The Need to Connect

A few days ago, I was reading an interesting article entitled Separated at Birth in which the author seeks out adults who were born on the same day in the same hospital as he was in 1949. He describes a variety of common themes that he has with his fellow baby boom generation members, but one particular quote from one of his birth mates struck a chord. He suggested that the reason the author, Daniel Asa Rose, was on this quest was that,

You’re interested in what connects Homo sapiens. You grasp the plain, astronomical truth that we’re on a microscopic pebble hurtling through space at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour–and in a very real sense, connecting with one another is the only thing that matters.

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Since November’s election, I have received daily inquiries about how to respond. My usual quick response is to advise people to act locally and give hugs. While this may seem simple, what I am really suggesting is that the more we connect with each other, the harder it will be for those who seek to divide and conquer us to succeed.

Ever since he started his campaign, and throughout his first few months in office, the President has utilized classic demagoguery to disconnect us from each other. He and his allies actively encourage hatred, arrest and deportation of those who do not look like him. That is why so many of us have such an unsettled feeling. Since a healthy society requires that people connect with each other, living under the leadership of an administration that seeks to destroy that state of connection raises our anxiety level to unprecedented societal heights.

While I support those who seek to change the leadership in Washington, this task truly starts by digging deep community building roots at the local level. For me, it includes;

  • making eye contact as I walk down the street, thereby acknowledging the humanity of every stranger I encounter;
  • living in a neighborhood with sidewalks where neighbors and strangers regularly encounter each other on a daily basis;
  • mentoring youth who face daily struggles with poverty and discrimination;
  • supporting those released from incarceration to succeed upon entering our community;
  • leading my religious community in a manner that helps our community connect with disenfranchised communities in order to combat racism and xenophobia;
  • providing support to friends and family both near and far to maintain connections and offer help when needed;
  • leading a local lake district to work together to protect the environment;
  • engaging in genuine dialogue to build consensus to solve problems rather than sow divisiveness; and
  • providing unique legal and consulting services to disenfranchised clients who likely would not find the help they need elsewhere.

These paths of connection are simply the ones that I choose. Everyone can choose their own path to connect with friends, family, neighbors and strangers, but connect we must. Through a web of connection, we can build hope. Failure to do so will allow demagoguery to prevail.

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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.

The Air we Breathe

It seems so simple. Unless we have asthma or another breathing disorder, we never think about the thousands of breaths we take every single day. Perhaps that is why the human race is often inclined to take the air we breathe for granted.

In my recent travels to Israel and Mexico, while my wife and I enjoyed our visits with friends and family tremendously, the air pollution in both countries was visibly obvious.

In Israel, everyone called the pollution  haze, but it is fairly obvious that the virtually constant haze contains significant air pollution. In Mexico City, I could tell the air pollution was not as bad as the last time I visited 25 years ago, but nevertheless, it was constant and still significant.

Upon our return to Madison, we immediately noticed the clean air, both visibly and in our lungs. We literally breathed easier.  Especially noticeable was the clean air this past weekend at our vacation place on Goose Lake in the Central Sands area of Wisconsin.

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I am not an air pollution  expert. Nor, am I suggesting that Israelis and Mexicans care about clean air any less than Americans do. In fact, the challenge of clean air is a global challenge as the atmosphere moves all over the world.

Asthma rates are soaring and exposure to pollution caused by vehicular traffic is one culprit. Indeed, the traffic in Mexico City and in much of Israel was horrendous, both of which are a result of both population increases as well as improving economies.

While the United States has made great progress in cleaning our air since the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, that progress is under threat, as the new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA 13 times when he was the Oklahoma Attorney General, has been called, “the most hostile EPA administrator toward clean air and safe drinking water in history.”

The bigger puzzle is why, in an era when everyone knows about the negative health impact of air pollution, anyone would want to relax air pollution controls. Many argue that the current administration is beholden to big business and industry resulting in its desire to relax anti-pollution regulations. Yet, our President, the CEOs of industry, and Scott Pruitt must breathe the same air as everyone else.

Indeed, we are one world, with one atmosphere. We pollute it at the peril of every single one of us. No one is immune. Everyone must do their part to keep our air and other national resources clean.

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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.

