A Path With Heart

December 23, 2011

(Yes, I stole the title)

What do you want to be when you grow up? We have all heard that question, some of us far more often than others. When I was younger, the answer was simple- become a lawyer and hold elective office. Over time, that changed as I moved from job to job and grad to school to law school to grad school, etc. But the overriding goal was to have an impact on the world, to improve the lot of others. Over the years, I found many ways to affect change in the world- served on the school committee, crafted policy, conducted research- but only one position truly held my interest and fueled my passion. My work with suicidal children, and then with children who had emotional and behavioral disorders, fulfilled me in ways that are at once enormous yet intangible.

After being laid off from the Donahue Institute I thought of many different paths that I could choose. I had been focusing on completing a PhD in health care policy. It would certainly have provided the intellectual challenge that I find so rewarding and necessary. But the more I really sat with my ideas and listened deeply to my soul I realized that it was not the right path. My work in politics and policy have provided me with some opportunities to make change, but they have given me many more moments of frustration (and boredom). For much of that time, I allayed my concerns by buying into the myth that I was making change on a macro level, and therefore improving so many more people’s lives.

But the sad reality is that politics and policy is not only far removed from actually helping others, but itself has been so overtaken by money and powerful interests that what was once a small glimmer of hope for making societal change is now nothing more than a fantasy. Our politics is beyond broken. Our government is captive to monied interests, whose scores of lobbyists and campaign contributions serve to tilt the playing field even more in their favor. I look back and realize that much of my work in the field was a mere parlor game.

While many people share these views about our broken political system, so few are willing to work to make change. And those same powerful interests do their best to ensure that there will always be not merely atomization of reformers, but very real wedges between groups. I hesitate to call the situation hopeless, as that word is not a normal part of my vocabulary.

But what we do need is a change of consciousness. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Occupy Movement, they are getting to the heart of the matter in many ways. We need to rethink our values, reexamine what we hold dear, strengthen relationships among people, empower ourselves and others, focus on creating (rather than destroying) communities and so much more.

Which leads me back to the original question- what do you want to be when you grow up? Well, I’ve grown up and realize that I need to be on a path with heart. Whether that means becoming a social worker or a minister is still to be determined. Each one takes care of souls, albeit in somewhat different ways. But both are committed to social justice, to building community, to empowering individuals and to helping place the focus on people, not profits.


Making Ourselves Feel Better

December 23, 2011

Many years ago, when working with suicidal children, I was in a staff meeting in which children who were in our program were referred to as having “failed.” They were said to have “failed” in their placements or in their family. Even though I had been at my position for less than a few weeks, I raised my hand to object to this sort of characterization. The Executive Director argued the legitimacy of his point with an attitude of you’ll feel the same way once you’ve been around the block a bit more. More than fifteen years later (and having been around the block, albeit not in the field of direct care) I still hold that those kids were not failures at all.

We hear some of the same language being applied to members of the underclass. That they have somehow failed to avail themselves of all the great opportunities for success that America holds. Or we are told that poor folks are that way because of pathological behaviors, such as drug addiction or alcoholism, that are somehow innate in just these people.

What this language of failure is really meant to do, though, is not to describe (at least accurately) the plight of either of these groups. Rather, it is a way to make ourselves (adults, non-poor) feel better, to let ourselves off the hook and to collectively demonize others for what are often failures of our society, its structure and its values. It mischaracterizes reality and makes very complex matters into simplistic good/bad narratives.

When we label children who try to take their own lives, or are in danger of harming themselves, as “failures” we shift blame away from adults, our mental health system, and our values as a society. Take a moment to think about what on earth would make a four year old child want to run in front of a car or an eight year old try to cut her wrist. It’s chilling, to say the least. These were children who had been abused, molested and neglected. They sought an escape from the pain they were faced with every day. And yet, we want to say they failed? No, it is we who have failed.

And we fail in myriad ways, as adults, as a society, to nurture and protect our children. But we also fail to truly help the needy. We provide a meager social safety net, because we are too busy blaming poor people for being poor.

