Dani Robbins

Archive for the ‘Advocacy’ Category

Does Your Agency Aspire to Social Justice or Charity?

In Advocacy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on May 23, 2017 at 11:40 am

The two questions I repeat the most, in both my classes and in my practice, are these: What’s the goal?  Who decides?

What’s the goal?

Is your agency’s goal to be the best food pantry (or any other service providing/safety net charity)? Or is it to address the underlying issues related to food scarcity (or any other complicated, multi-layered critical issue)?  If it’s the former, that’s charity.  If it’s the latter, that’s social justice.

Social Justice is working to change systemic issues. Charity is responding to immediate needs.  As anyone who has ever taken my class or worked in our field will tell you, we need both.  We’re not going to ignore the hungry child in front of us to work for social justice. Yet, we can’t only get food for those who are hungry, because the root causes are what’s causing food scarcity.

Every person who serves a nonprofit has to decide where to plug in. Every staff member. Every researcher. Every leader. Every volunteer. Every donor.

What’s the goal?

Do we keep fishing cats out of the river, or look upstream and deal with whatever or whoever is causing the cats to be in the river? What’s the goal? (It’s a handy question.)

Nonprofit Boards, in concert with their CEO, set the goal. The goal sets the path. (This could be a great generative conversation for a future Board meeting.)

If the goal is to be the best food pantry, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be the best food pantry –  unless your goal is social justice, and then you’re on the wrong path. The path supports the work toward the goal.

Maybe you want both?  I always did. I wanted to run the best agency I could, doing good work, meeting our mission, with a well trained, dedicated and talented Board and staff, serving our clients with dignity AND I want to work with my community partners to eliminate the need for my agency.

That means dual goals with dual paths. You can be the best food pantry and also work with community partners to eliminate food scarcity.  Food scarcity, and all systemic issues, is a big scary multi layered bucket of issues that include privilege, implicit bias, legal and policy challenges, poverty elimination, racism, sexism, classism, housing, school funding imbalances, and lots of other things that are hard to tease out and even harder to solve.

Being the best is a go it alone, we have the answers, and we’ll get it done model. It’s a bit more territorial and a lot less collaborative, but it’s not ineffective and sometimes the circumstances call for it.

Am I competing against my partner agencies for funding?  Sometimes I am. Does that mean I can’t also work with them to address the underlying issues in our community. Some will tell you it does.  I’m here to tell you it doesn’t.  Where you sit always determines where you stand.

It’s why your values have to match your agency’s policies and its aspirations?  As I mentioned in Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice “saying you value one thing but actually doing another sends a very inconsistent and confusing message. If we want our teams to live our values, then we have to live them and our policies and systems have to reflect them.”

Who Decides?

You do, collectively and individually. You decide at the agency level.  You decide at the community level. You decide at your leadership level- on your team, in your neighborhood.  Every day.  With every decision. Every donation. Every allocation. Every choice.

There was a great piece on NPR this morning  In Some Rural Counties, Hunger Is Rising, But Food Donations Aren’t looking at just this issue. It’s not just SW Virginia.  There are communities across the country that are discussing systemic issues and setting goals for change in their community.  I’m proud to tell you that several of those cities are in Ohio; Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus have been and continue to have these conversations.

I’m hoping it’s a national trend. Even if it’s not yet a trend that has come to your community, you can still move toward social justice.

We each get to decide if we run our agencies to be the best organization alone or if we work together to eliminate the need for all of our agencies, because we addressed the systemic issue requiring our agencies.  How?

By deciding to be less territorial and more collaborative. Call your partners and other leaders in your community who work on like issues and invite them to discuss the options. Are you ready to set a Theory of Change for your community?  If so, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has a great manual on how.

Before you do, you might have to stop being afraid of scarcity and start embracing abundance.  If you’re currently looking at the world and your ability to impact change as a zero sum game –  and it’s how many of us have been trained to think –  I invite you to read Agreements, Vibrancy and Abundance.

We can change our corner of the world alone at our desks or we can do it together.  If our goal is social justice, together will get us farther, faster.

