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.

 

Disconnecting from the Grid; Reconnecting with the Earth

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

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

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

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

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Bill Caplan refueling after our 1.3 mile portage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Orchids

I derive great joy and satisfaction (as well as cleaner indoor air) from growing houseplants. While I do not talk to my plants, I do have a certain relationship with them. They are growing, living beings, that I am raising in an artificial environment. To do so successfully, requires careful attention to their placement in the proper sunlight, the appropriate amount of watering, and since they are indoors, periodic fertilizing. Unlike plants in the wild, indoor plants would simply die without proper care. Some plants are more challenging than others to grow indoors and part of the skill in growing indoor plants is learning which will thrive in a particular location.

About 30 years ago, I was at a potluck at a colleague’s home and noticed that she had a beautiful orchid growing there. While I had seen cut orchids before, as well as orchids growing in the wild in the tropics, and indoors in botanical gardens, I had never seen one in a private home before. My colleague told me about an orchid greenhouse which supplied florists, but also sold retail orchids to the public, and upon visiting that greenhouse, I became hooked to the idea of growing my own orchids.

Growing orchids indoors presents special challenges and many people are never able to get them to rebloom. However, the helpful staff at the orchid greenhouse provided me with some good advice, including informing me about which orchids are easier to maintain in a home (as opposed to a greenhouse), what type of light they need, which orchids should be placed outdoors during temperate weather, and the necessity of using special fertilizer.

Orchids are epiphytes, which means that they grow on the bark of other trees, rather than sinking their roots into the soil. In their natural state in the tropics, orchids use their aerial roots to collect nutrients from the rain and humidity. Since we cannot replicate that nutrient rich humidity or rain indoors, the only way to get orchids to rebloom in one’s home, is to give them special orchid fertilizer, which I do once a month.

Right now, I have 5 orchids in full rebloom in my home.

One of the loveliest things about growing orchids and getting them to rebloom is that their blooms will usually last for 2-3 months, so we will continue to enjoy them for quite awhile, as long as I continue to provide them with the proper care.

Growing orchids has many of the elements of systems change:

  • Patience;
  • Perseverance;
  • Attention to detail; and
  • Proper setting and care.

While I wish I could claim that every orchid I have ever owned successfully reblooms year after year, like systems change, not every effort is successful. However, with patience, perseverance, attention to detail, and the proper setting and care, I am able to succeed in both orchid growing and progressive systems change more often than not. Equally important, I enjoy the challenge, including the lessons I learn even when I encounter the occasional failure.

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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.

Sensory Summer

Since last fall, I have been engaged by the Madison Children’s Museum (MCM), to help facilitate the implementation of a generous 3 year grant it received to improve its services to children with autism and other sensory processing disorders and their families. This has been a unique opportunity to bring together parents, self-advocates, providers and educators to engage with MCM staff in order to map out a strategy that will not only improve MCM’s services to this group of children and their families, but to provide a national model for other museums to improve their services.

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After my first meeting with MCM staff, I noticed this light on the main floor of the museum and it truly represents the vision of the incredible staff with whom I work on this project . Deb Gilpin, the Executive Director, has been very supportive of this truly unique project. The project lead, Sandra Bonnici, pours a tremendous amount of effort and passion in order to make sure this project succeeds. She considers it, “a great opportunity to truly understand community aspirations and challenges for people on the spectrum and their families and to collaborate with the ASD and SPD community improved experiences and genuine inclusion for these children and families both at MCM and within the museum field.”  Her very capable colleagues, Heather Davis, Kia Karlen and Anneke van Lith, have provided the support she needs to carry this project to fruition.

After getting substantial input from the Advisory Group, MCM staff realized that the museum needed to conduct an assessment of itself in order to determine both its strengths and weaknesses when serving children on the autism spectrum and their families. Fortunately, the enthusiasm of the Advisory Group has resulted in a steady flow of participants eager to help with that assessment. University of Wisconsin Professor Karla Ausderau has recruited some of her students to help with this assessment, which will include gathering information from museums around the country to determine what they are doing in terms of serving children on the spectrum.

In additional to a professional assessment, Dr. Ausderau recommended that we use the museum itself as perhaps the most critical assessment tool. As a result, the museum is now engaged in planning a Sensory Summer. While the museum is still working out details and will get more input from the Advisory group, the basic idea is twofold:

  • Provide free passes to children with autism and other sensory processing disorders and their families over the summer and request that they fill out on-line or paper surveys to let the museum know which parts of the museum work well for them and which do not. Of course, the museum will also seek information regarding suggested improvements which it could make to enhance the experience of these children and  their families; and
  • Schedule 4 sessions when the museum is normally closed (early weekday evenings and weekend mornings) to allow children on the spectrum and their families to enjoy the museum without the normal chaos of many other children participating in the many activities which the museum has to offer. During these sessions, the museum will create some quiet and sensory spaces and provide some assistive devices that may help some of these children enjoy the museum more. The museum will also engage well trained friendly observers to make note of what works and what does not work with the children who attend these sessions.