Mexican brother, Mexican son

I have previously written about my Mexican family and the efforts we make to stay connected despite thousands of miles between us. Recently, I had yet another wonderful opportunity to reconnect, this time in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Mexico’s two largest cities, which are both vibrant and fascinating with a rich history. On this occasion, my cousin Miky’s daughter Natalia, was getting married. Since I consider Miky a brother, as we lived together in 1973-74 in Oak Park, Michigan, when we attended 9th grade together, despite having recently returned from Israel, we certainly did not want to miss Natalia’s wedding. In fact, my wife and I also flew my son in from Israel, where he is attending college, so he could attend the wedding. To further cement the family bonds, I convinced my brother and sister to bring their families to the wedding as well, as neither had been to Mexico to see our family there in a long time.

There are many reasons why I consider Miky as a brother. Not only did we live and go to school together for a year, but we share many attributes. We both work for ourselves and seek to make our own way in the world. In addition, we both prioritize family connections. We married the same year (1982) and both continue to have happy and fulfilling marriages as we approach our 35th anniversaries. As you can see below, my wife and many others also think that Miky and I look a lot like each other.

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Mi hermano Miky

Of course, the wedding was beautiful and so much joy was shared by those in attendance. In fact, at one point during the party, my wife turned to me and said,

“Mexican people are the nicest people I know.”

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Father/daughter dance: Miky & Natalia

While we could have returned home after the wedding, we had another important stop to make in Mexico. In 2008, Miky and his wife Alma asked my wife and I if they could send their son Miguel to live with us for a year and attend 8th grade in our local middle school. We were glad to do so and continue what is now a 3 generation tradition of having a Mexican family member live with one of our family members (Miky’s Aunt Nitchy lived with my mother for 2 years as teens). Now, Miguel is on the verge of finishing his undergraduate degree at the Panamerican University in Guadalajara and we wanted to see his life in Guadalajara.

It was well worth the extra time and effort to visit Miguel in Guadalajara. Not only did we enjoy Guadalajara, with side trips to Tequila (yes, that’s where they make it) and Tlaquepaque (a beautiful artisan town), but more importantly, we saw where and how Miguel lives and goes to school. We got to know his lovely and charming girlfriend Vanessa, and it warmed our hearts to see how he has grown into a truly fine young man with a bright future ahead of him.

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Miguel with his second mother, my wife Sheryl

On the last evening of our stay in Guadalajara, the breaking news popped up on our phones that the U.S. had bombed a Syrian air base, as we were going out to dinner with Miguel. Sheryl and I expressed our fears of how this bombing could potentially unravel into World War 3, if Russia and Iran reacted violently. Listening with a son’s concern, Miguel said, “you can always come to stay with us in Mexico where you will be safe.”

My wife and I were deeply touched by Miguel’s genuine offer in many ways. First, he truly understands that we are family in the deepest way. We will always be there for each other to protect each other. In addition, perhaps without intending to make a political statement, he made a very profound one. With all the anti-Mexican bias coming out of the White House, thinking about the possibility that we might actually be safer and better protected in Mexico was both ironic and heartwarming.

We will continue to maintain our strong family bonds with my Mexican family. After all, with a Mexican brother and a Mexican son, how could I do otherwise?

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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.

 

Diaspora Gathering

My wife and I just returned from spending over 2 weeks in Israel. This trip was not your typical tourist trip. In fact, with the exception of one night in Mitzpe Ramon, home to the gigantic and beautiful Ramon Craterwe spent every other night staying with family and friends.

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Sculpture overlooking the Ramon Crater

Our son, Josh, is in his second year of college at the TechnionIsrael’s Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and this was our first opportunity to visit him there. He plays hockey with the Haifa Hawks, and coincidentally, the first thing we did on our arrival was watch him play hockey.

Josh also led us on a walk on  the beach of the last Arabic town on the Israeli Mediterranean, Jisr al Zarkawhere beauty, history and poverty are all intertwined.

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Fisherman pulling in their net on the beach at Jisr al Zarka

In addition, my mother and her husband are spending the winter in Netanya, where they have spent every winter except last year for the past 12 years, and we spent most of our nights with them. It was a pleasure to spend quality time with them in the place that has become their home away from home.

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My mother Rachel and her husband Peter

As I reflect back on what was primarily a visiting trip, I realize that, like most Jews, while my family is spread around the world in what is known as the diaspora, as they fled oppression in Europe prior to the Holocaust, Israel is the place where some of the family with whom I am closest as well as childhood and college friends, have returned and made a life for themselves.