What’s your experience standing in the breech between social justice and charity.  Where did you elect to stand? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Do People Understand What Your Agency Does?

In Advocacy, Leadership, Organizational Development on July 25, 2016 at 7:40 am

I have a theory that the vast majority of Americans think there are three to five nonprofits:  One that works on children’s issues. One that works on whatever medical issue has affected their family. One for animals. One that provided the day care where their kids went to pre-school and maybe, maybe one that offers a thrift store, which I just realized may be what they think the agency does, not what funds what the agency does.

Yes, that is a huge, enormous difference.

I was driving with a friend earlier this week. This is the conversation we had:

Friend:  It’s so weird that there is a Party Center right next to a Goodwill.

Me:  Why?

Friend, who I know for a fact regularly donates to Goodwill:  The Party Center is for people who have money to entertain and Goodwill is for the poor.

Me:  Goodwill doesn’t serve the poor. Goodwill is a workforce development agency that employs people who have Developmental Disabilities. The thrift store is how they fund their work. (Please see Goodwill’s actual mission below.)

Friend:  Are you sure?  I don’t think that’s what people think they do.

He’s not even wrong. If he thinks that, lots of other people think that too. Goodwill is one of the largest and most recognizable names in our field. What does that mean for the millions of smaller, less recognizable agencies? It means we have work to do, and an opportunity!

Sometimes people don’t have any idea what we do. They don’t know! Even our partners sometimes find it hard to keep track of our work. I once had a conversation with a program officer of a foundation that funded us. It went like this:

Hey Dani, I ran into your counterpart last week from the Boy & Girls Clubs of – I don’t even remember where but it was someplace that I knew didn’t have a Club, but did have a Big Brothers Big Sisters. I mentioned your name but he didn’t know you.

Me:  I don’t think we have a Club there. Could it have been Big Brothers Big Sisters?

Program Officer: Oh yeah. Probably.

If a program officer who we’d been working with for years couldn’t easily remember the difference between a Big Brother Big Sisters and a Boy & Girls Clubs, no one else will either.

There was a study fifteen years ago or so (I looked but couldn’t find it so I’m going on memory here) that found that the vast majority of Americans could recognize the largest agencies among us but had no idea what they did. United Way – in almost every workplace – 20% recognition. Boys & Girls Clubs – thousands of Clubs across the country and on military basis around the world with our logo behind home plate at every Major League Baseball game, nope. Red Cross working local, nationally and internationally, not so much.  Goodwill, in almost every community, clearly not.

We have got to tell our stories better. How?

First and foremost, we each have to clarify how we communicate what our organizations do? Not the mission, though that too, but every day. What does your website say you do?  Is it obvious? I’m here to tell you that for people who are coming at it cold, it’s not always. Sometimes I have to go to three or more different pages on an organization’s website to figure out what they do – and I work in this field!  For someone who doesn’t, I’m not even sure how they’d figure it out.

Make it easy. Put your mission, a short summary of your work, and its impact on your home page. While you’re at it, make sure there’s a link to your leadership, including the Board, and a donation button. Then, put up some client’s stories. If you work in a field in which confidentiality issues are paramount, or a small town where it will be easy to identify someone, create a compilation story and put an asterisk to explain why it’s a compilation and not an actual story.

Train your people – Board and staff – to have a three sentence explanation of your work.  They should also know your mission.  I do trainings all over and when I do, I invariably ask about the missions represented in the room; many audience members cannot tell me their agency’s – the ones that sent them to hear me speak- mission.  If they don’t know your mission, they’re not moving your mission forward.  (It’s the same with organizational values, but that’s a different blog post.)

My Club’s mission was “to inspire and enable all young people to achieve their full potential as responsible, productive and caring citizens.” We did that by providing “after school and summer programming for school age, primarily at risk, youth.”  Now the youth development field calls it “out of school time”, which is both better and clearer and also shorter.

My local Goodwill’s mission “Transforming the lives of individuals with disabilities and other barriers through pathways to independence and the power of work.”

