Keep Your Hips Loose

Many years ago, a dear friend invited me to join him and and few other friends for a unique bachelor’s party before he got married. Rather than throw a party, he proposed that we enroll in a whitewater canoeing class at the Nanthala Outdoor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. It sounded like a lot of fun and a great way to improve my canoeing skills, so I gladly agreed.

On the first day, our instructors brought us to a flat water lake to orient us to the basics of whitewater canoeing. Although I had spent years canoeing on lakes, I had minimal experience canoeing in rapids, and the first thing I found out was that lake canoes and whitewater canoes are constructed in a very different manner.

Before we stepped into our whitewater canoes, our instructors taught us that every canoe has both primary stability and secondary stability. Those big aluminum canoes that many take out on lakes have excellent primary stability, which means that they feel very stable when you step into them, but they have very poor secondary stability, which means that they will easily capsize if they try to run rapids. On the other hand, whitewater canoes have very poor primary stability, but excellent secondary stability, which means they feel very tippy when you step into them, but have a much better ability to stay upright in rough water.

I discovered how little primary stability whitewater canoes have as soon as I stepped into the canoe for the first time on flat water, as I was so unprepared for how tippy it would be that I immediately flipped the boat and fell in the water. While I was somewhat embarrassed, I learned an important lesson that kept me upright through for the rest of our trip, including our “final exam” which involved paddling through an Olympic training course in very rough water. The lesson my instructors gave me after my early flop was to keep my hips loose.

I certainly took that seriously during the rest of our whitewater canoeing school and visualized my hips as shock absorbers. Instead of fighting rough water, I would absorb the shock with my loose hips, allowing me to remain upright.

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In the absence of any whitewater canoeing photos, here is a photo of me in Lake Superior Provincial Park in a sea kayak on a very calm day. During other days on that trip, keeping my hips loose helped me navigate rougher waters.

While I continue to enjoy canoeing and usually avoid capsizing by keeping my hips loose, I have realized that this lesson applies to many other situations. Whether in our personal lives or in the rocky political world we live in, we often confront situations that pose many challenges and threaten to capsize us. If we expand the concept of physically keeping our hips loose to a mental ability to stay flexible when we encounter difficulties, we have a much better chance of staying upright and finding a better approach to dealing with whatever dilemma we are facing, than if we remain rigid in the hope that our inflexibility will appear to be a sign of strength.

I am not suggesting that we do not need to be strong in the face of life’s challenges. Rather, my suggestion is that our greatest strength may be found in a flexible approach which allows us to utilize creative solutions to whatever challenge we may face. Keeping one’s mind and body flexible may allow us to better understand where our adversary is coming from and respond in a manner that may result in a win-win solution rather than remaining stuck in a win-lose scenario which so many of our leaders try to convince us is the only possible outcome available. The risk, or course, with pursuing inflexible win-lose strategies is that they often end up with both sides.

We can see the results of this I win-you lose mentality playing out in Congress and the current President’s administration, with both sides generally unable to find room for compromise resulting in persistent stalemates dotted with occasional unilateral actions that opponents scream about with outrage. Where this all goes from here is hard to predict, but it is my great hope that if more of us keep our hips loose and minds flexible, we will survive our current challenges and progress to better days ahead when difficult problems are solved in a way that serves most people, instead of just a few.

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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.

 

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5 Million Children

Yesterday, I joined over 400 people who attended Madison Urban Ministry‘s (MUM) Partner’s for Change luncheon, to celebrate all that MUM has accomplished to bring justice to our community, including:

community-based solutions (that) invest in residence, employment, support, transportation and education that reduce recidivism and reconnect returning prisoners with their families and neighborhoods. Since 2006, the two-year recidivism rate (return to prison for either a new crime or a violation of supervision rules) for MUM re-entry services participants is between 5-14% compared to a statewide recidivism rate of 67%.

