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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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.

 

 

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.

Author the Future

Earlier this week, I was in Washington, DC for a J Street Leadership Summit, during which roughly 200 leaders of J Street gathered from around the country to learn and strategize about how to achieve the long sought 2 state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, this is no easy task, and cannot be done without many partners.

During the opening plenary session, the featured speakers were Israeli Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel sitting side by side with Ambassador Dr. Husam Zomlot, Chief Representative of the Palestinian General Delegation to the United States. While these two experienced men did not always agree, they both believe that a 2 state solution is both necessary and possible.

During Amb. Zomlot’s presentation, he said three words that struck a chord during our troubling times. He encouraged us to, “author the future.”

Of course, each of us may choose to author the future in our own way. But one thing we cannot afford to do is sit back and do nothing while others determine our future for us.

Understandably, given the wide array of challenges which we all face on both a personal and societal level, it is quite easy to become paralyzed by the belief that one cannot have any impact by taking any particular action. Yet, in my 30+ years of engaging in systems change on a wide variety of topics, I have borne witness to the power of both individual and collective action that has the power to author the future in a positive manner.

Of course, no one can author the future of every single problem that one faces. There are, of course, a myriad of problems, both personal and societal that we all face, and nobody can take every single one of them on. Perhaps, to author the future, means to determine which problems each of us will take an active role in addressing, and then in what manner.

By doing something to author the future, including voting and contributing to causes one believes in, you are pushing back against the aphorism, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.

The day after learning from Amb. Zomlot and many others, I joined J Street leaders on Capitol Hill as we met with our members of Congress. Between meetings, many of us grabbed lunch in the Longworth House Cafeteria, where Congressional staff and visitors often eat. As I was getting up to leave for my next meeting, I was surprised to see an icon of the civil rights movement, who is also a great J Street supporter, Cong. John Lewis, eating lunch with a staff person.

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Before leaving for my next meeting, I took the time to introduce myself and thank Rep. Lewis for his decades of service to our nation. I also introduced him to a college student who is on the board of J Street U, who was joining me for Congressional meetings. Rep. Lewis encouraged us to keep up the good work and when we told him that we were going to meet with our Congressman Mark Pocan, he told us that Rep. Pocan was a great Congressman. By introducing a young advocate to this great leader, I hope I helped to author the future of a young man by inspiring him to continue his advocacy to help to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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

 

If Not Now…

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

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

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Can’t Bury Ourselves

Yesterday, I went to the funeral of a dear friend, who was one of the wisest women I have ever known. I first met Judy Zukerman Kaufman nearly 30 years ago, when she was one of a small group of people, including my wife and I, who decided to form a new inclusive Reconstructionist synagogue in Madison, which became known as Shaarei Shamayim

Judy was a strong believer in a feminist Judaism because religion without equal participation simply made no sense to her. Indeed, before Shaarei Shamayim was formed, she became the first woman President of Madison’s Conservative synagogue, Beth Israel Center. It was fitting therefore, that at yesterday’s funeral, both the current and former Rabbis from Beth Israel Center were there, as well as the Rabbi from Shaarei Shamayim.

Judy never missed an opportunity to teach. In fact, throughout her adult life she taught hundreds of children and adults, many of whom were at her funeral. When our son, Josh, was 12 years old, my wife and I had no doubt when we chose Judy to tutor him in order to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah. Our confidence in Judy’s teaching ability was reinforced immediately when she made clear that a Bar Mitzvah is not an event. Rather, it is a process, and through that process, our son learned not only how to read Torah and lead a Shabbat service, but more importantly, he learned important lessons that Jewish sages have provided the world for thousands of years about how to engage in tikkun olam (repair of the world). In fact, Josh enjoyed studying with Judy so much that he voluntarily continued tutoring lessons with her for over a year after his Bar Mitzvah.

Although we had been friends prior to Josh’s Bar Mitzvah, the process of Judy’s tutoring Josh helped to bind our families much closer. We celebrated many holidays together and supported each other through a variety of health crises.

Judy’s last health crisis involved an infection that she was unable to fight off. After her first hospitalization to treat the infection, she was sent home with daily (though not constant) home health care, as she was still on IV antibiotics. Since she did not have round the clock assistance, and lived alone, I went to help her out one afternoon to bring her food, and keep her company. We had a lovely visit, though I recognized that she was very frail, and I worried about how long she would be able to live alone. Fortunately, my son Josh was available during my visit with Judy, and I connected them on a video phone conversation. Of course, none of us knew that this would be our last chance to talk to and see each other.