Mission, programs and work are not the same thing. Mission is why your organization exists. Programs are how you get to your mission. Work is the sum total of your programs and may also include advocacy and awareness. I’m separating them out here because agencies often do a lot of community awareness around their issue but don’t necessarily include that information in their program list, though they certainly could.

When I ran domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers we did a lot of formal and informational advocacy and awareness, and a lot of training of the police and medical workers, but didn’t count either as a program. That was a long time ago so I’m hopeful that is no longer the case.  It was a missed opportunity for us.  It was also one of the things that I believe greatly increased our impact, which is the demonstrated change of your clients and community because of your work.

It starts at your website but it can’t stop there. Your people should be able to explain your work, your programs and their impact.  If they can’t easily explain the impact, or won’t be able to answer follow up questions from whomever they’re talking with, make sure they have a staff member’s name to give out who can.

We often only get one shot to explain what we do. Take your shot. Tell your story. Move forward your mission.

How have you ensured people understand your organization’s work? What have you done? Any advice to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button. A rising tide raises all boats.

Teachable Moments

In Advocacy, Leadership, Resource Development on April 6, 2016 at 9:21 am

This month’s blog carnival is hosted by my friend and colleague Erik Anderson. Its theme: “advice to your younger fund raising self.” As such, and because you know I find most (non-grant related) directions optional, here is both advice I wish someone had given me, and also advice I’d like to give to my students, blog followers and those that I’m privileged to mentor. Please reach out and let me know if any speak to you.

Money is not Dough; It Will Not Raise Itself

If you want to be successful in this field, as either a leader or at any level of a development team, get comfortable asking for things for your organization that you would never request for yourself.

You may be one of those people that other people just give stuff too. I certainly am. Do I want an upgrade on my rental car? “Yes, please.” Would I like an extra scoop of ice cream? “That would be great. Thank you.” If you routinely have people offering you things that you didn’t ask for, or even consider asking for, awesome! This will be a snap!

If you’re not, you will have to cultivate the ability to ask for money and donations to move forward your mission. It’s for the kids, or the dogs, or whom/whatever your agency exists to impact. People who care about your mission will want to be engaged in its success; they may just need the vehicle to get involved. You can offer that entree.

For the CEOs out there: grant writing, event planning and individual giving are different skills sets. You have to know how to do or hire all three. If you go with hire, you will then have to do what the person you hire recommends. Really.

Where to Start is Where You Are

There is no perfect place to start. The first step is just that, one step forward.  Figure out where you want to go. Figure out what it will take to get there.  Plan backwards from your end goal. And start.

Charm is Not Enough, and Neither is Talent

You can be charming for 15 minutes; after that you’d better know something. I love charming people. I also love effective people!  Charm alone is not enough, especially on the development team. Talent alone is not enough for any of our teams. We need both to make our teams work and our organizations successful.

It is not enough to be good, or even great, at your job. You also have to be on the team and moving the organization forward. If you aren’t, I can’t hire you. I can’t train you and you certainly can’t stay.

We are All only as Good as the Stupid Thing we did Yesterday

I’d love to tell you that your life’s work will be a sum total of your accomplishments, but it’s just not true. You can build something great, bring in tons of money and save the day, but if you did something really stupid yesterday, none of those will save you.

Only Write a Policy when you Need One, which will Never be to Avoid a Conversation

I love teachable moments. Tell me a story when something, anything, goes wrong and I’ll ask you the lesson. Teachable moments make us all better and have the added benefit of helping organizations avoid crises. They teach each member of a team to assess every stupid thing that goes wrong, in an effort to not have it repeated.

Crises are where most policies originate. Show me a policy and I can tell you the crisis that created it. Show me a job description and I can sometimes tell you what happened to the person who held that job last. We are all, myself included, much more transparent than we would like to be and when you’re paying attention you can often read what’s not said.

Most polices get written because there wasn’t a policy and that gap either left the agency or its clients open for something bad to happen. That is the perfect time for a new policy!

Having a problem with a staff member? That may be the time for a hard conversation but may not rise to the level of a policy. Never write a policy to avoid having a conversation.