University of Wisconsin Prof. Julie Poehlmann-Tynan was the keynote speaker at the luncheon. Her focus is on the impact of mass incarceration on children. I have had the good fortune to get to know her previously, and to speak about the school to prison pipeline to her students. With over 2 million Americans in jail or prison, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world. Remarkably, the U.S. even incarcerates more people than China, despite China’s reputation as a repressive regime and its much larger population than the U.S.

What Prof. Poehlmann-Tynan revealed was that incarcerating so many people has a traumatizing and long lasting impact on our nation’s children, including:

developing negative outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, including substance abuse, externalizing problems, cognitive delays, school failure, truancy, criminal activity, and persistent internalizing problems.

She informed us that:

  • 5 million American children have an incarcerated parent.

This equals 1 in 14 American children. Of course, since our nation has incarcerates a much higher rate of African-American and poor Americans, this also has a disparate impact on poor and African-American children. Prof. Poehlmann-Tynan informed us that:

  • 1 in 8 poor American children have an incarcerated parent; and
  • 1 in 9 African-American children have an incarcerated parent.

These numbers are shocking, and have both a current and long range impact on how children with incarcerated parents learn and develop into adults. While there are more alarming statistics about the impact of these absurdly high incarceration rates, a systems change approach requires examining solutions to stem the tide of mass incarceration.

Fortunately, there are rays of hope. Last week, Philadelphia announced its intentions to close its notorious 91 year old House of Corrections by 2020 due to reforms initiated 2 years ago. For those concerned about safety, it is notable that these reforms have already dropped Philadelphia’s jail population by 33% without causing an increase in crime.

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The reforms instituted in Philadelphia include:

  • Defense attorneys working harder to get defendants released quickly with no bail or low bail, typically without opposition from prosecutors, and support from the city’s judges who are releasing them.
  • Philadelphia police taking more defendants to treatment rather than jail.
  • More petitions for early parole from longer sentences are being granted.
  • More space is now available in the city’s six jails for rehabilitation programs, and less overtime pay is needed for jail guards.

As Philadelphia’s Mayor Jim Kenney said:

The system didn’t work. It didn’t have outcomes that were acceptable. We had a revolving door. Rather than holistically treating people, we’d just lock them up, they’d do their time and then they’d be right back. It’s difficult to take care of your kids, or your parents, if you’re not there.

Kenney attributes two new approaches for making this progress.

  • Early bail review for people still in jail after five days with bonds of $50,000 or less. Kenney said 84 percent of those reviewed were released within five days, and more than 92 percent had shown up for their subsequent hearings; and
  • Police diverting drug-related offenders to treatment clinics, and since December “no one who’s been in the program has been rearrested,” Kenney said.

The city’s chief public defender, Keir Bradford-Grey, told the Washington Post that getting a $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation “brought all of us together to really examine what’s going on in our system.” She went on  to report that:

One thing the city’s defender system launched was to place lawyers at police district stations to represent clients immediately after an arrest during their first appearance before a bail commissioner. The lawyers are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have handled more than 1,400 cases in the past two years. “Now that we’re able to give judges much better information,” she said, “they have found it very useful when they make decisions. Usually they have no more information than the current charges and the criminal history.” But with more context about the defendant’s past, living arrangement and employment, “people are more likely to be released without a cash bond or with more affordable bond amounts.”

Another key player is Philadelphia’s newly elected district attorney, Larry Krasner, who announced in February, that:

his office would no longer ask for cash bail for low-level offenses, which he said made the system “fairer for the poor and for people of color.”

Prior to becoming Philadelphia’s DA, Krasner was a long-time civil rights and criminal defense attorney. As he said in a news release,

There is absolutely no reason why someone who will show up for court, is not a flight risk, and is no threat to their neighbors and community, needs to sit in jail for days because they can’t post a small amount of bail. It’s simply not fair. We don’t imprison the poor for poverty. This new cash bail policy will not only save the taxpayers money by allowing low-level defendants to maintain their freedom, but it will begin to level the economic and racial playing field in our courtrooms.