Shortly after my visit with Judy, my wife and I left for Israel to visit Josh, where he has been attending college at the Technion in Haifa. Before Josh left for college, Judy informed him that when she and her husband Jerry lived in Haifa many years ago, her favorite place was a lovely sculpture garden overlooking the city and harbor. Josh took us there during our visit with him which gave us another way to connect with Judy. This particular sculpture evokes the way Judy cared for so many children over her long, fruitful life.

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Judy’s funeral was longer than most because so many people had so much to say about her remarkable life. Rabbi Ken Katz, who presided over the funeral, made clear that these things just “take the time that they take.”

When Judy’s husband Jerry died a little over 2 years ago, they decided to opt for a natural cemetery outside of Madison, called Natural Path CemeteryJudy was buried right next to Jerry. The day before, her children and some friends dug the grave and I had the honor of being one of the pall bearers and lowering her simple unfinished pine casket into the grave.

After her casket was at the bottom of the grave, and we removed the ropes which we used to lower it, Rabbi Katz reminded us that, “we cannot bury ourselves,” and therefore it takes a community of friends and family to receive a proper burial. For what felt like a very long time, many of us took on the burden of doing what she could not do for herself, and filled her grave. We initially put flowers on her coffin and then topped off the soil with more flowers.

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As I contemplate the many lessons which Judy taught me, this last one, that we can’t bury ourselves may be the most profound. In addition to being a Jewish educator, Judy was also a civil rights advocate. Indeed, during our last conversation, she told me about her advocacy for the home health care workers who cared for her. We both shared grave concerns about the trampling of civil rights which the current President seems so eager to do. Yet, remembering that we can’t bury ourselves serves two important lessons.

  • We must support each other in community from birth until death, because as independent as many of us may hope we can be and may wish others were, we truly need each other to survive the many challenges which life presents; and
  • While many of us may wish to bury ourselves under our blankets while demagoguery oppresses others, we simply do not have that option. We can’t bury ourselves because we have a duty to help each other.

May Judy’s memory be a blessing. I know that the many lessons she has taught so many will continue to make this world a better place for many years to come.

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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.

 

Speaking Truth to Power

Yesterday, I participated in the Autism Society’s Day on the Hill, during which advocates from all over the country met with their members of Congress to advocate for better health care and education for people with autism. We had a strong Wisconsin delegation which was able to meet with almost every member of our Congressional delegation to express our concerns about possible changes to the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, and special education. We also asked each of them to join the bi-partisan Congressional Autism Caucus, which has well over 100 members.

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Brian Beeghly, Mary Fruits, Emily Levine, Kirsten Cooper, Howard Miller and I prepare for our Autism Society advocacy with the Wisconsin Congressional delegation.

Since I have been doing public interest lobbying at both the federal and state level for over 30 years, the less experienced advocates on our team asked me to brief them about each member of Congress prior to each meeting. Before we met with Rep. Glenn Grothman, I told my colleagues that I had known him for many years as although this was just his second term in Congress, he had served in the state legislature for many years prior to that, and during that time, I had met with him many times. I further informed my colleagues that they should expect him to ask an outrageous question.

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Mary Fields, Kirsten Cooper and I emerge with smiles after meeting with Rep. Glenn Grothman.

Sure enough, almost immediately, Rep. Grothman walked into his office where we were already sitting down with his legislative assistant, and recognized me and said:

I have to ask you a question. Do you believe that vaccines cause autism?

While I could not have predicted exactly what outrageous question Rep. Grothman would ask me, I had anticipated that he would ask an outrageous question. I could have demurred and said that this was not what we had come to talk to him about as it was not one of our issues, but my past experience with Rep. Grothman was that he would not give up until he got an answer to his question. So, I replied by saying:

No, I do not believe they cause autism.

Of course that did not satisfy Rep. Grothman, so he persisted by asking:

How do you KNOW they don’t?

So, I replied:

You asked me if I believe they cause autism. I do not BELIEVE they cause autism because science has not demonstrated that they do.

I then proceeded to put him in his place by telling him the story of my brother who died from a pertussis vaccine in 1966. We know this because science proved it and Congress passed a vaccine compensation program for such medical mistakes. I further informed him that fortunately our son was born after scientists developed a dead virus vaccine which is safe so we could give it to him. I closed with informing him that people who do not give their children vaccines are bringing back diseases into our community and they are a public health menace.

By the time I finished, Rep. Grothman recognized that he was not going to win this argument and our meeting was able to continue in the manner that we desired by discussing the issues that we came to talk about. The lesson, of course, is that well prepared advocates will not get thrown off by those in power who choose to pursue an irrelevant agenda. By speaking truth to power, I was able to provide both personal and fact based information to Rep. Grothman and steer the meeting back to what we came to talk about.

While many politicians thrive on intimidating others, it is worth remembering that they are just human beings like every one of us, and treating them as you would treat any other human being helps advocates speak to their legislative representatives as equals, instead of being intimidated by them.