Crisis Management is not Leadership

One my favorite Warren Buffett quotes is “Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”

It reminds me to be strategic in how I spend my time. There are a lot of leadership lessons that can be taken from this one statement.

Maybe it applies to staff, in which case the message would be to not spend a majority of your time trying to make a bad hire into a good employee. You should try certainly, but at some point, should your efforts prove fruitless, cut your losses, review your process, learn your lessons, and hire better.

Maybe it applies to how you spend your time. Do you spend your day patching leaks or changing vessels? Most leaders I know spend their days patching leaks, and they stare in wonder at those leaders that spend their energy changing vessels.

It’s a paradox. We have to patch the leaks and put out the fires, yet we also have to carve out the time to think strategically…even while the boat is leaking. And it may be leaking. In nonprofit speak that may mean there’s a grant due, a crisis in the program, a problem staff, a disengaged board member, an alienated donor or an angry parent.  Some of those things may very well be happening, and happening simultaneously. There’s also an agency that you are responsible to steward and a mission that you are entrusted to move forward.

Even though it feels like it, You Are Not Alone

You are not alone. For those of us who have spent our lives in social services, it’s a phrase we have each repeated hundreds if not thousands of times. We say it to our clients all the time, but apparently the leaders of our agencies don’t hear the answer for themselves.

The way you feel today, right now, every nonprofit leader feels or has felt. I promise. Every CEO at one time or another has wondered how they’re going to make payroll, keep their job, or keep their sanity. Knowing you’re not alone won’t answer any of those questions but it will remind you that the CEO down the street of that agency you wish yours was as together as, feels the same way sometimes. You just don’t see it.

It All Comes Down to Values

Every day I have conversations with leaders and every day, at least once, I utter the phrase “it all comes down to values” and it does. If you can tell me what you value, I can tell you in what circumstances you’ll be successful, and in what circumstances you’ll be frustrated.

Where you sit determines where you stand. What you value determines how you lead, where you feel comfortable, where you’ll thrive, and where you’re likely to be the odd one out.

Your values have to match your organization’s values, which have to be reflected in their policies. When the three are not aligned, you will struggle. When they are, you will thrive!

We do not, in fact, all bloom where we’re planted. We bloom where we’re cultivated.

 

Do you have advice for your younger self, or for others in our field? Will you share?  Did you find any of my advice instructive? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

 

Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice

In Advocacy, Leadership, Organizational Development on June 24, 2015 at 11:31 am

I’ve been working in nonprofits my whole career. Most of that time, I was an executive director. After working as a victim “counselor” for a couple of years, which I put in quotes because I was given zero training on how to counsel victims, I realized I wanted to be an exec. I went to grad school specifically because I didn’t think anyone would let me run an agency as young as I was, but they might if I had a Masters. Perhaps shockingly, they did.

The world looks different from the exec chair than it did from the program chair. It looks different from a board seat. It even looks different from the consultant’s perch. As such, and in honor of the two decades I’ve been out of grad school, and the almost 25 years I have spent in the pursuit of social justice, I thought this would be a good time to look back and take stock of what I’ve learned.

Perfect and great are not synonymous. We can’t settle for good when great is possible. Yet, there are many cases when good is enough and there is an opportunity cost to perfect.

Our mission can’t be at the expense of our team members’ families. There are lots of jobs that require staff to be away from their families during dinner, over the weekend, over night. That’s the job. Yet, and still, we as leaders must challenge the expectation that our teams will work long hours for low pay. We have to honor the labor laws and the values we hold. We can’t fight for a fair wage for our clients but maintain the status quo for our staff. Our teams should not be there on a regular basis longer than a typical work week. They should not be volunteering in the same jobs they do every day. They should not have to choose between the good of the community and their own or their family’s good. It’s not reasonable, nor is it sustainable and the cost of replacing good people is too high.

We cannot expect our staff to do things we would not be willing to do, with the understanding that it may not always be a good use of our time to do them. I counsel the leaders I coach to ask themselves “is this a good use of my time?” before doing tasks that may not be. Yet, we each have to model what we expect.