While Philadelphia’s progress is laudable, the rest of the nation must follow if it is going to solve its mass incarceration problem which is exacerbating  racial and income disparities at a generational level. To replicate Philadelphia’s success requires systems change. As Laurie R. Garduque, director of justice reform for the MacArthur Foundation, told the Washington Post:

Often the problem is we don’t look at it as systems reform. We look at it as one decision-maker at a time, and you don’t get buy-in from somebody. When everyone buys in and the system begins to respond more thoughtfully, there’s more public confidence and legitimacy, and families and communities are all better off.

With help from organizations like MUM, we can make progress in this area. But voters will also need to elect leaders who are committed to the types of reforms Philadelphia is making because non-profits do not get to decide who gets incarcerated and who is released into society.

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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.

Frustration is not a Plan

Last night, I returned home from Washington DC after spending four days at J Street’s 10th Annual ConferenceAs Chair of J Street’s Madison Chapter, I have attended many of these conferences as well as a number of Leadership Summits. I always learn a lot about the never ending efforts of Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and many others to achieve a peaceful and just resolution to decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. However, this year, I almost did not attend the conference. My frustration level with American, Israeli and Palestinian political leaders is so high that I truly wondered whether it would be worth it to attend the conference this year.

J Street has wisely invested heavily in subsidizing college students from its J Street U arm and this year was no exception, as 1200 students attended the conference. One of those students was my son, Josh, who after attending college for two years in Israel, at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), transferred to the University of Minnesota last fall. His decision to attend his first J Street conference was the deciding factor for me to attend this year’s conference.

Yet, despite looking forward to seeing my son, and showing him around the nation’s capital, I remained skeptical about whether my presence at the conference, would help in some small way, resolve the generations old stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. Despite my frustration, however, I looked forward to hearing what the many speakers had to say, and hoped to find some inspiration.

Indeed, there were many great speakers, including U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Ben Cardin and Brian Schatz, NGO leaders, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Husan Zomlot, and at least five Ministers from Israel’s Knesset (known as MKs). One particular MK helped me shift my thinking. On Sunday, J Street leaders were invited to a unique opportunity to eat lunch with all the MKs at the conference. MK Michal Rozin from the progressive Meretz party has done a lot of great work including leading the charge to stop the deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel. When she spoke, she understood our frustration, but then said:

“To be frustrated is not a plan.”

She then went on to say that we each have a choice when confronting the winds of change. We can either be the windmill or the windbreaker. Of course, our choice may depend on which way the winds are blowing, but if we do not want to simply get blown over by those winds, we must cast aside our frustration and decide whether to be the windmill or the windbreaker.

Sure enough, this opportunity presented itself during J Street’s Advocacy Day, when thousands of us, including my son and I, met with our members of Congress to encourage them to take concrete steps towards a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. J Street asked me to be Wisconsin’s Team Leader and on Monday, I reviewed our talking points and schedule with our team. However, we noticed that we did not have a meeting scheduled with Rep. Ron Kind, who is from LaCrosse. I have met with Rep. Kind in the past and we were all disappointed that we were not scheduled to meet with him on this trip.

However, one of our team members, Kent Johnson, a Lutheran Pastor from LaCrosse, said he knew Rep. Kind personally, and asked if it was ok if he tried to set up a meeting with him, and we encouraged him to do so. Later that day, he informed us that although Rep. Kind was very busy, we could meet with his staff and Rep. Kind would join our meeting briefly to say hello.

What we did not know until we arrived at his office, was that Rep. Kind was at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing, and along with other members of that committee, he was questioning the Secretary of Labor. We started going over our talking points with his staffer, and then his staffer instructed us to follow him to the hearing room as Rep. Kind wanted to meet with us and would step out of the hearing to do so after he was done with his questioning.