Before Sensory Summer begins, we will engage a planning committee composed of volunteers from our Advisory Group, and the museum will contract with an expert trainer to provide basic autism and sensory processing training to its entire staff.

In my nearly 25 years of disability advocacy experience, this is the deepest engagement I have seen a non-disability public entity voluntarily take on to better serve a generally underserved group of children and their families. This is truly systems change at its best. It is voluntary, enthusiastic and inclusive. I am truly honored to help the Madison Children’s Museum become a national (and perhaps international) model for how to best serve children with autism and other sensory processing disorders in a public museum setting.

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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.

Building Community: Now more than ever

Like many people around the world, the election of an American President who has actively engaged in and encouraged racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, frightens me. It reminds me of why I never bank on electoral politics to provide the solutions to our nation’s and our world’s problems. Of course, I vote, but in the end of the day, I only have one vote, and in this particular instance, even when the candidate I favored won a majority of the popular vote, our political system nevertheless gave the Presidency to her opponent.

I have spent my entire professional career working for progressive systems change. This election does not alter that. In fact, it will only cause me to work harder on behalf of the disenfranchised people I represent. A former colleague once called me a “good loser.” At first I did not understand that she was giving me a compliment. Then, she explained, that I never give up even after losing a hard fought battle. I simply examine the new situation for the best way forward and get back to working on making our world a better place. That is what we all must do right now.

Starting last night, many people have asked me what they can do in response to America electing perhaps the scariest President in its history. My sister-in-law just called me in tears. The vast majority of our nation was targeted by our President-elect, including women, people of color, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, and people with disabilities, as somehow less worthy. But we know better. We also know that, now more than ever, we need each other, and together we can still accomplish great things.

So, here are a few suggestions (with underlined links to prior posts for more detail):

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So, today, give hugs to friends and family. Tomorrow, start looking for local projects that you can dive into to make your local community a better place. Together we can build community and create a better world for everyone.

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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.

The Strongest Woman I Know

To engage in systems change, one must have deep inner strength. It also helps to have role models who demonstrate how they use their deep inner strength for positive change. Yesterday, it dawned on me that the strongest woman I know is my wife of over 34 years, Sheryl Spitzer-Resnick.

To be clear, my wife is not an athlete or weight lifter. However, since she was 8 years old, she has faced numerous life threatening maladies, including 8 abdominal surgeries and a recent lung lobectomy. At 8 years old, due to probable medical malpractice and doctors refusing to listen to her mother, Sheryl suffered from peritonitis when her appendix burst.  She was fortunate to survive, but she lost a lot of weight and missed a lot of school. It is perhaps this childhood trauma that set her on a trajectory to become a doctor.

Fortunately, her health recovered and she remained generally healthy until we tried to have children. Her reproductive system did not cooperate and multiple abdominal surgeries and two attempts at in vitro fertilization brought us our miracle son, Josh. However, her pregnancy was extremely challenging requiring surgery for a bowel obstruction while 27 weeks pregnant. Fortunately, both she and Josh survived that difficult episode and she carried him to term over 19 years ago.

Just under a year ago, my non-smoking wife discovered she had lung cancer, necessitating a partial lung lobectomy last December. While Sheryl could have decided to go on disability or to simply retire, she made a very different choice, exemplifying her deep inner strength once again.

After recovering from her latest surgery, Sheryl decided to leave her medical practice which has been successfully based at Wildwood Family Clinic for 28 years and take a few months to open up her new clinic, A New Way Forwardwhich opened for business yesterday. Her new clinic is the culmination of her tireless work to help women live healthier, happier lives.

I stopped by her new clinic with some flowers yesterday to help celebrate her opening, and I was fortunate to encounter the happiest patient I have ever seen at any medical practice as she was paying her bill and setting up her next appointment. She wanted everyone to know that she called on October 1st (the first day the new clinic started taking appointments) so she could see Sheryl on November 1st, the day the clinic opened.

What I also saw was that Sheryl’s staff, the amazing Nurse Practitioner Pat Stretcher, and tireless office manager, Lisa Marks, were smiling from ear to ear, with the joy of knowing that they had just opened the clinic of their dreams that would help many women find, “a new way forward.”

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My admiration for Sheryl is simply boundless. Many people would have given in to defeat or depression given all that she has been through. Less than 1 year ago, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and then had major surgery to remove 1/3 of her lung. Instead of giving in to defeat and despair, my beautiful wife dug deep into her inner strength not only to recover physically, but to assemble a phenomenal team to build her dream come true which will help countless other women fulfill their dreams. Sheryl is, quite simply, the strongest woman I know and she inspires me to keep moving forward even when I have my own difficulties. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

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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.

Change Agents

Given that my business is Systems Change Consulting, it caught my attention when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) asserted that both he and Donald Trump were change agents during his recent debate with former Sen. Russ Feingold who is seeking his former seat back from Johnson. His claim reminded me of the time when someone from the Tea Party contacted me with an offer to improve my website. Needless to say, I did not accept his offer, but his offer gave me pause. What I realized then, and Johnson’s debate claim confirmed, is that those who desire systems change come from both sides of the political spectrum.

