which he said made the system “fairer for the poor and for people of color.”

Prior to becoming Philadelphia’s DA, Krasner was a long-time civil rights and criminal defense attorney. As he said in a news release,

There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a flight risk, and is no threat to their neighbors and community, needs to sit in jail for days because they can’t post a small amount of bail. It’s simply not fair. We don’t imprison the poor for poverty. This new cash bail policy will not only save the taxpayers money by allowing low-level defendants to maintain their freedom, but it will begin to level the economic and racial playing field in our courtrooms.

While Philadelphia’s progress is laudable, the rest of the nation must follow if it is going to solve its mass incarceration problem which is exacerbating  racial and income disparities at a generational level. To replicate Philadelphia’s success requires systems change. As Laurie R. Garduque, director of justice reform for the MacArthur Foundation, told the Washington Post:

Often the problem is we don’t look at it as systems reform. We look at it as one decision-maker at a time, and you don’t get buy-in from somebody. When everyone buys in and the system begins to respond more thoughtfully, there’s more public confidence and legitimacy, and families and communities are all better off.

With help from organizations like MUM, we can make progress in this area. But voters will also need to elect leaders who are committed to the types of reforms Philadelphia is making because non-profits do not get to decide who gets incarcerated and who is released into society.

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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.

Frustration is not a Plan

Last night, I returned home from Washington DC after spending four days at J Street’s 10th Annual ConferenceAs Chair of J Street’s Madison Chapter, I have attended many of these conferences as well as a number of Leadership Summits. I always learn a lot about the never ending efforts of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and many others to achieve a peaceful and just resolution to decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. However, this year, I almost did not attend the conference. My frustration level with American, Israeli and Palestinian political leaders is so high that I truly wondered whether it would be worth it to attend the conference this year.

J Street has wisely invested heavily in subsidizing college students from its J Street U arm and this year was no exception, as 1200 students attended the conference. One of those students was my son, Josh, who after attending college for two years in Israel, at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), transferred to the University of Minnesota last fall. His decision to attend his first J Street conference was the deciding factor for me to attend this year’s conference.

Yet, despite looking forward to seeing my son, and showing him around the nation’s capital, I remained skeptical about whether my presence at the conference, would help in some small way, resolve the generations old stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. Despite my frustration, however, I looked forward to hearing what the many speakers had to say, and hoped to find some inspiration.

Indeed, there were many great speakers, including U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Ben Cardin and Brian Schatz, NGO leaders, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Husan Zomlot, and at least five Ministers from Israel’s Knesset (known as MKs). One particular MK helped me shift my thinking. On Sunday, J Street leaders were invited to a unique opportunity to eat lunch with all the MKs at the conference. MK Michal Rozin from the progressive Meretz party has done a lot of great work including leading the charge to stop the deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel. When she spoke, she understood our frustration, but then said:

“To be frustrated is not a plan.”

She then went on to say that we each have a choice when confronting the winds of change. We can either be the windmill or the windbreaker. Of course, our choice may depend on which way the winds are blowing, but if we do not want to simply get blown over by those winds, we must cast aside our frustration and decide whether to be the windmill or the windbreaker.

Sure enough, this opportunity presented itself during J Street’s Advocacy Day, when thousands of us, including my son and I, met with our members of Congress to encourage them to take concrete steps towards a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. J Street asked me to be Wisconsin’s Team Leader and on Monday, I reviewed our talking points and schedule with our team. However, we noticed that we did not have a meeting scheduled with Rep. Ron Kind, who is from LaCrosse. I have met with Rep. Kind in the past and we were all disappointed that we were not scheduled to meet with him on this trip.

However, one of our team members, Kent Johnson, a Lutheran Pastor from LaCrosse, said he knew Rep. Kind personally, and asked if it was ok if he tried to set up a meeting with him, and we encouraged him to do so. Later that day, he informed us that although Rep. Kind was very busy, we could meet with his staff and Rep. Kind would join our meeting briefly to say hello.

What we did not know until we arrived at his office, was that Rep. Kind was at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, and along with other members of that committee, he was questioning the Secretary of Labor. We started going over our talking points with his staffer, and then his staffer instructed us to follow him to the hearing room as Rep. Kind wanted to meet with us and would step out of the hearing to do so after he was done with his questioning.