We cannot allow things that are unacceptable to us. When we do, unacceptable becomes the status quo. As such, you will have to address things each time they come up and every time they come up. Gruenter and Whitaker said it best “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” Addressing such things is how cultures change; it’s how expectations are communicated; it’s how differences are made. Inch by inch, time by time, moment by moment, culture change is 80% emotional fortitude. It’s exhausting yet critical.

You will teach people how to treat you every day and in a variety of situations. Never forget that. Everything you accept. Everything you celebrate. Everything you do is sending a message.

Please, thank you and some grace will get you pretty far. The busier we get the more people think it’s reasonable for good manners to go out the door, but they’re wrong. We serve. Some of us serve at the pleasure of our boards. Some of us are protected by labor laws or contracts or unions, but each of us serve our community. Service requires respecting our clients, our teams, our leaders and perhaps most importantly our selves.

I have been teasing out the idea for the last few months that what people call a personality conflict is actually a conflict in values. If what is important to me is not important to you then we are going to clash at some point. You may like me fine. We can hang out but we won’t work well together, because we value different things. It doesn’t make me bad and you good or the opposite. What it does is provide insight to how we hire, where we elect to serve and what kind of culture will make us happy.

I’ve been turning over the article Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in at Work? since I finished reading it. I routinely recommend agencies hire for cultural fit, and now I add an explanation on what that means. Fit is not who you want to hang out with. It’s not about whom you’d want to get stuck at an airport. It’s definitely not who about looks like you or has a similar background. Organizational fit is someone whose own values are aligned with the organization’s values and whose passions are aligned with its mission.

Who can be successful in your culture? Organizational fit by itself is not enough. It has to be matched with competency, experience, education and judgment. The right employee has to have it all. It is not enough to be nice; it’s not even enough to be good at your job. You have to be on the team and moving the organization forward. If you aren’t, much as I may love you, you can’t stay.

Agency systems have to reflect organizational values. Saying you value one thing but actually doing another sends a very inconsistent and confusing message. If we want our teams to live our values, then we have to live them and our policies and systems have to reflect them.

Give people the benefit of the doubt, even and especially when you don’t have it. This goes back to my earlier point on grace. We’re not always going to be right. Giving people the benefit of the doubt builds trust and acknowledges that the perch on which we sit may not offer the only view.

Wear your power lightly but don’t give it away. You will never have to remind a member of your team that you are in charge. They know. You may have to remind yourself. If you have the authority to make the decision, make it. If someone for whom you work tells you to do something, own it. Don’t then say to your team “Mary said we need to do this.” Say “We need to do this.”

Take advantage of every teachable moment. Issues, questions, mistakes, problems and even crises offer opportunities to learn. My goal for myself and with each of my team members, as well as the women and children we have been privileged to serve, has always been to teach and to learn. We’re not always going to get it right, but we can always learn from our experiences. Life is about making new mistakes.

Spinning wheels only look like forward movement. If the work of your agency is not aligned, people may be running on a lot of different habitrails but, as we all know, habitrails don’t move, they just go around. A good strategic, board development or fund raising plan can be the difference between moving forward or just moving.

Any day might be the day you quit or get fired. There’s still work to do. Knowing that’s a possibility is helpful; letting it paralyze you is not. Leadership is hard. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

Vulnerability is power. I learned that from Brene Brown’s TED Talk, and she’s totally right. It takes courage to be vulnerable. You can surrender into vulnerability or you can battle it but it may be the only way forward. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we are powerful.

You are more likely to get what you want when you can communicate what you want. This is a lesson that took a few times to stick for me. When I can communicate what I want, I often get it. It’s astonishing and also not.

You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to be strong all the time. You, and we, can ask for help. We can let our team see our weaknesses (and stop assuming that they don’t already.) We are all stronger when we play to our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. We are the strongest when we work together.