We refuse to be introspective and thoughtful, because to do so would lead to the inexorable conclusion that we are a sick society. We turn a blind eye to child molestation when it is carried out by someone who wears a collar or who coaches a football team. We ignore sexual assault when it’s the star quarterback. We drug test public assistance recipients because we would rather believe they are all shiftless junkies than examine the role that class and white privilege play in our society. We dismiss domestic violence when it’s someone whose records are platinum. We sweep vicious bullying under the rug because those gay kids probably just brought it on themselves.

It is far, far easier to either ignore our very real problems than to account for our shortcomings. God forbid, we might actually even try to remedy some of them. Instead we will continue to worship at the shrine of the dollar, label all those who have needs as failures, and entertain ourselves to death. After all, that is the new American way.


Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

November 3, 2011

There may be more than one point on which the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street folks converge, but the most prominent one is the populist notion that Wall Street (big banks, etc.) should not have been bailed out. The Tea Party folks base their position on some amalgamation of free market economics and hatred of government, while the OWS protestors decry the bailouts as an inequitable wealth transfer. While there may be some truth to both strains of anti-bailout vitriol, they are each dangerously wrong in their policy prescriptions.

What would TP and OWS have the US government done instead? Simply let large banks and investment houses fold? Regardless of one’s policy views, it is impossible to envision a scenario in which the Bush administration (and the Obama administration) allowed Wall Street to fail without causing an economic collapse much greater than the Great Recession. In fact, it would have been more like the Great Depression. The losers would have been spread far and wide, and would have included tens of millions of middle and working class Americans. Would the Tea Party and the Occupiers really have wanted that?!

Look, I get the angst and outrage over Wall Street. I get that we have a financial elite in our country who have stacked the deck so much in their favor that they simply cannot lose (too big to fail, anyone?). But the same forces that allow them to stack the deck have also allowed them to become so entwined in our country’s economic well-being that allowing them to fail would have had enormous collateral damage.

I think that many who support the Occupy Wall Street movement (I count myself among them) get that the solution to reducing the power of the financial elite lies not in allowing them to fail and taking the rest of the economy down with them. Rather, we need to reform and re-arm our regulators to ensure there are no more too big to fail institutions. We need to eliminate the outsized influence of financial elites on the US government (better campaign finance disclosure laws, lobbying reform/end the revolving door).

I also believe that this is where the Tea Party and OWS part company, which gives me some hope. I have never been comfortable with populism, whether its roots are on the left or the right.


The Best Present I Ever Got

January 2, 2011

With the holidays passed it is a good time to reflect not on the presents I received this year, but rather to write about what is, without doubt, the most important gift I ever received. It will probably come as no surprise to the people who know me that this gift came from my parents, with whom I am still incredibly close. This gift is not something tangible, but it is (one would hope) something that all parents would give to their children, along with love- my values.

This year, like the past several, I gave to charity in my parents’ names. As I sat down at my computer to select a charity and to find just the right quote to include in their e-cards, I meditated on why I was doing this and what it means to be engaged with the world around us. What follows is my attempt to capture those thoughts and feelings and something of a description of from where they came.

I was raised in a decidedly non-religious household. My folks seemed to only go to church for weddings and funerals, though I would frequently go to Sunday school and later church with my paternal grandmother. I do not believe that any of my grandparents (other than paternal grandmother) were particularly religious, either. Yet, my parents both grew up in families that we are at least nominally Christian/religious. All that is to say that I am not convinced that the values my parents passed on to me were driven by religious teachings or beliefs, no matter how much they align with what might be called Christian social justice teachings (of a Protestant/Methodist character).

From a pretty young age (probably younger than I can recollect, as I am old), I was taught not only to respect others, but that we had an obligation to others. That meant giving to charity, donating clothes, and volunteering time (especially my dad with youth sports). My family was not wealthy (probably middle that rose to upper middle by my teen years), so this service to others was not rooted in any sense of noblesse oblige. Rather it was a deep and abiding belief in the value of others, regardless of personal characteristics like income, race, or education. I was taught to always think of others and not to be consumed with material things (I still struggle with the latter).

