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.

Mentoring Isaiah

At the beginning of this past school year, I volunteered to tutor a student at a nearby elementary school through a program established by Madison’s 3 synagogues. On my first day, the school’s learning coordinator introduced me to a smiling 5th grader, Isaiah. She also asked me if I would agree to tutor a second child, who was in the 3rd grade, so I could maintain my relationship for a few years since Isaiah would move on to middle school next year. I agreed to an arrangement in which I tutored Isaiah for a half an hour once a week, and immediately tutored a 3rd grader, afterwards.

Both students were smiling, friendly, cooperative and eager to learn. However, both were significantly behind their peers in math, so that is the subject in which I tutored them.

After a few weeks of tutoring, it became clear to me that Isaiah had significant math challenges that my tutoring alone was not helping. I notified the school’s learning coordinator, and his teacher e-mailed me to thank me for my concern.

By November, I still saw no progress in Isaiah’s math skills, and I grew increasingly concerned that if he did not receive additional specialized instruction, he would face increasing academic barriers as he moved forward in his education. One day that month, I opened the folder the 3rd grader brought to me and noticed that his folder did not contain a new assignment and only contained the assignment he had completed with me the week before. I did not want to interrupt his teacher during class, so I simply made up some math work for that session.

However, I e-mailed the learning coordinator expressing once again my concern that Isaiah needed further evaluation to find out why he struggled so much in math. I also requested that the third grader’s teacher make sure that she always gave me work to do with him in the future. Little did I know that these simple requests would end my brief tutoring career.

Isaiah’s teacher e-mailed me to tell me that since I was clearly frustrated, perhaps I should stop tutoring him. I responded by telling her that I was fine, but I was concerned for Isaiah’s academic career. Fortunately, she decided to call me and during our conversation, she and I agreed that if Isaiah’s mother agreed, perhaps it would be better if I evolved my relationship with Isaiah into that of an after-school mentor. His teacher agreed to ask his mother, and his mother agreed.

Sadly, the third grader’s teacher took great offense at my simple request and rather than simply acknowledge her oversight, she ended my tutoring relationship with him. I contacted the principal who agreed to let me meet with with the third grader in the office to say good-bye to him. I hope he gets the help he needs from someone else.

Yesterday, Isaiah completed 5th grade and there was a lovely graduation ceremony that his mother and I both attended. The week before, Isaiah had been very concerned that he look good at graduation, and he showed me his unlaced shoes that were a size to small, and wondered if we could go shoe shopping so he would have nice shoes that fit him during graduation. While I regularly take Isaiah out for a meal and often take him to the movies, sign him up to play on a basketball team, have fun playing laser tag or at the trampoline gym, buying a new pair of shoes felt like something I should share with his mother. So, after he found a reasonably priced pair of shoes he liked, I told him that I would contact his mother to see if she would be willing to split the cost. After shoe shopping we went to Rockin’ Jump the local trampoline gym, which he loves.

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Over the weekend, Isaiah called me to see if he could help me in my garden. Gardening at his neighbors’ homes is something he has done to earn money in the past and although I was willing to have him do some gardening for me, I was out of town last weekend so that was not feasible. Since I had not heard back from his mother about splitting the cost of his new shoes, I contacted her to see if she would prefer if Isaiah earned half the cost of the shoes by gardening for me, and she thought that was an “awesome” idea.

Normally, I mentor Isaiah once a week, but since Isaiah needed the new shoes before graduation, and we had already agreed that after attending graduation, I would take him to see a movie to celebrate, I agreed to pick him up after school on Tuesday so we could buy the shoes. Afterwards, he came back to my house to do some weeding in my yard.

After graduation, the kids and their parents were invited to a reception in the school cafeteria to enjoy cake and lemonade. When Isaiah was ready to go, I suggested that he say good-bye to his teacher, so we both approached her. She gave us both hugs and whispered to me, “Please stick with him.” I promised her that I planned to do so.

Earlier in the year, I asked Isaiah what he planned to do over the summer. He responded with a smile and said, “spend more time with you.” As my mentoring is not organized by anyone other than me, Isaiah, and his mother, we will evolve our relationship in a way that makes sense for all 3 of us. He will attend summer school to hopefully get the math help that he needs and I will continue to take him for meals and other fun outings once a week.

My work as a civil rights attorney has given me many opportunities to resolve civil rights violations on both an individual and systemic level. But engaging as a mentor has opened my eyes to the reality that real change begins with personal relationships. I hope I am helping Isaiah see a bigger world and live a successful fulfilling life. It is clear that he also has my back. As we were driving from the movie yesterday, I changed lanes without checking my blind spot, but Isaiah was looking and shouted out that there was a car there, and fortunately helped me avoid an accident. Our relationship is mutual. we help each other. Indeed, that is as it should be. I look forward to growing that relationship with him for as long as he is willing.

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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.

 

Please Don’t Feed the Narcissist

Even as young children, we are taught that when we go into bear country that we should be very careful not to feed the bears.

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After all, feeding bears is dangerous for humans and can also harm bears. It is a simple rule, although unfortunately many people disobey the rule in order to get pictures of bears. Of course, they do so at great risk to themselves.

During the presidential election, I urged my fellow Americans to Ignore the NarcissistUnfortunately, my advice was not heeded, and we now have a Narcissist in Chief as our President. However, how we deal with a leader who feeds on attention is still a matter of grave concern. Clearly, now that he is President, we can no longer ignore him. But, we can take care not to feed his insatiable narcissism.