The mere fact that someone works to change the system does not mean that they want to make the system in question work better for the vast majority of people. Nor, does the fact that someone is a change agent equate to accomplishing change that will improve the lives of those who are most challenged by the status quo.

My firm, Systems Change Consulting, works on solving problems for those in greatest need so I focus

on making progressive systems change in the areas of civil rights, disability rights, general and special education, and combating abuse and neglect of vulnerable populations.

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In Sen. Johnson’s case, apparently he believes that being a change agent includes:

  • causing dysfunction in the U.S. Supreme Court by failing to hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s nomination for the now 7 month old vacancy on the court;
  • prohibiting all federal funding for abortion services;
  • insisting on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution regardless of the economic consequences to our nation;
  • supporting prayer in our public schools;
  • refusing to believe the clear scientific evidence that humans contribute to global warming and voted to oppose the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses;
  • voting against protecting ocean and Great Lakes ecosystems;
  • voting against banning high capacity (10 or more bullets) gun magazines;
  • claiming that the Affordable Care Act is the single greatest assault on American freedom;
  • opposing granting amnesty for any undocumented immigrants; and
  • claiming that Social Security is a giant ponzi scheme.

Indeed, if Sen. Johnson prevailed in every instance, he could properly be called a change agent. However, it would not be the type of change which would help most people or the people who need the most help.

My view of systems change is quite different. While many public and private systems could use a healthy dose of change, that change should be focused on providing the greatest good for those in greatest need. This includes:

  • improving public education for children with disabilities and other populations groups experiencing significant disparities in achievement;
  • providing food, shelter and affordable housing for those without these basic life needs;
  • protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities, people of color, women and other disenfranchised populations so that they can enjoy equal access to housing, employment, and all that life has to offer;
  • removing those who abuse vulnerable people in schools, healthcare settings and in the criminal justice system and compensating those who suffer from such abuse; and
  • making sure that high quality healthcare is available to everyone.

Of course, the list goes on as there are an infinite number of ways in which systems, large and small, public and private, can be changed to improve the lives of those with the greatest need. People like Sen. Johnson and Donald Trump, who work to change the system to the advantage of a small minority of wealthy people who are already enjoying the advantages of their wealth, are not the types of change agents who will benefit our nation.

Playing with Whales

For the past week, my wife and I have enjoyed vacationing in Nova Scotia, where neither of us had ever been before. It is very beautiful, with vast forests, mountains, lakes and of course, many miles of Atlantic ocean coast line. We attempted to go whale watching early in our trip in Cape Breton. Alas, the whales did not cooperate and although we had a lovely boat trip, we did not see any whales.

Now, we are down on the southern coast, and  yesterday we decided to go on another whale watching excursion in the Bay of Fundy, which is well known for its 16 foot tides. In fact, in Annapolis Royal (the first European settlement in Canada), Nova Scotia Power operates North America’s only Tidal Power Station (check out this video for an explanation of how it works).

As we boarded the boat, I informed the captain, that my wife and I were disappointed that we didn’t see whales on our previous excursion in Cape Breton. He smiled and said that while he could not guarantee a sighting, he succeeded in finding whales 99.9% of the time.

Sure enough, not long after our boat headed out of the channel and into the larger sea, we spotted two Humpback whales, the guides told us they were a mother and daughter, the daughter being about 8 months old and recently weaned. They estimated their size at approximately 45 feet long, with the mother being somewhat longer, about the size of our boat.

What happened next surprised everyone, including the experienced crew. The mother and daughter whale apparently decided that they would  enjoy our company and they simply swam back and forth under and around the boat, even nudging it occasionally. They were so close, we could see their eyes and the barnacles which had attached to them.

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Everyone on board, including the Captain and crew, watched the playful whales with sheer amazement. The Captain and crew repeatedly exclaimed that this playful show was truly exceptional. Perhaps my wife and I were meant not to see whales in Cape Breton as had we seen them, we may not have taken this second excursion.

Earlier in our Canadian trip, my son (who is currently studying abroad) asked me why Canadians have their heads screwed on right? While I cannot say for sure, I do know that even as a teenager growing up in Detroit during the Vietnam war, every time I crossed the border into Canada, I felt cleaner (even though Windsor is not the cleanest Canadian city).

Maybe Canadians understand that their destiny is shared with nature, and that in order to succeed, they need to play with nature, not fight against it. Given their harsh winters, one might imagine that an American response would be of conquest, but Canadians instead build tidal power plants and play with whales.

Of course, like all nations, Canadians have some troubled history. But, Canadians took a monumental step when they enshrined the rights of aboriginal people, generally known as First Nations, in their Constitution in 1982. The term elevates First Nations to the status of “first among equals” alongside the English and French as founding nations of Canada.

Perhaps, if more people in the United States saw our richly diverse heritage in this way, that each component of our nation’s varied tapestry is just a first among equals, we would experience less racism and xenophobia. Maybe, more people just need to go play with whales.

As I write this, here is my view:

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The Earth’s natural beauty helps refresh me for systems change efforts to come. After all, if we can play with whales, we can overcome whale size problems. It just takes the right combination of people with the right approach.

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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.