These core values have driven or at least helped to shape every decision I have made as an adult. I entered politics because I wanted to serve others and improve the lot of children in our public education system. I worked in direct care of children, rather than the far more lucrative financial services sector, because so many things are more important than money. (I should note that my ability to work for less than market wages was completely underwritten by my parents’ willingness to subsidize my rent and other expenses.) I went to graduate school for public policy so that I might hone the skills necessary to create a better society, via robust social welfare and educational systems. I’ve worked in public finance for much of the same reasons. And, I now work in program evaluation in STEM education as a way to address dramatic educational achievement gaps. Along the way I have also continued to give to charity, volunteer my time and advocate for policies that would help to ensure a more just society.

As cliche as this might sound- I owe who I am to the values my parents have instilled in me. They taught me to be a compassionate, loving person. And that is the greatest gift anyone could ever receive. I am forever grateful.


Another Needless Tragedy

September 22, 2010

By now, most people have read about the suicide of Broncos’ wide receiver Kenny McKinley. That someone so young (23) and so successful (professional athlete) could take his own life strikes so many as so senseless. We mistakenly assume that a person must be completely hopeless for depression to rise to the level of suicide. And we mistake outward success for inner happiness or contentment.

All accounts are that McKinley was a jovial, good spirited guy. With the exception of an offhand comment he made that he “should just kill” himself after his surgery, there seem to be no reports of any of the tell tale signs of deep depression, let alone suicidal ideation. One wonders how many of the signs may have been present, but not recognized.

Probably each and everyone of us has joked about killing themselves at one point or another. Of course, as someone who has tried to do just that, I usually cannot get away with that type of joke. But for the vast majority of people, such an offhand comment would raise no warning signals to others. Perhaps we should try not to joke about such things? I don’t know.

What we do need to do is better recognize the signs of depression ( maybe we need to be serious about that word, too) and especially the warning signs for suicide. I do not wish to rehash them all here, but rather touch upon a few. Take notice of changes in someone’s eating or sleeping patterns. When in emotional turmoil, a person will often have difficulty eating, some difficulty getting to sleep, and lots of difficulty getting up in the morning. Another indicator is when someone loses interest in things they normally show a great degree of interest in. This is part and parcel of an overall disengaging from the world, socially and emotionally.

Many of the other warnings are even more difficult to discern. Changes in mood can be difficult to spot unless they are so dramatic as to be painfully obvious. Jokes about dying- where do we draw the line between offhand comment and expressing an inner desire not to live? It all can be quite blurry.

Luckily, there are tons of resources regarding depression and suicide on the internet. If someone you know might be depressed or suicidal, it’s best to be proactive. Contact their network of friends and family to see if others have noticed any changes or are concerned. Ask your friend if s/he is depressed- you’d be amazed at how many people just never bother to ask. That question can open the door to a wealth of information about your friends mental well-being. And always, ALWAYS, err on the side of caution. Your friend may be temporarily angry with you for making too much of a non-emergency situation, but s/he will come to realize that you simply love them and do not want to see them hurting.

Again, as I posted before about my own struggles with suicide and depression, if you have any questions or need any help, feel free to comment here. I promise not to publish the comment. And to try my best to help.


What We Owe (archives)

September 17, 2010

Does God call us to take care of our less fortunate fellow men? That is a question much on my mind in recent weeks. You see, as part of my daily commute to school and the gym I pass by areas where the homeless of Atlanta congregate and sleep. Every night I drive by church steps where men and women sleep. Every day I see the lines for food at the soup kitchens. And I think to myself, what is so wrong in our society that these men and women are forced to live their lives in doorways and public parks. And, why aren’t we doing more about it?

All too often we turn away from the problems of homelessness. We either chose to lament that our government does not do more to alleviate their plight. Or, we simply chose to ignore the downtrodden among us. Perhaps it is because we see ourselves in these faces. What makes me or you or any of us different from the man or woman sleeping on a park bench? Think about it. Maybe you can persuade yourself that you are somehow better off because of your own life choices or that you are inherently better than these people. But, if you look deep inside your soul, do you really believe that?

I look at my own circumstance and I have a very comfortable life. I have a graduate degree and will finish my law degree in another 18 months. I drive a reasonably nice car and have a fairly high standard of living. But what if I was not born into the family I was? What if my parents could not, or did not, have the means to support me? What if my dad had lost his job when I was ten? Or if my mother had been stricken with breast cancer? Any number of small changes in life could have put me in those same soup kitchen lines and sleeping in church doorways.

