Random Acts of Kindness

Every morning, I walk my dog through our neighborhood park. During these walks, I always pick up whatever litter I find to help keep our beautiful park clean and to keep the trash out of the waterways.

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Tenney Park

Since I keep my eyes on the ground for signs of trash while I walk through the park, every once in a while, I am fortunate enough to find some money. Indeed, sometimes I have found as much as $50!

Over the past few months, when I have reported a fortunate discovery of money to my son, who is away at college, he asked me what I was going to do with the money. His question gave me pause because in the past, to be honest, I just put the money in my wallet and considered myself lucky, and really never thought about what I would do with the money. Since I am fortunate enough not to need the money to meet my basic needs, I responded to my son that I would use the money for random acts of kindness.

Of course, responding in that way presented a new challenge to me, namely, to consciously remember that I am committed to using my fortunate findings of money on the ground to engage in random acts of kindness. This has actually raised my consciousness about the privilege I have to be economically secure so that when I encounter those who do not have that security, I can provide some assistance to them. It also means that these random acts of kindness need to supplement rather than supplant my normal charitable giving.

Earlier this week, I was given an opportunity to help someone in need. While relaxing at home with my wife watching a show on TV, I received a call from someone who I have been supporting along with a few other people in a Circle of Support. Our support is generally strategic and not financial (i.e., how to find housing and employment). It was unusual for him to call me at night, particularly because we had a Circle of Support meeting scheduled the following evening. He asked me if I could come to meet him, and I asked him if it was urgent. He said it was, so I agreed to do so.

When I met him, he told me that his few belongings were gone from his apartment and when he asked his roommate what happened, his roommate told him that he had been evicted and the landlord had thrown out all of his belongings. He was wearing slippers as his shoes had been thrown away. I told him I would contact his landlord in the morning because self-help evictions and throwing away a tenant’s possessions are both illegal. However, the most immediate concern was where he would spend the night.

He asked me if I would take him to an inexpensive motel as he did not want to spend the night in a homeless shelter. Although I had some concerns about where he would stay in the future, I decided that my random act of kindness would be to honor his request. Before doing so, I bought him a sub sandwich and a bottle of water. On the way to the motel, he also asked if I could give him some money for a soda. Since I was concerned that a sub sandwich and a soda would not give him sufficient sustenance the following day, I gave him $20 to buy some food the next day. In doing so, I told him that I found the money in the park. He didn’t believe me, but I insisted it was true. He told me he would pay me back and I informed him that he did not need to worry about it, although if he chose to do so once he was back on his feet, that would be fine.

While random acts of kindness may not change fundamental systems of oppression and poverty, they are the necessary acts that help each of us survive and remind us of the qualities that make us human. Perhaps if we all practice random acts of kindness on a regular basis, those who suffer from oppression will receive enough relief from their burdens to persevere another day.

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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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My Rabbi’s Granola Bars

Earlier this week, Jews all around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins the 10 day period known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance. During this period, Jews consider how they can improve their lives and the lives of those around them in the year to come.

As the High Holy Days are typically the time when Jews attend synagogue in higher numbers than at any other time of the year, rabbis often take extra time and effort to send inspirational guidance to their congregations through their sermons. At my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), which my wife and I helped to start nearly 30 years ago, and where I currently serve as President, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman gave a very personal and compelling sermon on Rosh Hashanah that struck a chord with many.

Rabbi Laurie described a very personal moment that virtually everyone in Madison experiences. Over the past few months, many people who are homeless have taken to seeking donations by holding cardboard signs at concrete median strips at major intersections that say things like, “Homeless: Any Assistance Appreciated.”

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Madison’s Mayor, Paul Soglin, who has repeatedly attempted to criminalize and demonize those who are homeless, has sought to make such solicitation, or even standing on those medians, illegal. Thus far, his efforts to criminalize this type of panhandling have been rebuffed by Madison’s City Council. Sadly, rather than trying to provide needed services and housing to Madison’s homeless, Mayor Soglin continues to try to criminalize harmless behavior such as sleeping outdoors and keeping their possessions outdoors, even while Madison fails to have a much needed homeless day resource center to store their possessions and provide employment, health care, and housing services.

