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.

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

In Praise of Civil Rights Lawyers

Lawyers are the butt of many jokes, none of which are complimentary. Here’s a classic:

Q: What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer?
A: One’s a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life.

Even Shakespeare famously penned,

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

Shakespeare gave this line to Dick the Butcher in Henry VI. In what could be a prescient prediction of our current times, Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king.

Although my elementary school teachers had me pegged to become a lawyer by the time I was in 5th grade, probably due to my argumentative nature, by high school, all the societal negativity around the legal profession sufficiently dissuaded me from pursuing a legal career. In fact, my intention behind my undergraduate degree in American history was to pursue a Ph.D. in history and become a history professor.

Before doing so, I took 3 years off after receiving my Bachelor’s degree to do some traveling and earn some money. By the middle of that 3rd year, it dawned on me that my advocacy skills were better suited to a career in the law, than a career in academia. More importantly, my decision to go to law school was predicated on a decision that the only kind of law I would practice would be true to my values: civil rights.

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President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Most of my law school classmates scoffed at my pursuit of a career as a civil rights lawyer, suggesting that I would never be able to pay my law school loans off. At some level, their skepticism was appropriate. Finding work as a civil rights lawyer is not easy and none of the various jobs I have held in my 31 years as a civil rights lawyer have paid well. However, I paid my law school loans off a long time ago, and despite some rough financial patches, overall, I have been able to keep my finances in the black.

Recently, I have taken a lot of pride in my choice of career. On a personal level, I can confidently say that I have never taken a case that I was not personally and ethically proud to take. On a professional level, I know that many of my cases have helped to enforce the civil rights of both my individual clients and many others who are impacted either by the class actions I have pursued or the precedents that my cases have set. Indeed, just yesterday, I successfully obtained a court order to reunite a loving mother with her son who had been wrongly taken from her a few months ago by the county.

But my pride in being a civil rights law goes far beyond my own personal practice. It extends to the entire field of civil rights law. We are living in a time when the President of the United States scoffs at civil rights and denigrates judges. The U.S. Senate has just confirmed the new Attorney General, who has made a career out of weakening or attacking civil rights, including:

  • voting against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act; and
  • voting for a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

While it is certainly true that judges make mistakes, that is why we have Courts of Appeal and ultimately the Supreme Court. The concept of judicial review has been the bedrock of our Constitutional system of checks and balances ever since Chief Justice John Marshall enshrined it as a bedrock principle in the 1803 decision of Marbury v. Madison.

But courts do not make decisions or protect civil rights if civil rights attorneys do not bring the cases before them. As I listened to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals historic oral argument in the State of Washington v. Donald J. Trump, a few days ago, I took professional pride in the attorney for the State of Washington who was defending the civil rights of immigrants and refugees and noted that the attorney defending the Executive Order banning entry of so many innocent people seemed like he would have preferred to be elsewhere.

I have learned the hard way that the path of a civil rights lawyer is not an easy one. The system is stacked against those who need civil rights protection the most and many judges and juries prefer to naively believe that we live in a discrimination free nation where civil rights do not need a vigorous defense. However, this uphill battle is exactly why the public at large should appreciate the work of civil rights attorneys, because you never know when it will be your rights that need a vigorous legal defense.

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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.

 

 

End Juvenile Solitary Confinement Now

Theoretically, the purpose of the juvenile corrections system is rehabilitation of juveniles who have committed crimes. In fact, all children incarcerated in the juvenile correction system will be released into the community as there is no such thing as life in prison for someone convicted as a juvenile. So, both the incarcerated juveniles and society at large are better off if rehabilitation is successful.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system has failed to accomplish this basic goal of rehabilitation at its 2 locked facilities, Lincoln Hills (for boys) and the adjoining Copper Lake (for girls). In fact, the treatment of these juveniles has gotten so abusive that the FBI has been investigating these facilities for approximately 2 years. While the outcome of that investigation is still pending, more recently the ACLU filed a civil lawsuit against the State of Wisconsin for abusing juveniles at these facilities, including, among other things, by the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement.

