One of the phrases I often use as a reminder to clients is to, “Keep your eye on the prize.” The roots of this phrase come from one of the Civil Rights movement’s theme songs, reminding those struggling for civil rights to maintain their focus on what the struggle is all about. Mavis Staples released a beautiful version a few years ago.
The reason I need to use this phrase as a frequent reminder to my clients is that they often get caught up in the anger, frustration and resentment of their struggle, lose sight of the purpose of their battle, and shift focus to “winning,” or worse yet, “getting revenge.” While winning or getting revenge may provide some temporary psychological satisfaction, they will rarely earn those who are struggling for civil rights the real prize they are seeking, i.e., equal rights.
This often happens as parents struggle to obtain appropriate education for their children with disabilities. They often experience years of frustration and want to teach the school district a lesson by taking legal action to punish those they perceive as wrongdoers. The problem is that although it is critically important for students with disabilities to have legal rights, and to be able to enforce them, such enforcement alone will rarely provide them with the prize of a quality education. Thus, I will often use Getting to Yes strategies as I described previously, to try to achieve a win-win solution rather than a possibly Pyrrhic victory of a legal win. Sometimes this involves direct negotiation. At other times it involves mediation. In either case, it may include the threat of legal action to force the school district to take the parent’s concerns seriously. But, as I remind my clients, proceeding down a litigation path does not guarantee the prize they seek, and even if they win the case, their child’s education may not improve and relations with the school district will undoubtedly sour.
Keeping your eye on the prize also applies to systems change advocacy, which the civil rights leaders and marchers understood. Today, our political leaders spend too much time worrying about the next sound bite, and political positioning, rather than acting as statesmen to accomplish the greater good, as I dubbed them Pressmen, the opposite of Statesmen. I described a more productive approach for achieving progressive change for the common good in How Systems Change Happens. In sum, systems change advocates who keep their eyes on the prize must follow these key steps.
Those who want to fight powerful, well-financed special interests, must be willing and able to use the truth, educate all concerned, organize well, litigate enough of the right cases, and be persistent. Moreover, they must do so strategically and effectively.
Anyone involved in civil rights struggles knows that it can be challenging to keep your eyes on the prize, but with good training, and able assistance, it can be done successfully.