Many of us are unsure what to do when confronted with a homeless panhandler. We may not want to confront the problem. We may worry that any contribution will be spent on alcohol or illicit drugs. We may be concerned that the panhandlers are not truly homeless and are just operating a scam.

Rabbi Laurie pointed out that Jewish teaching about tzedakah (charity) admonishes that it is better to help one impoverished beggar even if 99 out of 100 are not truly needy, than to fail to help any of those in need, rather than allow that single hungry person to starve. She described the Jewish attitude towards poverty as rooted in two key biblical concepts:

  • b’tzelem elohim which means that humans are made in the image of god and therefore all humans must be treated as we would treat god; and
  • achicha which means your brother and Jewish teaching admonishes us to treat everyone as if he was your brother (or sister).

As I have written before, when I have the time and opportunity, I will ask panhandlers if I can buy them a meal, and I have been able to do this a number of times. But, that is generally impossible in a moving traffic situation.

Rabbi Laurie realized that she simply did not want to explain the possible moral complexities of which homeless people may or may not deserve charity to her two young daughters who are often in the car with her while driving around Madison. So, she made a simple, helpful, and incredibly powerful decision. She now carries a box of granola bars in her car and offers them to anyone who is seeking assistance. While she acknowledges that her granola bars alone will not solve Madison’s growing homelessness problem, they will provide a little nutrition to those who receive them from her. Perhaps equally important, they will make each of them feel more human through Rabbi Laurie’s acknowledgement of their need.

As I was contemplating writing this post, it just so happened that as I was driving home from a meeting, my car was stopped at a light where someone who was homeless had a cardboard sign saying, “Homeless: any assistance appreciated.” Mindful of Rabbi’s Laurie’s sermon, I reached into my briefcase, pulled out a granola bar and offered it to the gentlemen, who gratefully accepted it.

On my next trip to the grocery store, I will buy extra granola bars and keep a stash in my car so I can continue doing my small part to help my brothers and sisters who are made in the image of god be a little less hungry and a little more dignified.

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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.

 

Close the Achievement Gap: Increase Intensive Support

As the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board of Education reviews the budget which its administration has prepared for the coming year, it would be wise to take a close look at its continuing problem with the ongoing racial, disability and poverty achievement gap and focus on how appropriate staffing can help to close that gap. While some improvements have been made, persistent gaps remain.

Students simply will not succeed if they are not in school. During the 2014-15 school year 2,477 MMSD students were habitually truant (meaning 5 or more days of unexcused absence from school) representing 9.8% of all MMSD students. But 1,235 of those students (nearly half) were African-American, representing 26.9% of all MMSD African-American students.

During that same year, MMSD suspended 1,713 students. But, 1,069 of them were African-American representing well over half of those suspended students. 402 of MMSD suspended students had disabilities, representing 10.9% of all MMSD students with disabilities, nearly half of all MMSD suspended students. While the data does not reveal how many African-American students with disabilities were suspended, when one adds the African-American suspended students and the suspended students with disabilities, that number almost equals all MMSD suspended students so it is safe to assume that African-American students with disabilities have the highest rate of suspension in the district.

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That MMSD’s discipline data reveals troubling racial and disability disparities is consistent with national data. But that should come as no solace to anyone, as nobody should admire the data. Instead, we need to apply solutions that we know will work to solve the problem.

While MMSD’s Behavior Education Plan has succeeded in significantly reducing the total number of suspensions, it also reveals another glaring gap for children in poverty. While 48% of MMSD students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a shocking 89% of MMSD suspensions were doled out to low-income students.

Finally, graduation rates also reveal a troubling achievement gap. At the end of the 2014-15 school year, 80.1% of MMSD seniors graduated in 4 years. But only 57.8% of African-American students; 56.8% of students with disabilities; and 62.1% of low-income students graduate in 4 years.