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The Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake juvenile corrections facilities

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the heavy use of solitary confinement and pepper spray violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process. Some inmates are confined to 7-foot-by-10-foot cells for months at a time. They typically get out for just an hour or two a day but during that time they are on a belt held by guards or chained to a desk.

Today, I was interviewed on the radio about the use of solitary confinement at these facilities. You can hear the interview here. In recent years, seven states have passed laws that limit or prohibit the use of solitary confinement for youth in detention facilities. For example, Connecticut law states that no child at any time shall be held in solitary confinement, but “seclusion” may be used periodically if authorized and the young person is checked every thirty minutes.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “the potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions. Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”

In 1990, the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty establish minimum standards for the protection of juveniles in correctional facilities which specifically prohibits juvenile solitary confinement, stating, “All disciplinary measures constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment shall be strictly prohibited, including corporal punishment, placement in a dark cell, closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise the physical or mental health of the juvenile concerned.

Wisconsin juveniles should not have to wait for the outcome of the FBI investigation or the ACLU lawsuit. The Wisconsin legislature should promptly act to prohibit the use of solitary confinement at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. This is not just the humane way to treat these juveniles. Traumatizing these children decreases the likelihood of successful rehabilitation and increases the chance that they will commit another crime upon their release. If policymakers truly care about decreasing crime, then they will end this barbaric practice in this legislative session.

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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.

Inspired by the Battle

Over twenty years ago, I represented 3 clients in a high profile fair housing case in Madison that became known as the drive by landlord case because the landlord would drive by to look at the race of prospective tenants and refuse to rent to African American tenants under a pretext. Although we lost the trial in front of an all white jury, I learned recently that one of my clients, Tomika Gray-Vukovic, was inspired by our battle for justice despite the loss.

I had not seen or heard from Tomika in many years, but fortunately met her recently when Sen. Bernie Sanders came to Madison in October to campaign for Russ Feingold and Hillary Clinton. Tomika was working for Russ Feingold’s campaign at the time and recognized me when I entered the building. She greeted me with a big smile and reintroduced herself and let me know that her housing discrimination lawsuit inspired her to make a career out of progressive social change.

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Shortly after Tomika and her family moved to Glendale, she made a point of getting involved in the public schools. Due to her involvement, she was asked to run for the Glendale-River Hills School Board and was elected in April 2016. She loves working to make sure that the children of her community have the best public schools that can be provided for them.

Tomika was also approached to serve on the city’s Planning Commission. With a background in accounting, she brings a business perspective, as well as the perspective of a parent, progressive, and experienced community advocate to the Commission. She is committed to a vision of continued sensible and planned growth in her community. She wants to continue successful economic growth by developing relationships with new businesses and connecting them with numerous vacant property development opportunities.

Her involvement in the schools and in city government has opened her eyes as to how things operate, and how she thinks they should operate. She has noticed that many of Glendale’s alders are unknown to community members because they are not seen out in the community. She wonders how can they know what the community wants if citizens do not know them. This is what has propelled  Tomika to run for a seat on the Glendale city council.

Tomika has taken very seriously President Obama’s admonition to “pick up a clipboard and run for office.” In truth, however, Tomika was one step ahead of the President as she had already committed to run for the city council (in addition to her school board seat) before President Obama gave his farewell address.

When one is engaged in progressive systems change, there are many obstacles. It simply is not for the faint hearted. Losing battles will happen regularly. How those who desire to make this world a better place respond to such losses reveals whether one has the stamina and fortitude to stick with it and achieve positive outcomes eventually. Tomika is a shining example of how losing a civil rights battle propelled her into the fray instead of scaring her away. I am thrilled to see the great work she is doing and I am honored to have had a small role in helping her on her way. I look forward to seeing what she accomplishes in the years to come as she clearly has a very bright future.

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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.

Responding to Hate

As a civil rights attorney, I have spent over 3 decades using the tools of my trade to respond to hate that has been unleashed upon my clients. However, until recently, society has generally supported victims of hate and vilified the hate mongers. Sadly, the campaign and subsequent election of our president-elect has resulted in something I had hoped I would never see in my lifetime-the legitimization of hate.

