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.

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.

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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.

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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.