Fortunately, MMSD has a program designed to address the needs of its students with the most intensive needs. The Intensive Support Team (IST) takes requests from MMSD staff to address the needs of students in crisis. As of May 2, 2016, during this school year, there were 455 requests for support to IST. Of these, 411 were served by the team in one of several capacities (consultation, intake/assessment, professional development, short term stabilization), 250 were closed and the rest still active. This means that nearly 10% of referrals were not served and over 1/2 of all referrals are still receiving intensive supports.

Unfortunately, staff cuts were made to this team last year and the administration’s proposed budget does not propose to fill those cuts. The good news is that the budget is still in the discussion stage. School board member Anna Moffit has proposed to increase the IST staff by 3.5 FTE staff to address the unmet need for these students at a cost of approximately $250,000. In an era of tight budgets and state imposed revenue caps, Ms. Moffit recognizes that the money must come from somewhere so she has identified the following reasonable places where this money can be found: reduce spending on Technology Plan; reduce spending on Educational Resource Officers; or utilize funds saved from not filling the position of Special Assistant to the Superintendent ($125,000 dollars).

The school board and our community must recognize that failing to meet the needs of these students has a significant cost both to these students and to society at large. A recent report by the UCLA Civil Rights project from which I extrapolated the high cost of suspensions in Wisconsin, reveals that each suspended student who fails to graduate results in:

  • $19,572 in fiscal costs; and
  • $60,962 in societal costs.

Thus, if the IST is able to help only 5 more students at risk of suspension to graduate, it will have saved our community far more money than the additional cost which Ms. Moffit proposes spending on this worthy program. Thus, her proposal makes senses for educational, equitable, social and economic reasons and should therefore receive the support of the full school board.

Residents of MMSD who support Ms. Moffit’s proposal should e-mail the school board to encourage them to approve her amendment at: board@madison.k12.wi.us.

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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.

 

Justice & Charity: Feeding the Hungry & Homeless

For much of my life, when someone who lives on the street asks me for money, I have faced a moral quandary.  On one hand, I am fortunate enough to have the funds to provide the spare change being sought.  On the other hand, I have concerns that my spare change will be used for drugs or alcohol, and not for the bus ride or food which the person claims she needs.

Over the past few months, I have developed a new response for these requests for my spare change.  Since these requests are usually made in a populated area with retail stores and restaurants nearby, I respond by telling the person that if he is hungry, I will gladly buy him a meal in a nearby restaurant or store.  Unfortunately, my skepticism about the use of such funds has often been verified when the person asking for my money refuses my offer to buy him a meal.

However, yesterday, when I stopped to fill up my car with gas, a young man approached me for money for food.  I informed him that I needed to finish filling up my car with gas, but if he was hungry and willing to wait until my car’s gas tank was full, I would buy him a meal in the gas station’s convenience store.  He patiently waited for me outside the store and when I was done filling my gas tank, I asked him if he wanted to pick out a sandwich and a drink, and he agreed to  do so.

Interestingly, when I went in the store with him, both the cashier and the manager asked me if I needed help, but did not ask him.  However, they kept a careful eye on him, as I suspected they were concerned he might be a shoplifter, until I informed them that I was going to buy him a sandwich and a drink.  Both seemed pleased at my effort.  Once I paid for the sandwich and drink, he gladly enjoyed his meal and hopefully for a brief time, was no longer hungry.

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In my Jewish upbringing, I was raised with both the concepts of tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity), which in Hebrew come from the same root word.  My nearly 3 decades as a civil rights attorney have been in the constant pursuit of justice.  A recent article discusses the biblical roots of these words and concepts.  As the author states:

Tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity) are clearly linked, and not only linguistically. At its essence, tzedakah is not about handouts to the poor compelled by pity or obligation; at its core, tzedek is not about deciding disputes in court. Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.

Sometimes systems change is personal.  Yesterday I found success in providing charity with justice.  I hope to find many more such successes as I continue to offer a meal to those who tell me they are hungry.

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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.