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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 on Moving

Many Americans feel stuck right now in a post-election malaise. They have good reason to be fearful for themselves, their families and loved ones as the President-elect surrounds himself with people who pride themselves in denigrating whole categories of people–Muslims, Mexicans, Jews, homosexuals, women, people of color and the list goes on. While many are taking to the streets in protest, calling their members of Congress or taking other concrete steps to protect the civil liberties most Americans hold dear, many others are simply frozen in fear.

When I was a young adult, I learned an important lesson about my own need to keep moving regardless of physical or emotional pain. It was 1981 and I was 21 years old. I had already graduated from the University of Michigan after just turning 20, and spent the next year traveling around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, including working on Kibbutz Ein Gev during the winter of 1980-81. After returning to Michigan, I became the night manager of Ann Arbor’s popular Pizza Bob’s where I had worked part time while I was a student.

During the spring of 1981, I noticed that my fingers were stiff, painful and swollen, making it difficult for me to do all the manual labor required of managing a busy pizza parlor. I sought medical attention  and my doctor said I had arthritis and should go on high dose aspirin and stop working. It was the worst medical advice I ever received.

The aspirin caused extreme tinnitus (ringing in my ears which I still have) and quitting work did not improve my arthritis. Worse than that, the double whammy of an arthritis diagnosis at such a young age, combined with stopping work, sunk me into my first major depression.

During my many hours of depressed contemplation over my sorry state of affairs, at some point I made a commitment to myself. I theorized that if I kept moving (contrary to my doctor’s advice), my body would not be able to stiffen up completely. As I had always enjoyed swimming, though I had never previously swam for regular exercise, I correctly surmised that swimming would enable me to keep moving without deteriorating my arthritic condition. Slowly, but surely, I increased both my distance and intensity of swimming and since 1981, swimming has been a regular part of my exercise and I am pleased to say that my arthritis has largely gone into remission. I also gained a calming meditative practice through counting my laps while swimming.

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Of course, I am not suggesting that the answer to what promises to be the largest roll back in civil liberties in the United States since the McCarthy era is for everyone to go swimming. However, I hope my personal story of how I decided to move instead of freezing up  both physically and emotionally, will inspire readers to decide how they can best move their bodies and use their own advocacy tools to resist freezing up and allowing American civil rights to be steam rolled away.

Great suggestions of how to respond to the President elect’s agenda are coming out on a daily basis. Today, the marvelous author Barbara Kingsolver wrote:

We refuse to disappear. We keep our commitments to fairness in front of the legislators who oppose us, lock arms with the ones who are with us, and in the words of Congressman John Lewis, prepare to get ourselves in some good trouble. Every soul willing to do that is part of our team, starting with the massive crowd that shows up in DC in January to show the new president what we stand for, and what we won’t.

Latina activist Marisa Franco plans on applying the tools she used to successfully bring down the racist Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to the national scene. She understands that we cannot allow the President elect’s regime to manipulate us through a divide and conquer strategy. Instead, she said, the key

is to build on the successes and lessons learned from every group that has ever fought back against discrimination, and to see this moment as protecting humanity, not just one group’s rights.

Each of us must decide our own path. Some of us are willing and able to take more risks than others. I have lost 2 jobs when confronting Executive Directors of agencies who were bent on ruining the advocacy mission of the agencies they directed. In each case, although I suffered emotionally and financially, I knew I did the right thing, and my career as a systems change advocate only became stronger.

For each of my readers, find the path that works for you. There is no one right way. If you are shy, read this excellent primer on How to contact your representatives when you have social anxiety for helpful hints on how to become an advocate.

But, choose something to keep moving forward. Our future history is not yet written. It may look scary right now, but none of us can afford to allow our fears to freeze us into inaction. The stakes for each and every one of us are simply too high.

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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.

My Mom is My Hero

Ever since I made the decision to apply to law school in 1982 in order to become a public interest attorney, many have asked me why I chose to pursue such a non-lucrative career. While I usually respond by stating that I have always believed that my role on this planet is to help make it a better place, when I examine my personal history and strongest influences, there can be no doubt that my mother, Rachel Siegel, strongly influenced who I am and my desire to advocate for those who get the short end of the stick.

I recently returned from visiting my mother in Detroit, where she is recovering from a horrible fall down her basement stairs 4 weeks ago, when she broke her femur as well as 3 vertebrae in her neck. After going through 2 surgeries and spending 10 days in the hospital, she was transferred to a rehab center to receive physical and occupational therapy to recover and regain her ability to walk and live independently.

Just before I arrived, she had a follow up visit with her doctor during which he made clear that she would not be able to travel to Israel to spend the winter there with her husband, as she had planned. Although this was disappointing, she remained undaunted and continued to focus on her recovery.