Although I have met with Members of Congress hundreds of times over my 33 year career, I have never been in this situation. Rep. Kind’s staffer instructed us to take a seat and watch the hearing until Rep. Kind finished his questioning, and then led us out into the hallway. When Rep. Kind joined us, I truly expected that he would simply give us a courteous handshake and hello and then return to the important business of his hearing. But instead, he gave us all the time we needed to cover all of our talking points and engaged us with serious questions. Indeed, at the end of our meeting, he had his staffer take our picture with him.

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L-R: Me, Kent Johnson, Rep. Ron Kind, Josh Spitzer-Resnick, Ben Gellman

As MK Rozin said so eloquently, frustration is not a plan. My son helped me get over my frustration with the seemingly intractable dispute between Israelis and Palestinians so I could accept my role as State Team Leader during our Congressional meetings. Kent Johnson refused to allow our frustration with not having a meeting with his Congressman without pursuing it further, and in the end, we had a productive meeting that none of us will ever forget.

While frustration is certainly a legitimate and regularly felt emotion of those of us who want to improve the world, frustration is not a plan. Rather, systems change requires getting past one’s frustration to become the windmill for positive change and the windbreaker against destructive change.

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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.

 

 

Learning Patience…again

For much of my life, patience was not my strong suit. I often reacted too quickly on both a personal and professional level. This lack of patience often interfered with what I was trying to accomplish. Indeed, impatience kept my stress level at a higher level than was physically and emotionally healthy. One sign of that stress manifested itself in chronic migraines.

While I have done many things to manage my migraines, meditating every morning has not only reduced both the frequency and intensity of my headaches. Daily meditation also provided the added bonus of giving me tools to increase my patience. However, old habits die hard, and recently I discovered that learning patience is a life long venture.

We are fortunate to own some vacation property on a small lake in Central Wisconsin. Each spring we look forward to putting our pier out when the ice on the lake melts. About 2 weeks ago, although the lake had not completely melted, there was plenty of open water off our shoreline, so I decided to put my waders on, and put the pier in.

Once I put the pier in the water, I brought my canoe down to the lake, so I could enjoy an early spring paddle, during which I could explore the remaining ice on the lake.

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Then, the wind shifted, and the ice sheet started approaching the pier. Within minutes, the ice sheet was slamming against the pier and into our shoreline, knocking the chairs into the water.

 

I used the rake I keep by the water to break up the ice that was pushing against the pier so it would not bend its legs. Needless to say, I did not go canoeing that afternoon. In fact, it was a good thing I did not take the canoe out before the ice sheet started moving, as if I had, it may have capsized my canoe. Even if I had avoided that problem in very cold water, I would not have been able to paddle back to my shoreline as I would have been trapped by the ice.

Last weekend, we returned to Goose Lake, and virtually all of the ice had melted off the lake. I put my waders back on to straighten out the pier. This time I was able to go canoeing, and explore the small amount of ice left on the lake.

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For those of us who live through cold winters, we are often anxious for spring to arrive. This year, it has taken a long time, as snow has fallen in April. The lesson, of course, is that there are many things, including the weather, that we cannot control and we need to exercise patience to avoid unnecessary problems.

Patience is the skill which allows us to delay gratification until the conditions are ripe for whatever we are hoping to accomplish. This applies to systems change as well as the weather.

Living in Wisconsin has been frustrating for progressives for the past 8 years. Protests and recalls did not transform the political environment in the way many of us had hoped. However, rather than giving up, those of us who refuse to accept how political leaders have destroyed so many progressive institutions, stay patient and keep pursuing different avenues to turn the tide.

Recent elections suggest the tide may indeed be turning, but when it does, we will still need to exercise patience as reversing 8 years of regressive politics will take time and a systemic approach. With the help of recently energized young people and a huge increase in politically active women, those of us who refuse to be beaten down can use our patient approach to methodically and systemically make our communities better places for all.