Part of my family fled Europe, but were not allowed into the United States to join the rest of their family in the 1930s, so they settled in Mexico. One of my Mexican cousins, Isaac (Pelon) Leventhal, immigrated to Israel when he was 18 years old in the early 1970s. After meeting him in Mexico City at his sister’s wedding just before he emigrated, I have visited him numerous times in Israel from 1976 through this most recent trip. As he and I have grown older, we have married and had children, and now he and his lovely wife Eli, have 8 grandchildren. Our son has had the opportunity to get to know these cousins better while he studies in Israel, and we were able to visit all of their homes and families during our stay. The warmth of my Israeli family will stay with me for the rest of my life even though time and distance separates us.

I even had the opportunity to visit friends on Kibbutz Ein Gev, where I volunteered during the winter of 1979-80, while my cousins Pelon & Eli lived there. Coincidentally, a friend from England, whom I volunteered with so many years ago, was visiting the kibbutz at the same time we were there and we had a small reunion with our friend and kibbutznik Uzi.

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At the end of our trip, we traveled to Mevaseret, a suburb of Jerusalem to stay with an old college friend, Richard and his lovely wife Michal. They led us on a beautiful hike on Har Eitan, after which we traveled into the city of Jerusalem to visit an old childhood friend, Galia, and her husband Roni for lunch.

It is truly an understatement to describe Israel as one of the most controversial nations in the world. Almost everyone has strong feelings about it, both positive and negative, and while I love that Israel has provided refuge for millions of Jews, including family and friends, it saddens me that Israel has been unable to resolve its generations old conflict with its Palestinian neighbors.

Due to my love of Israel and hope for its survival as a just, peaceful and democratic state, I have taken on a leadership role in advocating for a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by becoming Chair of the Madison chapter of J Street, which advocates for a two state solution to resolve the conflict. My advocacy is quite public so both my family and friends in Israel are quite aware of my positions, most of whom do not agree with me.

Despite our political disagreements, our love for each other is not diminished. In fact, my choice to repeatedly visit family and friends in Israel to maintain our relationships and better understand their lives there serves to enhance our relationship. On a few occasions during our recent trip, both friends and family were clear that they disagreed with my positions, but I often successfully found small, but important points where we did have common ground. Equally important, our disagreements never interfered with our ability to have warm and loving relationships.

As I reflect back on how my friends, family and I can agree to disagree, and not let that poison our relationships, I hope that the lessons I learned in Israel can be applied to the often poisonous political conflict in the US. After all, when friends and family can love each other despite their disagreements, one realizes that one warm hug can overcome virtually any political dispute.

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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 Old is not for Sissies

My first job after graduating law school as a young attorney, in 1985, was doing elder advocacy. One of my colleagues bought me a great photography book of senior athletes, Growing Old is Not for Sissies, which helped confirm my understanding of aging as challenging, but for those with fortitude and perserverance, it is very possible to live a productive life into very old age.

My wife, Sheryl, and I recently arrived in Israel to visit our son, who is going to school at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology). We timed our trip so we could also visit my mother, Rachel and her husband Peter, who are spending the winter in Israel, and yesterday, we arrived at their apartment in Netanya.

My mother and Peter are in their 80s, and have been spending many winters in Israel, initially doing volunteer work, and as they grew older, simply relaxing and doing some touring. Last year, they were forced to cancel their planned winter trip to Israel after my mother fell down her basement stairs and broke her femur in 5 places and 3 of her vertebrae in her neck. Thankfully, she survived and did not suffer any spinal cord damage. However, she had surgery on both her leg and her neck, which are both put together with plates and screws now. After 3 months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, she finally returned home and is now able to walk on her own, though outside of the home, she uses a walker for safety.

After we arrived at their apartment, Peter reminded me that they just are not the same as they were before my mother’s fall. In fact, he used the phrase, “growing old is not for sissies,” so I told him about the book of senior athlete photos that I received as a young elder law attorney. While aging certainly takes its toll on all of us and has taken its toll on my mother and her husband, today I marveled at my mother’s and Peter’s mobility as well as their ability to enjoy life despite its challenges.

My wife and I enjoyed lunch by the Mediterranean sea with them.

After lunch, Peter took us shopping at the outdoor shuk (market) where he readily purchased produce, eggs, some lovely prepared foods for dinner, and freshly baked onion rolls. My mother kept pace with a smile on her face.

I have written before about how I consider my mother my hero and today’s excursion reminded me of how both she and Peter truly thrive despite the roadblocks that aging places in their path. It is my intention to have the courage and fortitude to age as well as they have. I hope sharing a small slice of their aging success inspires others to age well.

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

Speaking Truth to Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I do not believe they cause autism.

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

How do you KNOW they don’t?

So, I replied:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.