One day, while I was visiting her at the rehab center, it was time for her to receive physical and occupational therapy. The therapists, with my mother’s permission, invited me to watch. Given her advanced age, her inability to bear weight on her broken leg, and her very uncomfortable neck brace, I was absolutely amazed at my mother’s  strength, fortitude and determination, to put as much energy as she could muster into her therapy.

Here she is working on strengthening her arms and good leg.

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Next, she worked on her balance and coordination.

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Unfortunately, the next day, she developed sepsis and had to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where she was treated with IV antibiotics. She is now sufficiently recovered from that setback and is preparing to return to the rehab center today.

Over the 6 days I spent with my mother in the rehab center and the hospital, I had a lot of time to think about the many challenges my mother has faced throughout her life, dating back to being born to immigrants during the depression, suffering from an abusive mother, losing a 3 year old son (my younger brother) due to complications from a pertussis vaccine, battling Multiple Sclerosis, surviving an unfaithful husband who failed to support her and my younger sister after he left her, as well as many other challenges. At 80 years old, this current struggle to recover from her massive injuries, compounded by a return trip to the hospital for sepsis, could have caused her to give up. But my mother is not a quitter. She has heroically battled her whole life to maintain her dignity, raise her children with strong values, and to fight for what is right for those who need help. When I spoke to her this morning, after all she has been through, she asked me what was new and I was pleased to let her know that I had a good legislative meeting yesterday with fellow Autism Society advocates.

I know that my passion  for advocacy and to bounce back from my own personal  struggles are both rooted in the many lessons my mother has taught me and as I recently discovered, she continues to teach me. Many friends and family are sending her well wishes to encourage her recovery. I look forward to seeing her return to live independently with her loving husband, Peter. Given my mother’s heroic inner strength, I am confident she will do so.

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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.

Threading the Systems Change Needle

Lost in the after midnight budget bombshell dropped by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on our public education system earlier this week, was a small, but important civil rights victory for children with disabilities and their parents. No, it certainly was not the horrific stealth passage of a horrible Special Needs Voucher system that promises to rob children with disabilities of their hard won civil right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), which parents of children with disabilities and their allies have successfully fought for the past 4 years.

Rather, with one small amendment, the Wisconsin Open Enrollment program, which allows students to transfer to other public school districts that may better suit their needs, moved one step closer to ending its statutorily sanctioned discrimination against children with disabilities. Remarkably, ever since this program began in the 1998-99 school year, the law permitted the rejection of children with disabilities who were considered an “undue financial burden.” 

The Open Enrollment program has been very popular all over the state. In its first year, state data shows that fewer than 2,500 students transferred to new school districts under this program. But, 15 years later, in 2013-14, nearly 50,000 students availed themselves of this flexible approach to public education.

Yet, due to the outright discrimination against children with disabilities whom school districts deem an undue financial burden, each year thousands of such children cannot use open enrollment to attend another school district like their non-disabled peers. I have fought this discriminatory law on behalf of dozens of children for nearly 20 years. Although, I have successfully pushed back on the law in court, despite numerous requests, until now, I have not been able to convince the legislature to rid Wisconsin of this statutory discrimination.

The opportunity to do so arose out of my role as a board member for the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin. Shortly after joining the board, I worked with advocates from the Autism Society of Wisconsin (ASW) and the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin to develop an advocacy agenda. We joined forces with many other disability advocates to help preserve Wisconsin’s self-directed long term care program, IRIS, from Gov.Walker’s budget chopping block. But, we also wanted to make progress for children in our schools in a very challenging legislative environment. I suggested that there might be an opportunity to thread the systems change needle by approaching Sen. Luther Olsen, the Senate Education Committee Chair, who serves as the key Senate Education member on the Joint Finance Committee to see if we could get him to sponsor a budget amendment to end the “undue financial burden” Open Enrollment discrimination against children with disabilities.

So, I made an appointment for the ASW Executive Director, Kirsten Cooper, and I to meet with Sen. Olsen. It was a short, but productive meeting. Almost immediately, he agreed to insert a budget amendment that would end nearly 20 years of state sanctioned discrimination. We thanked him, and periodically checked in with Sen. Olsen’s staff to make sure he would stay true to his word. Two nights ago, buried in the bombshell of voucher expansion and charter school takeovers, Sen. Olsen kept his promise, and the amendment to end nearly 20 years of discrimination was passed by the Joint Finance Committee. We have thanked him and will continue to monitor this small, but important piece of progress as the budget process continues to work its way through the legislature.

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In 30 years of systems change advocacy, I have learned that success is often achieved in small but important ways. Knowing how to thread the systems change advocacy needle helps advocates identify the time, place and method for achieving such victories.

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