The media, politicians of all stripes and advocates seem unable to resist giving the Narcissist in Chief all the attention he craves. It is worth remembering that narcissists crave all attention that is focused on them, regardless of whether it is positive or negative, so even those who poke fun at his tweets or other inanities are actually feeding his narcissism when they do so publicly.

This hit a new peak with the viral attention that his idiotic covfefe tweet received earlier this week. Sure, the tweet was idiotic and no leader of any nation should tweet idiotic nonsense as our Narcissist in Chief does on an all too regular basis. But, the better tactic would have been to privately notice how idiotic it was and then publicly take action against any one or more of the horrific policies which he and his administration are proposing.

Another example is the regular observation and critique that the Narcissist in Chief has failed to fulfill his promises and has left hundreds of positions in government open. From any reasonable opponent of this administration, this is not actually a critique. It should be noticed, smiled about, and then ignored, because the last things those of us who are resisting this administration want is for it to fulfill its promises and have full staffing to implement horrific policies.

The Narcissist in Chief may be the world’s greatest expert in utilizing social and other mass media to feed his insatiable need for attention of any kind. The best method of resistance is to deny him the attention he craves so badly and focus advocacy efforts on electing new and better leaders. As I have done here, he does not even deserve being identified by name.

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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.

Disconnecting from the Grid; Reconnecting with the Earth

We live in a hyperconnected world. Breaking news headlines come across our smart phones multiple times a day. We connect via text message, e-mail, social media and many other ways countless times per day. In fact, these connections are increasingly critical in our fast paced information sensitive world. Indeed, without this web of connectivity, systems change would be far more challenging to accomplish.

However, it is also important to disconnect from all that hyper-connectivity and take a break to connect with the basics of surviving in the world periodically to remind oneself that staying grounded with the earth is still a core part of who we are. Fortunately, I had that opportunity as I recently returned from a week long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, with one of my best friends, Bill Caplan.

Spending a week in the wilderness, especially during the cool rainy days of mid-May, requires advanced planning and preparation to ensure that we stayed sufficiently warm, had enough food, and the appropriate camping equipment to travel and camp safely. In addition, we needed to plan our route and obtain a permit for entering the Boundary Waters.

We launched on a windy morning and Forest Service staff asked us if we were getting a motorboat to tow us across Burntside Lake. Needless to say, their questions caused us some concern, but we believed we could safely paddle our canoe through the white capped waves to our first portage, and indeed we did. That first portage was a grueling 1.3 mile hike through the woods. At one point we thought we had reached Crab Lake, but it turned out to only be a beaver pond. By the time we got to Crab Lake with the canoe and one of our 3 backpacks, we were already sore and exhausted, but we knew we needed to return to retrieve the rest of our gear.

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Bill Caplan refueling after our 1.3 mile portage.

We found a lovely campsite on Crab Lake and set up camp. Once we finished setting up camp, I noticed that on more than one occasion, I reached for my smart phone, despite the fact that I did not bring it with me since there is no cell service in the Boundary Waters. I hoped that reflex of mine would dissipate soon.

On our second day, we broke camp and set up a base camp on Cummings Lake, where we spent the next four nights. Overnight, the weather turned cold and rainy, as it would remain until the last day of our trip. Fortunately, we were prepared and for the most part we stayed warm and dry, although during much of this time, I was wearing 5 layers of clothing on top and 3 on the bottom.

Fortunately, a combination of the beautiful nature surrounding me on all sides, the need to cope with harsh conditions, and plenty of time to reconnect with the earth, cured me of that reflex to reach for my cell phone. Although Bill and I continued to guess what breaking news headlines we would encounter when we left the Boundary Waters, we successfully disconnected from the grid and reconnected with the earth.

Deciding to make a base camp on Cummings Lake allowed us to explore the nooks and crannies of the shoreline. One day, we paddled over to the 2 mile portage to Big Moose Lake and hiked it there and back without carrying our canoe or packs. This allowed us to enjoy the beauty of the forest far more without the added weight on our backs.

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Enjoying a 2 mile hike in each direction between Cummings and Big Moose Lake.

Bill enjoys fishing, but it is not one of my hobbies. Bill tried to fish on his own from our canoe, but it was difficult for him to fish while navigating an 18 foot 2 man canoe. As I watched him trying to do this from our campsite on our first night, I realized that he would enjoy fishing far more if I paddled the canoe while he fished. So, over the next few days we slowly circumnavigated virtually all of Cummings Lake while I paddled slowly and Bill fished.

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Although Bill expressed concern that I would be bored slowly trawling the lake, I assured him that I enjoyed slowly and quietly paddling as Bill fished. Unfortunately, Bill did not catch any fish until the 6th day of our trip. Of course, when he did finally catch a couple of fish, he was quite pleased.

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On our last night, we returned to Crab Lake, although we stayed at a different campsite just to explore another place. While much of the topography of the Boundary Waters is similar, upon closer examination, one encounters beautiful treasures such as this stunning piece of marble streaked granite at our last campsite.

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After 4 nights of cold rainy weather, our last sunset was a real treat.

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On our last day, we conquered that 1.3 mile portage back to Burntside Lake somewhat stronger, packs a bit lighter after eating 7 days worth of food, and a lot more relaxed having successfully disconnected from the grid for a week, and reconnecting with the earth.

Of course, after we loaded up Bill’s truck, we turned our phones on and as soon as we received cell phone reception hundreds of e-mail, text and social media messages poured into my phone. But that was ok. After a week of disconnecting from the grid, and reconnecting with the earth, my internal batteries are recharged and I am ready to engage in progressive systems change once again.

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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.