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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 Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell wrote The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in 2000. In his book, he discusses how “ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses.” He defines the tipping point as  “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” From a systems change perspective, the concept of a tipping point is important when analyzing both how to create sufficient momentum behind a policy change to bring the change into fruition.

One of the most frustrating failures in American public policy has been the complete ineptitude of our nation’s leaders to enact reasonable reform to combat gun violence. Many gun reform advocates believed that our nation would finally overcome the opposition by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to all efforts at reasonable gun reform, after 20 children and 6 adults were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. However, as we all know, the NRA and too many politicians simply offered their thoughts and prayers, and no meaningful gun reform was enacted.

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But then came the high school students who lost 14 fellow students and 3 staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While the NRA and Congressional leaders continued to send thoughts and prayers, and the President and many legislators would rather arm teachers than enact meaningful gun reform, on behalf of her fellow Parkland students, Emma Gonzalez called BS on these unhelpful ideas. As one of the students, Cameron Kaspy, stated quite simply, My generation won’t stand for this.”

But why might this event be different than Sandy Hook or the many other gun massacres and become a tipping point to lead to meaningful gun reform, when the other horrific incidents did not? While it is too soon to know whether the results will be different, and we truly cannot expect meaningful change until after the November mid-term elections, there are indications that a number of different dynamics are in play that did not exist before, such that we may be approaching a tipping point which could impact the November mid-term elections culminating in meaningful gun reform in the next Congress.

Of course, the first new dynamic is the bold, energized leadership of the Parkland High School students. But since they cannot vote, high school students alone will not have sufficient impact to reach the tipping point. Ironically, the callousness of our President who appears to be devoid of empathy, combined with the energy of these high school students may be what energizes voters to impact the November mid-term elections in a meaningful way on this issue.

There are many signs that a shift in the gun reform dynamic is in play, such as:

  • Republicans who recognize that their day of reckoning on guns is here.
  • A well organized campaign targeted at politicians beholden to the gun lobby to throw them out.
  • A recognition that women could be the undoing of the President.
  • The March 24th March for Our Lives to demand that lives and safety become a priority and that we end gun violence and mass shootings.
  • Poll results showing American voters support stricter gun laws 66 – 31 percent, the highest level of support ever, including 50 – 44 percent support among gun owners.
    Support for universal background checks is almost universal, 97 – 2 percent, including 97 – 3 percent among gun owners. Support is also at its highest level with:

    • 67 percent favoring a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons;
    • 83 percent favoring a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases and
    • 75 percent believe Congress needs to do more to reduce gun violence.

Of course, tipping points are reached by many actions, and as Gladwell pointed out, many of those actions are small actions taken by individuals. So, if you want to be part of the change that leads to a tipping point to achieve meaningful gun reform, here are some things you can do.

  • Investigate how your members of Congress vote on gun reform bills. You can check their votes here.
  • Check to see whether your members of Congress receive contributions from the NRA, and if so, how much they receive, here.
  • Tell your state legislators to support a law that exists in five states that allows guns to be seized from those whom a judge deems a threat to themselves or others.
  • Tell your members of Congress to support laws that evidence demonstrates will save lives including:
    • Requiring permits to purchase all guns by eliminating the exemption for private sales;
    • Banning individuals convicted of any violent crime from gun purchase;
    • Making all serious domestic violence offenders surrender firearms;
    • Banning active alcohol abusers from firearms; and
    • Banning assault weapons.
  • Join and/or contribute to an organization that is working on these issues such as Everytown for Gun Safety or Moms Demand Action  for Gun Sense in America.

Finally, the tipping point will not be reached if politicians believe that NRA support will preserve their power in office. Since the vast majority of Americans support meaningful gun reform, they must translate this into votes that change the calculation of politicians and make them realize that NRA support will become a liability instead of an asset. The only way to make that happen is for gun reform advocates to support gun reform candidates and to vote for them. As Justin Dart, considered as the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), said so eloquently in a way that gun reform advocates must take to heart:

Vote as if your life depended on it, because it does.