Although I have met with Members of Congress hundreds of times over my 33 year career, I have never been in this situation. Rep. Kind’s staffer instructed us to take a seat and watch the hearing until Rep. Kind finished his questioning, and then led us out into the hallway. When Rep. Kind joined us, I truly expected that he would simply give us a courteous handshake and hello and then return to the important business of his hearing. But instead, he gave us all the time we needed to cover all of our talking points and engaged us with serious questions. Indeed, at the end of our meeting, he had his staffer take our picture with him.

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L-R: Me, Kent Johnson, Rep. Ron Kind, Josh Spitzer-Resnick, Ben Gellman

As MK Rozin said so eloquently, frustration is not a plan. My son helped me get over my frustration with the seemingly intractable dispute between Israelis and Palestinians so I could accept my role as State Team Leader during our Congressional meetings. Kent Johnson refused to allow our frustration with not having a meeting with his Congressman without pursuing it further, and in the end, we had a productive meeting that none of us will ever forget.

While frustration is certainly a legitimate and regularly felt emotion of those of us who want to improve the world, frustration is not a plan. Rather, systems change requires getting past one’s frustration to become the windmill for positive change and the windbreaker against destructive change.

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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.

 

 

Learning Patience…again

For much of my life, patience was not my strong suit. I often reacted too quickly on both a personal and professional level. This lack of patience often interfered with what I was trying to accomplish. Indeed, impatience kept my stress level at a higher level than was physically and emotionally healthy. One sign of that stress manifested itself in chronic migraines.

While I have done many things to manage my migraines, meditating every morning has not only reduced both the frequency and intensity of my headaches. Daily meditation also provided the added bonus of giving me tools to increase my patience. However, old habits die hard, and recently I discovered that learning patience is a life long venture.

We are fortunate to own some vacation property on a small lake in Central Wisconsin. Each spring we look forward to putting our pier out when the ice on the lake melts. About 2 weeks ago, although the lake had not completely melted, there was plenty of open water off our shoreline, so I decided to put my waders on, and put the pier in.

Once I put the pier in the water, I brought my canoe down to the lake, so I could enjoy an early spring paddle, during which I could explore the remaining ice on the lake.

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Then, the wind shifted, and the ice sheet started approaching the pier. Within minutes, the ice sheet was slamming against the pier and into our shoreline, knocking the chairs into the water.

 

I used the rake I keep by the water to break up the ice that was pushing against the pier so it would not bend its legs. Needless to say, I did not go canoeing that afternoon. In fact, it was a good thing I did not take the canoe out before the ice sheet started moving, as if I had, it may have capsized my canoe. Even if I had avoided that problem in very cold water, I would not have been able to paddle back to my shoreline as I would have been trapped by the ice.

Last weekend, we returned to Goose Lake, and virtually all of the ice had melted off the lake. I put my waders back on to straighten out the pier. This time I was able to go canoeing, and explore the small amount of ice left on the lake.

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For those of us who live through cold winters, we are often anxious for spring to arrive. This year, it has taken a long time, as snow has fallen in April. The lesson, of course, is that there are many things, including the weather, that we cannot control and we need to exercise patience to avoid unnecessary problems.

Patience is the skill which allows us to delay gratification until the conditions are ripe for whatever we are hoping to accomplish. This applies to systems change as well as the weather.

Living in Wisconsin has been frustrating for progressives for the past 8 years. Protests and recalls did not transform the political environment in the way many of us had hoped. However, rather than giving up, those of us who refuse to accept how political leaders have destroyed so many progressive institutions, stay patient and keep pursuing different avenues to turn the tide.

Recent elections suggest the tide may indeed be turning, but when it does, we will still need to exercise patience as reversing 8 years of regressive politics will take time and a systemic approach. With the help of recently energized young people and a huge increase in politically active women, those of us who refuse to be beaten down can use our patient approach to methodically and systemically make our communities better places for all.

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

Empowering Voters

It is sad to watch so many politicians try to disenfranchise voters. Until today, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was doing his best to avoid calling special elections to fill two legislative seats which became vacant when he appointed those legislators to state jobs. Despite a clear obligation to call special elections for both seats months ago, he only did so after 3 judges, including one on the Court of Appeals ordered him to call the special election by Noon today. Indeed, yesterday Court of Appeals Judge Paul F. Reilly issued a harsh decision in which he stated:

Representative government and the election of our representatives are never ‘unnecessary,’ never a ‘waste of taxpayer resources,’ and the calling of the special elections are as the Governor acknowledges, his ‘obligation’ to follow.

