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.

20170601_175437

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.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

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.

 

Advertisements

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.

handshake

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.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

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.

Systems Change Mentoring

One of the most enjoyable parts of my legal practice has been the opportunity to mentor dozens of law students who have clerked for me over the past 30+ years. Many of these students have gone on to become successful public interest attorneys and I believe that their experience working for me helped guide them along their path towards obtaining justice for those who need it most.

Earlier this week, one of my former law clerks filled me with pride as she took an important disability issue to the national stage when she asked Hillary Clinton a great question during a campaign speech she gave at the University of Wisconsin.

12417755_10208597684396773_8443700027795960591_n

I first encountered Nicki Vander Meulen when she was a public school student in Walworth County, Wisconsin. Her parents sought my assistance because her school district wanted to place her in the county’s segregated school (Lakeland) which educated only children with disabilities in a program that was not designed for students to prepare them for college, but instead for a life of continued institutionalization and segregation. Nicki’s parents knew that she was capable of much more than Lakeland had to offer, and I was able to help them keep Nicki in regular public school in an inclusive setting, and she successfully graduated high school.

Years later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Nicki was attending the University of Wisconsin Law School (something I am quite sure no Lakeland attendee has ever done). She applied to be my intern and I gladly accepted her application.

During Nicki’s tenure as my law clerk, she conducted the research and with my assistance, wrote the first version of the bill that ultimately became Act 125, which forbids the inappropriate use of seclusion & restraint on Wisconsin’s school children. Nicki drafted a bill that was better than the bill that ultimately passed, and set the standard for 12 years of negotiations that led to Act 125’s ultimate passage. The bill she drafted was only sponsored by then Assemblyman (now Congressman) Mark Pocan, and did not even get a hearing. But, we had to start somewhere, and Nicki set the bar high. Systems change always starts with high aspirations and setting the bar high helps to assure a reasonable outcome in the end, which is exactly what happened.

Nicki graduated from law school in 2004 and has maintained a successful private practice as a public defender and advocating for children with disabilities and many others. She periodically calls me for advice and I gladly continue to mentor her and occasionally refer cases to her.

But Nicki takes her work as a systems change agent seriously and knows that systems change goes beyond her paid work as an attorney. So, when she had the opportunity to ask Hillary Clinton an important question at a campaign event, she broke important ground.

As you can see in this video (starting at the 47 minute mark), Nicki openly declares her disability pride  when introduces herself as a lawyer who is on the autism spectrum. She then asks Sec. Clinton what she would do about the sub-minimum wage which is paid to people with disabilities who work at sheltered workshops such as Goodwill, and further, what Sec. Clinton would do to create better employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Clinton answered by acknowledging that it was time to get rid of the subminimum wage in its entirety both for people with disabilities, and other low wage workers, such as restaurant employees who receive tips.

Nicki’s question and Secretary Clinton’s answer quickly received national attention, as The Atlantic published Clinton’s Case Against the Subminimum Wage crediting a “young lawyer with autism” for asking for Clinton’s opinion about this antiquated Depression era exemption to the minimum wage. The article goes on to credit Clinton with being the only Presidential candidate to speak out on this issue, which may not have happened if Nicki had not asked this important question.

Of course, the Presidential campaign is far from over, and even if Sec. Clinton does become President Clinton, much work will need to be done to end the antiquated and discriminatory subminimum wage. However, Nicki started the national conversation in a way that has never been done before, and she will deserve credit for her role in ending the subminimum wage whenever that happens, just as she deserves credit for crafting the first version of the Wisconsin seclusion and restraint law.

I am confident that Nicki will continue to be a successful systems change agent and I am glad that I have played a role mentoring her.

_________________________________________________________________

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