This work is hard. It’s hard and it’s exhausting and sometime seeing the fruit of our labors is elusive. Yet, we all have an obligation to make the world a better place. How we chose to do that may evolve over our lives. We may serve in the field. We may lead an agency. We may advocate for changes in public policy. We may sit on a board. We may write checks, or give clothes, or hand out food. We may raise or help to raise healthy, happy children. We may work to build capacity in leaders, or agencies or systems. It doesn’t matter how we do it, it only matters that we do it. The world is not what it could be. There are people who are hurting, or scared, or hungry. There are those who don’t know the way forward. There are diseases to eradicate and people to house and children to protect. We have work to do. It doesn’t matter how we do it, it only matters that we do it.

What’s your passion? What are you doing to make the world better? What have you learned in the process? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Decisions and Duplications (of Service)

In Advocacy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards on April 25, 2015 at 9:39 am

The first time I was kicked under a table was in 1993 by my Associate Director at a meeting of United Way food providers. She was warning me to be quiet. It was a meeting of firsts: the first time (though certainly not the last) I was warned to be quiet; my first supervisory role; and the first time that I heard the term duplication of services.

The attendees were discussing how many times a family should be allowed to go back to a food pantry; how the city should create a master list of food providers across the city and the clients each serves to ensure people didn’t go back more than the allotted amount. In those days food pantries gave you three days worth of food.

The consensus around the table, myself excluded, was it is a duplication of services if too many food pantries gave too much food to the same people. As if it’s such a terrible thing that people would have more than enough food to eat – you know like the people sitting around that table. Or that people who go to food pantries have so much extra time in between worrying and working two jobs and making sure their kids are safe and scurrying between social service and government agencies that they could even get to a variety of pantries to overstock their shelves. It was absurd – and it also wasn’t a duplication of services.

I was 24 and it was the first time I attended this meeting so it’s possible (and I can only hope this is the case) that the meeting that proceed it discussed a dearth of food donations and the fear that if some families came back too often others would get nothing. Still, in the early 90s when computers were rare, the idea that community leaders would dedicate time and resources to map out food pantries and their clients to ensure families in crisis didn’t get more than their share would have been a complete waste of both time and resources. Plus, it was mean spirited.

There will always be people who will try to take advantage and each of us as leaders have to decide how we live our values and spend our resources. I have never felt that taking resources away from meeting our mission to ensure that no one gets more than their share is a good use of those resources. Moreover, I believe it creates a culture of distrust and I want people to feel respected. Finally, I do not believe it is, in fact, a duplication of services.

Duplication of services is when you have two agencies doing the same thing for the same population in the same area, which is usually a neighborhood but depending on the mission could be a city, county or region. For example, there aren’t usually two domestic violence shelters. There’s usually one per county or in rural counties, one per a multi-county area. There are often several child care centers and after school programs. That’s still not necessarily a duplication of services, unless they are in the same location, offering similar programming, upholding similar values and – and this is a big and- both standing half empty. If they are both half empty, it may be duplication of services. If kids are registered at both and go to each every other day, it is totally a duplication of services. If that is not happening and each is filled with different kids, they are fulfilling the needs of the neighborhood.

Multiple programs serving similar but not the same population is not duplication of services. That is meeting the needs of a community. Could those programs be run by one large agency operating in multiple locations? Maybe. Maybe not.

There is absolutely an economy of scale for large agencies and something to be said for consolidating back room functions. There is also something to be said for family choice, organizational values and different offerings.

Duplication of services is always a big discussion in any community yet it only applies when that community is financially supporting the service. No one cares if there are multiple businesses providing the same product; they’re self sufficient. We only care when the service is or is perceived to be a drain on the community’s resources. Then the question becomes if one of something is enough. One food pantry in a city would rarely be able to provide for the needs of everyone that is hungry in that city.

How many of any type of agency do we really need? Do we need faith based and non faith based agencies? I would argue that we do. Others would argue that we don’t. Choices are not a terrible thing for a family, especially a family without means.

Who decides what is and is not duplication of services? Similar to who decides what is and is not a best practice, the answer is everyone and also no one. Each donor and funder decides what they will support; each board decides the future of their organization.

That’s why it’s so important that nonprofits build their boards appropriately; that those boards understand and fulfill their roles and appropriately govern their organizations. Because it’s up to them! And we need them to be making strategic decisions on behalf of our organizations and our organizations to be making strategic decisions our behalf of communities.