While this should have been obvious to Governor Walker, his initial refusal to call a special election fits with his strategy to disempower voters by making voting more difficult, including reducing the time for early voting, and requiring voter ID at the polls. Curiously, however, Wisconsin still continues to make voting easier by allowing for same day voter registration at the polls. Less well known is a statutory requirement which requires City Clerks to send Special Voting Deputies to assisted living facilities to help residents cast absentee ballots before each election so they do not have to go to the polls.

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In 2012, I decided to become an election official and work at the polls, upon learning that the best way to empower voters is to make sure that qualified people work at the polls to ensure that all eligible voters who come to vote, are able to vote. This year, I agreed to become a Special Voting Deputy, and I am glad to report that in doing so, along with all the other people who join me in doing this work, we are empowering many people who would not be able to get to the polls, or even fill out an absentee ballot on their own, to cast their vote.

I have now helped voters in a variety of assisted living facilities. Some residents were quite mobile and came to the room where we set up an impromptu voting station and needed very little assistance. However, many residents were unable to read the ballot, so we read it to them. Others were too frail to fill in the ballot themselves, so we did so for them.

Some readers may wonder about the possibility of voter fraud when some of these voters need this extra assistance. However, we have a variety of protective procedures in place to make sure that cannot happen. We always have two Special Voting Deputies with the ballots and with each voter. If we read the ballot to the voter or fill it ballot in, we must sign the ballot stating that we did so. We also count all ballot multiple times to make sure that no ballots are missing. In addition, all Special Voting Deputies are trained by the City Clerk’s office before each election.

Perhaps the most challenging question is whether some of these voters are competent to vote. However, unless a voter has had his or her right to vote removed by a judge who found them incompetent to vote, these assisted living facility resident voters have the same right to vote as anyone else. Since we do not give competency tests to any other voters, why should we give them to those who happen to need extra care in an assisted living facility?

Sometimes, however, these voters will decline to vote because they do not feel they know enough to cast their ballot in a way that makes them feel comfortable. For this reason, we go to each facility twice, as some voters just need a little extra time to study the candidates and questions on the ballot. Yet, even on the second visit, some people choose not to vote. But if they do so, it will be their choice, not because some politicians disempowered them.

Many of these voters are elderly and have proudly voted in every single election since they became eligible to vote. For some of them, the possibility that they might not vote in an election is truly daunting, which is why we provide this extra assistance. We also remind them that they can choose not to vote in some races that they may not know enough about, just like any other voter.

My work as a Special Voting Deputy reminds me that when a democracy wants to empower voters, it knows how to do so. My hope is that we will elect more legislators who understand that democracy is best served when we empower everyone who is eligible to cast a vote, to do so.

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

Doing the Right Thing

Twenty-six years ago I was fired from my job as Wisconsin’s first legal counsel to the Board on Aging and Long Term Care for blowing the whistle on the Executive Director, who was a high functioning alcoholic, but had previously succeeded in insulating himself from evaluation by the Board. After lobbying Congress to require that state long-term care ombudsman programs have legal counsel, I successfully obtained what had appeared to be a dream job, advocating for people living in institutions and receiving long term care, by providing legal counsel to a great team of ombudsmen, and representing victims of abuse and neglect. Little did I know that my dream job would only last nine months.

Before I took the job, I knew the Executive Director. He was very friendly, but had a reputation of being somewhat lazy. Since I am a very independent worker, I did not think it would bother me to have a lazy supervisor. Indeed, my first few months were highly productive. However, staff started approaching me with concerns, and I soon realized that the director’s apparent laziness, which included often not showing up for critical hearings or meetings, was really a symptom of serious alcoholism. It became apparent that the director frequently lied about his whereabouts to cover for his drinking.

Since I was legal counsel to the agency, I sought advice from the State Department of Justice, and on their advice, I proceeded to gather first person evaluations from staff to provide to the Board, whom I discovered had never evaluated the director. I knew I was taking a risk, but I simply could not stand idly by while the director’s alcoholism degraded this state agency, resulting in inadequate protection for the people in institutions and those receiving long-term care, whom we were statutorily required to serve.

After completing my investigation, I provided all the first person information I had obtained to the Board, and then I waited. All of a sudden, a veil of silence dropped down and the Board no longer communicated with me. Fortunately, to protect myself, I retained my own legal counsel and filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Personnel Commission in case of retaliation.