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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.

 

Author the Future

Earlier this week, I was in Washington, DC for a J Street Leadership Summit, during which roughly 200 leaders of J Street gathered from around the country to learn and strategize about how to achieve the long sought 2 state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, this is no easy task, and cannot be done without many partners.

During the opening plenary session, the featured speakers were Israeli Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel sitting side by side with Ambassador Dr. Husam Zomlot, Chief Representative of the Palestinian General Delegation to the United States. While these two experienced men did not always agree, they both believe that a 2 state solution is both necessary and possible.

During Amb. Zomlot’s presentation, he said three words that struck a chord during our troubling times. He encouraged us to, “author the future.”

Of course, each of us may choose to author the future in our own way. But one thing we cannot afford to do is sit back and do nothing while others determine our future for us.

Understandably, given the wide array of challenges which we all face on both a personal and societal level, it is quite easy to become paralyzed by the belief that one cannot have any impact by taking any particular action. Yet, in my 30+ years of engaging in systems change on a wide variety of topics, I have borne witness to the power of both individual and collective action that has the power to author the future in a positive manner.

Of course, no one can author the future of every single problem that one faces. There are, of course, a myriad of problems, both personal and societal that we all face, and nobody can take every single one of them on. Perhaps, to author the future, means to determine which problems each of us will take an active role in addressing, and then in what manner.

By doing something to author the future, including voting and contributing to causes one believes in, you are pushing back against the aphorism, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.

The day after learning from Amb. Zomlot and many others, I joined J Street leaders on Capitol Hill as we met with our members of Congress. Between meetings, many of us grabbed lunch in the Longworth House Cafeteria, where Congressional staff and visitors often eat. As I was getting up to leave for my next meeting, I was surprised to see an icon of the civil rights movement, who is also a great J Street supporter, Cong. John Lewis, eating lunch with a staff person.

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Before leaving for my next meeting, I took the time to introduce myself and thank Rep. Lewis for his decades of service to our nation. I also introduced him to a college student who is on the board of J Street U, who was joining me for Congressional meetings. Rep. Lewis encouraged us to keep up the good work and when we told him that we were going to meet with our Congressman Mark Pocan, he told us that Rep. Pocan was a great Congressman. By introducing a young advocate to this great leader, I hope I helped to author the future of a young man by inspiring him to continue his advocacy to help to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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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.

 

Five Years of Systems Change Consulting

Five years ago this month, I launched Systems Change Consulting. My goal then and now, is to provide consulting and training to individuals, non-profits, and public entities with a 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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I am pleased with what I have accomplished to date, although the state of our local, state, national, and international affairs means that I have a lot more work to do. While I continue to provide training and consulting to non-profits and public entities, a significant portion of my work involves individual representation. However, even when representing individuals, my clients usually retain me because they appreciate that when I represent them, I often try to leverage the results in their case into larger progressive systems change to help others. They often tell me that they are retaining me because they do not want anyone else to suffer as they or their children have suffered, which is the essence of systems change.

Early on in this venture, one of my best friends suggested that I start a blog. Initially, I dismissed his suggestion, but in October, 2012, I decided that he was right and that this blog could be another vehicle for systems change. Little did I know that nearly 5 years after launching this blog, I would have written 235 posts, and that my blog be viewed nearly 40,000 times in close to 120 countries all over the world. A review of my 10 most viewed posts gives a snapshot on the wide array of issues in which I have engaged over these past 5 years. You can read them by clicking on the title.