There are those among us who content themselves by blaming the homeless and poor for their plight. And, sure there are some folks who made wrong decisions that caused their problems. But there are many others who simply have not made it in our society through no fault of their own. If you are passed through school without being able to read or write, is it your fault? If you have a mental illness is it your fault?

There are tens of millions of people in America who go hungry and without shelter every day. And yet we can spend billions of dollars to invade foreign countries? We give away huge tax breaks to millionaires while others cannot afford a cup of coffee. We encourage the exportation of jobs to third world countries while the only job some people have is washing windshields in traffic.

To say that we have our priorities skewed is an understatement. All of the world’s religions include in their teachings a calling to serve the poor. Yet we fail to heed this call. We have grown selfish and callous towards those who are less fortunate. We seem to be of the belief that the way to happiness and knowing God is to have the latest and shiniest goodies. We build ornate palaces in which to live, spend and worship, while allowing our brothers and sisters to sleep outside like wild animals.

We must change our ways if we are to ever attain salvation. We must help her out when she is down; mend his scars when he is injured; feed her when she is hungry; clothe him when his clothes are torn. In short, we must heed God’s call to service; we must cease our consumerist ethic, where happiness is judged by material wealth and replace it with a new one in which service to others and being a good person are of primary concern.

(originally posted September 2006)


Aiming for Mediocrity (archives)

September 17, 2010

Mark Kleiman had a good post about public education. I believe his main point, and one which I agree with him completely, is captured by this paragraph:

One of the many bad features of NCLB is that it focuses entirely on the bottom of the distribution. Our smartest students are being systematically cheated. That’s less true in rich neighborhoods than in poor ones, but it’s true everywhere.

In email follow up, Mark said that, “the logical implication of no child left behind is no child allowed to get ahead.” This is something true not only of NCLB, but of modern education policy in general. Since at least the late 1960’s the US public education system has poured funding into special and remedial education programs, to the detriment of gifted and talented students. Though I fully support special education, and have worked in that field, I realize that education funding is a zero sum game. Though we can argue and agitate for more education funding, in the end the pie is of a fixed size and every dollar going to the one student is not going to another.

This is a sensitive subject because of the prejudices people infer when you call for greater resources for gifted and talented students. This is especially so because up until more recent times, students with special needs were cast away by our public schools. And what I am arguing for is not a return to those days. But what I am calling for is an understanding that gifted and talented kids have special needs as well. Just as a slower learner needs assistance in keeping up with his/her peers, a more advanced learner needs materials and challenges to keep him/her occupied until the rest of the class catches up.

Until we recognize the needs of advanced learners and begin to provide resources for their educations, our entire system will be one that shoots for mediocrity. Just look at NCLB as an example. The focus is on bringing the slower learners up to some standard. Now, one can argue about what that standard ought to be, but it hovers somewhere below the mean. It would have to in order to ensure that a majority “succeeds.”

In education, and perhaps society in general, we are uncomfortable with inherent variations in intelligence. That intelligence is distributed on a bell curve (not to be confused that racist tome) makes us queasy. We want to believe that all children can get to the same place educationally, assuming we provide them with adequate resources. But in reality, this can never hold true. Intelligence is no different from athletic or artistic abilities.

These natural variations provide fertile ground to examine our values. Do we believe in equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes? If we believe in the former, then we should not be uncomfortable with some students achieving more. After all, we regard varying degrees of musical ability in children as unremarkable. Why is it that education drives us to regard unequal outcomes as inherently bad?

Two possible reasons come to mind, one rational, the other emotional. On the rational side, our country has a history of pervasive racism, more than a dose of sexism and institutionalization of special needs children. This fuels a perception that the variation in outcomes we see is the result of socio-cultural factors. Maybe we believe that if not for those factors, variation would be minimal. Or, we simply feel that intelligence is not normally distributed. Maybe we are unwilling to accept that reality.

No matter what the driving force behind our belief in equality of outcomes, we must resist that urge. There simply is no possible way to achieve that goal. Not only that, but many strategies aimed to reduce variation are actually attempts to enforce mediocrity. In our attempts to lift the boats of those less gifted we have abandoned all of those whose ships are not only floating, but cruising.

(originally posted March, 2007)


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