Even a casual news observer cannot help but notice the daily occurrences of swastika graffiti, beatings and even killings of Muslims, and shaming of schoolchildren of color. On the Saturday night before this past Halloween, I went to see friends who perform in a local band at a nearby neighborhood club. Many were dressed up in a wide variety of costumes. Before the show, a complete stranger sitting next to me wearing a long Pinocchio nose, apparently thought it was completely ok to tell me a vile anti-semitic joke. Whether he knew I was Jewish does not matter. What was most disturbing was that he felt completely free to spew his hate in public to a total stranger.

Though I consider myself a strong advocate, I was so stunned when that stranger shared his anti-semitism with me that I failed to respond. I have been thinking about this incident ever since to try to understand my failure to respond. Beyond just being in shock, I also did not want to cause a scene at an otherwise festive public affair. But after I posted this incident on Facebook and a number of friends said they would have responded strongly, I realized 2 important things:

  • Never judge how someone responds to a crisis because you never know how you will respond if confronted with the very same crisis; and
  • It is often easier to respond on behalf of someone else than to actually defend yourself.

Sadly, once the election was over, the president-elect moved quickly to make sure the world understood that he would continue to legitimize hate when he appointed a purveyor of hateful prejudice, Steve Bannon, as his Chief Strategist, a position in the White House that has never previously existed. For those who are unaware, Bannon was the editor of Breitbart.com before joining the president-elect’s campaign. In that capacity, he regularly denigrated Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, people of color and women, and he did so in vile and hateful language. Until recently, such a man would not be accepted in civil society, but since the president-elect has normalized hate and prejudice, he has now welcomed it, through Bannon’s appointment, to the highest level of his White House.

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Fortunately, yesterday, I was given a chance to respond belatedly to the anti-semitism I experienced, when a local TV news reporter called me in my role as President of my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim, to ask if I would be willing to publicly respond to my Congressman Mark Pocan’s call that the president-elect withdraw Bannon’s appointment. I gladly agreed to do so and you can watch my interview at this link.

During this interview, I was able to convey the following in response to Bannon’s appointment and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s acceptance of it:

“Our president-elect has chosen to legitimize hate within his own administration. We had a big Bat Mitzvah this past weekend (and) people are worried. They’re very worried. He has an opportunity – Speaker Ryan – to say directly to the President of the United States – hate does not belong in the White House. I understand that he was just renominated as Speaker of the House, but that’s not leadership to duck a question like that.”

This TV news story not only provide me with the opportunity to delegitimize hate, but as the story has been shared widely, local leaders have approached me to work with them to strategize on an organized local response. I look forward to doing so in the days and weeks to come. Unfortunately, given the results of our recent election, this will just be the first of many battles which good people simply cannot shy away from. The timing and manner of each of our responses to hate will vary, but respond we must.

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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.

 

It Makes a Difference

Recently, in an effort to make himself look Presidential, the presumptive Republican nominee put out a list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Meanwhile, Republican Senators continue to abdicate their responsibility by failing to hold hearings and a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, a well respected moderate, to fill the empty seat on the Supreme Court. While that seat remains empty, the Supreme Court continues to flounder with numerous 4-4 ties, recently sending a case back to the lower court for further consideration to avoid yet another tie.

full-text-scotus-obamacare-ruling

Perhaps the most lasting Presidential impact is the power to nominate Supreme Court justices. Since these are lifetime appointments, the average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice is 16 years, or twice as long as the maximum amount of time a President can serve. We have recently seen the powerful impact of the Supreme Court on our society as it legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

The Supreme Court’s impact on our society depends on who is on the Court. In 1896, the Court established the concept of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1954, the Supreme Court ended that hateful racist legacy in Brown v. Board of Education.

During the Roosevelt era, the same Court that upheld much of the New Deal, also upheld the detention of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War 2, one of the most shameful acts of our nation.

As I reviewed the presumptive Republican nominee’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees should he be elected, I noted that the name of a judge whom I have appeared before and followed her career closely. Diane Sykes, is a former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice, who left her post to accept a seat on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. While she is well known for her ultra-conservative opinions upholding voter ID, and restricting employees’ access to birth control, what concerns me as an attorney is her complete disdain for her fellow judicial colleagues as well as the attorneys who practice before her.