  1. Disrespectful Justice: discusses an appalling view of our legal system as presented by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley.
  2. Special Needs Voucher Scam Fully Revealed: in which I expose how special needs school vouchers are really a scam.
  3. The Morning After…the Sun Still Rises: which reminds us that even after bad election results, we have accomplished a lot and will continue to accomplish more.
  4. Welcoming the Homeless to Our Neighborhood: describing a proposed homeless day resource center in my neighborhood, which I am pleased to report is about to finally open, albeit in a location about a mile away from where it was originally proposed.
  5. Building Community: Now More than Ever: reminding readers that in order to improve our world, we need to focus locally and build community.
  6. Wisconsin’s New Law on the use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children: points out all the protections we achieved when we passed Wisconsin’s first law to protect school children from the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.
  7. Building Community through Queerness: in which I describe how my niece and her partner created community with family and friends through their open queerness.
  8. If it Ain’t Broke…: in which I use words of a dearly departed young man to urge us not to fall into complacency.
  9. Sun Prairie Police Brutality Case Headed to Trial: it turns out that I settled this police abuse case on behalf of my middle school age client before trial.
  10. Key Protections for Students with Disabilities: describes critical protections by students with disabilities issues by the Obama administration which advocates will need to fight to preserve under the current administration.

In addition to my blog, I also used the media to accomplish systems change. My most recent articles include (click on title to read article):

I have often joked that I wish the world was a place in which my work was no longer necessary. Sadly, I do not expect that to happen in my lifetime, so I continue to roll up my sleeves and work for progressive systems change, using every tool in my varied arsenal.

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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.

 

If Not Now…

One of the most revered Jewish sages, Hillel, famously asked three important questions that continue to have relevance to this day:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?

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Every one of us should ask our selves all three of these questions on a regular basis. The first question reminds us to take care of ourselves, as while empathy for others is important, failing to engage in self-care and self-advocacy will ultimately result in an inability to thrive as a human being and care for those who matter most.

The second question reminds us that those who engage in purely selfish behavior must ask themselves why they are on this planet as their purpose cannot simply be to ignore others to simply engage in self serving behavior.

The third question is a call to action. Specifically, it challenges each and every person who may be tired of the endless bickering of politicians and pundits that if you are not prepared to take action now, when will you do so?

Hillel’s questions have inspired a movement which calls itself If Not Now which is dedicated to ending American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It is a non-violent movement striving to win the hearts and minds of the Jewish community.

As important as ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is, Hillel’s questions go far beyond any one specific issue. Regardless of one’s background, we live in communities, nations and indeed, an entire world that demands that no one sit on the sidelines.

Of course, many may lament the state of the world but simply not know what they can do to change it for the better. Indeed, nobody can engage in every single issue that seemingly cry out for our help every day. In fact, doing so, will result in violating Hillel’s first question as those who try to fix everything ultimately fail to take care of themselves and will end by crashing and burning.

If you are inspired by Hillel’s message and want to take action, but you are unsure of where to start, I suggest taking the following steps:

  1. Identify an issue that you really care about;
  2. Find an organization that is working on the issue you care about in a way that resonates with your values;
  3. See if that organization needs volunteers, and if it does not, or you are unable to volunteer, donate funds within your means to help the organization do its work; and
  4. Support candidates who seek to make the positive changes in the world that are consistent with your values. This can include volunteering for the candidates, sending donations to help their campaigns, and remembering to vote.

While I have spent my entire career doing my best to follow Hillel’s sage wisdom, I understand that for many, it is difficult. There are many challenges that we all face: personal, emotional, financial, and in today’s world, simply a feeling of helplessness due to the overwhelming nature of need. My advice to those who feel frozen in inaction is to start small. Just pick one issue to work on. Ask yourself every day,

what am I doing to make the lives of others just a little bit better?

We all have the ability to lend a helping hand to a neighbor, vote for a candidate who represents our values, or provide support to a charitable organization doing good work. This will not only help improve your community and the world, but it will make you feel better about yourself and less of a victim of those powerful forces which degrade our world on a daily basis. Doing so will allow you to answer all three of Hillel’s questions in a positive manner.

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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.

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.