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At this point, the Board had one of its regular meetings over the weekend, and since staff were prohibited from meeting with the Board without the director’s permission (one of his self-protective maneuvers), I went into the office on Monday not knowing what might happen. The director  rarely called staff meetings, but he called staff in to tell us that he had tendered his resignation to the Board. However, the director told us that the Board refused to accept his resignation, conditional on his going into rehab. I vividly remember putting my hand on his hand and telling him that I knew this must be very difficult for him, and that I would be glad to do whatever he needed to help manage the agency while he was in rehab.

The week proceeded and the director did not announce when he was going into rehab. Nor did he tell any staff how the agency would operate in his absence. However, on Friday, he asked me to write a memo to him summarizing my cases (something he had not previously done), then he called me into his office and fired me.

It did not take long for me to obtain what was the largest whistleblower settlement in Wisconsin history, but that was small compensation for losing what I thought was going to be a dream job. Fortunately, this firing did not derail my career, and I am proud of what I have accomplished since that time.

Why am I writing about this ancient history today? One of the consequences of living in a small city, is that I regularly bump into people I know in public places. This morning, while doing some grocery shopping, I saw the man who fired me 26 years ago. We made eye contact, said nothing to each other, and proceeded to continue our shopping. This is not the first time I have seen him since he fired me, and each time I see him, I wonder if he will ever have the courage to thank me for saving his life, as he did go into rehab after firing me, and I believe he has stopped drinking. Of course, I also wonder if he will ever have the courage to apologize for firing me. However, just like the handful of other times I have seen him in public, he said nothing.

So, the awkward moment passed, and I must simply take comfort in knowing that I did the right thing and that is all the thanks I will ever receive. He must live with his own behavior. I remain proud of my own. Due to my personal experience, I have a great deal of respect for all the brave whistleblowers out there who risk their careers and livelihood when they expose a superior’s malfeasance. Most will never receive thanks for their important work, so like me, I hope they are able to remain proud of the good work they have done.

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

Zoning Out Gun Sales

While Congress spins its wheels accomplishing nothing to stem the control of gun violence in our nation, some states are taking quick action to regulate the sale and possession of guns. Since the Parkland massacre:

  • Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island to sign an executive order to establish a policy to take guns away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.
  • Oregon’s House passed a bill making it illegal for people convicted of domestic violence or those with restraining orders against them to possess weapons, even if they are not married to, do not live with, or do not have children with their victims. The State Senate is expected to pass the bill and the Governor has promised to sign it.
  • Other states, including Florida, Vermont, Washington, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, South Dakota, and Texas are actively considering gun control legislation.

Today, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would stop selling assault style rifles and would halt all gun sales to those below age 21. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and a major seller of firearms, announced it would stop selling the military-style semiautomatic weapons in August 2015.

Yet, given Congress’ inaction, the failure of most states to enact strong gun control laws, and purely voluntary measures by retailers, gun control advocates should also consider engaging their local communities to zone out gun sales. Indeed, that is exactly what Madison, Wisconsin has done for many years regarding handgun sales.

Madison Ordinance Chapter 28.151 applies the following zoning restrictions to handgun shops:

(b) No handgunshop shall be located within one thousand (1000) feet of any church, synagogue, temple, mosque or other place of worship; a lot in a residence district, either in the City of Madison or in a municipality adjacent to the City of Madison; a Planned Mobile Home Park District, Planned Development District with dwelling units; a public or private playground; a day care center; a public library, a youth recreation area, including little league baseball fields, soccer fields or YMCA/YWCA.

(c) No handgunshop shall be located in the same building where alcohol beverages are sold.

(d) No handgunshop shall be located in the same building where any patron thereof under the age of eighteen (18) years may enter, unless accompanied by a parent, guardian or adult spouse eighteen (18) years of age or over.

This well crafted ordinance steers clear of an outright ban on handgun shops to avoid a Second Amendment challenge, but it effectively bans them by applying reasonable zoning regulations to make it nearly impossible to locate a handgun shop in Madison. Indeed, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart do not sell handguns in Madison due to this zoning regulation.

For some perspective on the number of gun shops in the United States, consider the following data:

Since Congress members’ thoughts and prayers will fail to save a single life, and many states will fail to enact reasonable gun control legislation, gun control advocates across the nation should apply pressure to their city councils and mayors to enact and strengthen zoning ordinances to effectively control the sale of guns in their city limits. While the NRA will surely fight such efforts, requiring it to spread its efforts at federal, state and local levels will diminish the NRA’s effectiveness and finally allow gun control advocates to gain the upper hand.

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