Moving from Worst to First: Creating the Madison Model

This past fall, the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families released its Race to Equity report on the state of racial disparities in Dane County, Wisconsin.  The data was alarming, including:

  • A Black unemployment rate of 25%–5 times higher than the 5% unemployment rate for non-Hispanic Whites: worse than the Wisconsin ratio of 23:7%; and far worse than the national ratio of 18:8%;
  • An even more shocking poverty disparity with 75% of Dane County Black children living in poverty compared to 5% of Non-Hispanic White children: once again far worse than the Wisconsin disparity of 49:12%; and the national disparity of 39:14%.

Academically, the disproportional disparities persist in Dane County:

  • 70% of Black students did not take the ACT in 2011, compared to 36% of non-Hispanic Whites, contrasted with the state wide non-participation rate of 50:41%;
  • 50% of Black students in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) did not graduate in 4 years in 2011, compared to 16% of Non-Hispanic Whites, contrasted with a 36:9% ratio statewide.

Arrest rates are also alarming:

  • Juvenile arrest rates in 2010 were a shocking 46.9% of Black juveniles arrested in Dane County, while only 7.7% of White juveniles were arrested, compared to a 32.9:9.8% statewide ratio, and a 7.1:3.3% national ratio;
  • Adult arrest rates in 2012 show a similarly shocking 29.5% of Blacks arrested in Dane County, while only 3.6% of whites were arrested, compared to a 23:5.3% statewide ratio, and a 8.2:3.3% national ratio.

Much has been written about these shocking numbers and their human toll, with great leadership being demonstrated in the African-American community, particularly by Rev. Alex Gee, whom I wrote about previously.

However, 6 months after this compelling report which basically describes Madison and Dane County as perhaps the worst place for African-Americans to live in the nation, none of the institutions responsible for this ongoing tragedy: our schools systems; our system of justice; or our economic policy makers; have made specific commitments to stem the tide of this tragedy.

When I last met with Rev. Gee a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that his leadership had presented a unique opportunity to move Madison and Dane County from the Worst to the First in the nation on addressing racial disparities.  While many may be skeptical and remain satisfied with tinkering around the edges to seek and hopefully obtain minor, incremental improvements, I believe that with:

  • clearly identified, measurable goals,
  • community-wide support to achieve those goals,
  • policy changes and programs designed to achieve those goals; and
  • clear accountability for community leaders to take credit for achieving those goals and blame for failure to do so,

we can create The Madison Model for ending racial disparities, and more importantly, achieving racial justice as an example for the nation.

Skeptics will argue that my suggestions are naive and such dramatic improvement simply cannot be achieved.  Indeed, without clear measurable goals, community-wide support to achieve those goals, policy changes and programs designed to achieve those goals, and clear accountability for community leaders to achieve those goals, Madison and Dane County will likely stay mired in its misery of racial injustice.  Fortunately, Rev. Gee’s coalition has galvanized many and will be convening organizing meetings on March 29th & April 5th to move this process forward.  I look forward to participating in both sessions to continue our work in moving Madison from Worst to First.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Expanding the Compassion Footprint: Zero Tolerance for Failure to Educate

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice’s Annual Faith-Labor Breakfast in Madison.  The keynote speaker, Dalia Mogahed, co-author of, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, spoke eloquently of the world’s need to expand the compassion footprint.  She made a fitting comparison to the world’s need to decrease the carbon footprint in order to slow global warming.  While no individual can have a tremendous impact on global warming, collectively each of us can take small actions every day, from turning off our lights when not in use to riding our bikes instead of driving, in order to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Collectively, all of those actions can make a difference in fighting global warming.

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Similarly, Ms. Mogahed explained, no single individual can bring about world peace, let alone solve the major social issues plaguing our community, such as poverty, inadequate education and discrimination.  Yet, each of us can expand our compassion footprint each day by actions both great and small, in a wide variety of ways that are within our reach.  As she explained in this article, Muslim medical students in Los Angeles, expanded their compassion footprint, by establishing the, “University Muslim Medical Association Community Clinic (UMMA),  a full service free medical center started by Muslim medical students in South Los Angeles, one of America’s most underserved and impoverished communities.”