What do you think? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

The Words We Choose

In Advocacy, Leadership on January 19, 2015 at 7:17 pm

One Easter many years ago as I was training my replacement, we were walking through the building and a child asked me my favorite part of Easter. I replied I didn’t celebrate Easter. The new exec, shocked, asked me why I didn’t just say the eggs. I replied “that wasn’t the point.” It also wasn’t the truth. We need to teach our children that not everybody believes what they believe. It’s one small way that we can each contribute to building a pluralistic society.

I’m reading Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel. I’ve only just begun and I already know that if you work in youth development, or in an agency that serves multiple faiths or races or people with diverse thoughts, it’s a must read. In it, he quotes to W.E.B. Du Bois as saying “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Mr. Patel believes the “question of the 21st century will be shaped by the question of the faith line.”

I am a member of a minority faith. Most of my adult life I have been the only Jew in the room, being expected to serve as the sole representative of my faith to people who know nothing about it. I am not alone. My experience is shared by most people who identify as a member of a minority group. I cannot explain the decisions of Israel or of a Jewish leader any more than an African American man or woman can explain the actions of President Obama or any other African American leader or non leader for that matter.

Some of us “pass” in a larger world that assumes we’re something we’re not; some of us don’t, because of our skin or our features gives us away. Some of us choose to out ourselves, which to some degree is what I’m doing today in this intellectual pursuit I am undertaking trying to figure out how it all connects. How we can look at all the levels of our society and build some bridges between so that we can all understand that one decision in one place has a pebble effect and creates implications in places we’d never expect?

I’ll be the first to tell you it takes a certain amount of courage to out yourself. It’s scary to stand up and say I’m different; I don’t believe what you believe. In fact, I’m a bit scared to publish this piece. Yet I know if we want to affect change, courage is required.

Studies again and again have proven that kids that are engaged in an after school program, extracurricular activity or sports are less likely to get involved in dangerous behaviors like drugs, crime or premature sexual activity, to build bombs in the basement or move to the Middle East and become a jihadist. Those are each varying levels of terrifying with varying levels of impact on the larger society, and they have all happened and continue to happen.

And yet, with that as a backdrop, the small development in which I live is having a debate – and a vote in February – on if our holiday party, as the association board has elected to call it, should instead be called a Christmas Party.

The intersection of religion, race and academic studies operate at the macro level in a society. The party is at the micro level. Both answer the quintessential question of who gets included and who does not. Who’s us and who’s other? Who’s the majority and who’s the minority? Who’s in and who’s out?

The answers have the power to determine who joins a team and who joins a gang.

All of those questions and their answers roll up into the larger question of how can we protect our own children and our community’s children? How can we keep them safe? How can we raise them to be self reliant, self sustaining, healthy, happy and contributing members of our society?

There are a million ways kids – especially kids who belong to minority races or minority religions or who for whatever reason are perceived as “other” – get excluded.

If the goal is belonging and community – and we’re people, so at some level that’s always the goal – there’s another million ways to save a kid. The first step is to create somewhere for them to belong.

We, as a society, have to decide how and to what degree we can engage all kids, and especially those who are more likely to be excluded, to become productive and engaged.

While we are deciding that, some members of my community are advocating excluding those who don’t celebrate the holidays they themselves celebrate. Now the truth is, no matter what we call it, it’s going to have a Christmas theme. There’s going to be a tree and sleigh rides and a Santa. There isn’t going to be any reference to Chanukah, or Kwanza or any other religious or community holiday. So to some extent, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck, even if you call it by its broader name of bird.

Yet, there is a small amount of kindness in calling it bird, or in this case holiday. It says “we know that many, maybe be even most, but not all, of our community celebrates our holiday yet some celebrate their own holiday. Our goal is fellowship. Join us.”

Join us. Maybe we’ll save a kid. Maybe we’ll save ourselves.

An Open Letter to College Bound Daughters, including My Own

In Advocacy on July 22, 2014 at 3:38 pm

I am so excited for you and so proud of you! College is great fun. It’s the first time you’ll be on your own without anyone checking in on what you’re doing and with whom. It’s the first step to being on your own.