When Judge Sykes accepted her current appointment to the Seventh Circuit, it should have come as no surprise that then Governor of Wisconsin, Jim Doyle, would appoint a very different Justice to replace her, and indeed he did, when he appointed the Hon. Louis Butler, whom I have known for many years and for whom I have a great deal of respect. Yet, in utter disregard for the fact that she created the opening for Butler’s appointment, she publicly criticized the Wisconsin Supreme Court after her departure in such an outlandish manner that it provoked a thoughtful law review article from federal district court Judge Lynn Adelman.

In 2013, Judge Sykes joined Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when they gave speeches at the arch-conservative Federalist society’s fundraising dinner provoking an ethics complaint from a member of Congress, Common Cause and the Alliance for Justice.

In late 2011, I appeared before her when she sat on the Seventh Circuit panel reviewing the appeal by Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) of our special education class action which we had won in federal district court, thereafter settling with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, in a comprehensive manner that was working to make dramatic improvements in MPS. What I witnessed from Judge Sykes was a level of disrespect for her colleagues (literally eye-rolling at the well respected Judge Rovner’s questions) and my co-counsel (chastising her repeatedly without cause), that I knew that if she wrote the decision, we would lose. Of course, as soon as we received the decision and I saw it was authored by Judge Sykes, I knew before reading it that we had lost. Not surprisingly, Judge Rovner dissented.

So, when you cast your vote in November, remember that the next President will likely reshape the Supreme Court with as many as 4 nominations, which will shape our nation’s legal environment, including its civil rights for decades to come. It will make a difference.

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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.

Charter School Expansion: Whither Accountability?

Wisconsin’s powerful Joint Finance Committee recently approved a dramatic change to Wisconsin’s charter school authorization law. This change would expand so-called independent charter schools to over 140 new school districts. More troubling is that the new charter school authorizers would include the University of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee and Waukesha County Executives, tribal colleges and Gateway Technical Colleges, adding to the already confusing maze of Wisconsin school choices.

FallGuide09cartoon(cartoon by Eric Joselyn)

Sen. Alberta Darling acknowledged that this provision did not include any oversight for these new charter schools. Perhaps she and her colleagues who passed this provision failed to understand that they cannot change federal law which contains quite a few obligations for charter schools.

As I wrote about a year ago, charter schools are public schools and they must comply with federal civil rights laws. In fact, perhaps due to the confusion wrought by charter expansion, the U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance letter last year that made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.

In summary, that letter confirms that:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability)

all apply to all operations of charter schools.

including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

Specifically,

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions, meaning:

Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions information and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreter and/or translation services. Also, communications with parents with disabilities must be as effective as communications with other parents. Appropriate auxiliary aids and services (such as Braille materials or a sign language interpreter) must be made available whenever they are necessary to ensure equally effective communication with parents with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities.

Of course, this means that charter schools may not have admissions criteria which discriminate on their face. But, in addition,

a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification. Charter schools also may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.

  • Regarding children with disabilities, OCR makes clear that,

every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability. Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.

  • For English Language Learners,

charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs. A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content.

Together with the U.S. Department of Justice, as I have written previously, the U.S. Department of Education has also clarified that, like all other public schools, charter schools must also administer discipline in a nondiscriminatory manner, which is an important component in stemming the tide of the schools to prison pipeline.

If this highly problematic provision passes the full Wisconsin legislature and is signed into law by Governor Walker, it will be interesting to see how all of these new charter entities will implement state and federal special education law, which requires them to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), and includes many protections to prevent discriminatory disciplinary exclusion of children with disabilities. Each one of these new chartering entities will need to be sure that it assigns a local education agency representative to each Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting who has the knowledge of all the charter school’s resources and the authority to commit them to students with disabilities whose IEPs require such services.

Of course, in order to be effective, civil rights laws must be enforced. Concerned parents and advocates can contact OCR at (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov, since OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate any civil rights laws. Contact information and complaint forms can be found here. It will be up to parents and advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

Parents who believe charter schools have violated state or federal special education law may file complaints with the state education agency. In Wisconsin, you can find information about how to file a complaint and a sample form here.

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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.