Indeed, President Obama has set up a platform to enable every American to expand our compassion footprint through the United We Serve campaign.  Through this web site, anyone can easily find a way to serve their own community and improve it.

While these organized approaches are certainly important, it is also worth remembering that small acts of kindness and compassion, from shoveling an elderly neighbor’s sidewalk, to visiting an ill friend or relative in the hospital, all collectively expand the compassion footprint, and make the world a better place to live.

Since a part of me is naturally cynical, I asked Ms. Mogahed about how to confront the reality that many in our world will choose not to be compassionate and instead may work in ways that make life harder for those who need compassion most.  Just like global warming cannot be stopped merely by each of us taking small actions, but indeed, requires systemic reform of the way we produce power and energy in our world, the social ills of our world, cannot be completely solved by small individual acts of compassion.  This does not render those acts of compassion useless or unnecessary.  Rather, those individual acts of compassion can help build a movement to demand systemic change in the way our society approaches social ills such as poverty, inadequate education and discrimination.

Since systems change requires inspiring action, we need leaders who will inspire us to be more compassionate on an individual and collective basis.  One good example currently inspiring action is Rev. Alex Gee, who recently convened a community meeting which I attended along with hundreds of others to work together to end racism and close the achievement gap in Madison.  I look forward to working with Rev. Gee and many others to address our community’s ills and as I urged those in attendance to seize the educational opportunity to reform the Madison School District’s discipline policies to,

End zero tolerance discipline policies fueling the school to prison pipeline and establish zero tolerance for failure to educate.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Combating the Racism of Low Expectations

In the current education reform wars, poverty is often used as a rationale for poor student performance.  Indeed, as discussed in the NY Times:

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.

But the conversation simply cannot end there and serve as an excuse not to provide an appropriate education to children who are impoverished.  Excuses based on poverty are easily translated into excuses for failing to properly educate racial minorities given the much higher rates of poverty which African-Americans and Latinos suffer from as compared to whites.

A quick look at the data reveals shocking disparities between state level achievement and the achievement of minority groups, especially those concentrated in urban districts.  In Milwaukee, for example, the 10th grade reading performance data shows that only 8.8% of African-American students in Milwaukee were reading beyond the basic level, as compared to 44.1 % of white students who read at that level statewide. Other large districts in Wisconsin, with high minority populations, reveal academic achievement disparities as well.

In addition to academic achievement disparities, there are also discipline disparities. Indeed, the disparities are so bad in Seattle that the US Dept. of Justice launched an investigation of the suspension and expulsion rates there, which are 3 times higher for African-American students compared to white students.

Graduation rates are similarly disturbing.  While Milwaukee has shown some improvement, its latest data shows only 66.2% of its high school students graduating, compared to an 87.5% statewide graduation rate.

This racism of low expectations revealed itself during the class action trial in Jamie S. v. Milwaukee Public Schools, which helped to create some of the recent progress in MPS. Among the methods the school district used to try to defend itself was to try to show that the students we claimed were harmed, MPS suggested had succeeded.  Indeed, one of the plaintiffs graduated and MPS trumpeted that fact.

On cross examination, however, my co-counsel, Monica Murphy, pressed the point with his educators that he graduated with only an 6th grade reading level.  The educators simply did not understand her concern.  In fact, what became crystal clear was that the mere fact that this student had graduated made him a success in his educators’ minds, regardless of his inability to read sufficiently well to succeed in his adult life.  When Monica finished her cross examination, I whispered to her,

You have just elicited testimony on the racism of low expectations.

As long as educators and policy makers believe that graduating an African-American student with an 8th grade reading level is a success, then we will never get beyond the current achievement gap between the races in this country.  Regardless of which side of the education reform debate one supports, everyone should agree that while poverty, and therefore race, may impact on a child’s performance, the answer is not to accept those horrible results.  The answer is to work harder to change them, as has been done in Union City, New Jersey.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.