It’s also the most dangerous time for young women. You are right smack in the middle of the danger years, which are ages 16-24. As such, here are my tips for you. Some may seem silly, some may seem paranoid, but bear with me; I have your best interests and your friends’ best interests at heart.

First, let me start by saying sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Never. There are some things that can contribute to being in a situation where you can get hurt. Try to avoid those things. Doing so may not necessarily protect you, but it’s all we have. To that end:

  1. I would prefer you don’t drink until you are of age and then only drink in moderation. If you do drink, don’t drink to the point where you do stupid things, and that’s a different place for everyone. Know your limits and mind them.
  2. Never leave your drink – alcohol or otherwise – unattended. Don’t leave it on a table while you go to the bathroom. Don’t ask someone you don’t know (well) to hold it or to watch it. If you feel more woozy or disoriented than you think you should, get out of there and call someone to come get you.
  3. Trust your instincts. Humans are the only animals that talk ourselves into doing something when our instincts are screaming not to do it. Never go against an uncertain conscience.
  4. You may love your friends but some of them will drop you in a second for a cute guy. Know which ones they are and plan accordingly.
  5. Make a deal with your friends to never leave each other alone and drunk at a party, drunk with a guy you don’t know, or drunk with a group of guys. Your friend may be totally pissed at you when you make her leave, but you have to make her leave. It will be easier when you all agree to that plan at the beginning of the night. Her fury at you will subside. Your guilt and her terror if something bad happens will not.
  6. If you get left alone in a place from which you do not know how to get home, choosing the person you ask for help is preferable to accepting help from someone that offers whom you don’t know. Better yet, keep a little extra money on you, the number of the local cab company and your phone charged.
  7. Your phone will not protect you, but you can use it to call for help. Take it with you into public bathrooms.
  8. When you get home, lock the door behind you, immediately. If there’s a black out, make sure the doors are locked. When you go to sleep, make sure the doors are locked. If it’s possible to lock the door while you shower, do so.
  9. Some men will think that if they buy you dinner, you will owe them something. They will be wrong. This is most easily avoided by paying for your own dinner.
  10. Violence and jealousy are not charming and do not signify love. They are signs of control and anger issues. Pay attention to how men talk about women and treat you. None of us are so special that a man who hit, punched, controlled, or hurt his ex-girlfriend will not also hit, punch, control, or hurt us.
  11. Professors who stop class – or stop you in the hallway – to tell you you’re pretty, ask you out or imply that you should sleep with them are also not charming. That is sexual harassment.
  12. Calling things what they are gives you power.
  13. The majority of men will not try to take advantage of you. Those that will do not have an R on their forehead for rapist. It will be very hard to tell the difference. It is not that any man may actually be a potential rapist. It’s that you won’t be able to tell the ones that are, from the ones that are not. (To my male readers, if that idea makes you sad or furious – and I hope it does – I encourage you to speak up whenever you hear comments that contribute to women being objectified, to intervene whenever you see situations in which women are being hurt and to also work towards eliminating violence in all its forms, including against women.)
  14. There has been a lot in the news lately regarding how colleges handle sexual assault, and for the most part, it’s not well. If you or someone you know is assaulted, my advice is to go (as soon as possible and before you shower) to the largest, non religious (so your options are not limited) off campus hospital and the city police first; go to the college officials second, even if it happened on campus. You may decide to not press charges later but get the evidence collected anyway. When you get to the hospital, ask that a rape crisis advocate be contacted.
  15. No one should ever be ashamed of something someone else did to them. That does not mean they won’t be.
  16. Controlling how you arrive at and get home from a date is preferable to getting in a car with someone you don’t know well.
  17. There will come a day when you will have to decide between being polite and being safe. Pick safe. Rude is always preferable to hurt.
  18. Don’t get in a car with people you don’t know.
  19. Don’t drive drunk or get in a car with someone who’s drunk.
  20. Don’t compound stupid with more stupid.
  21. Women on TV have sex far more often and with way more partners than the vast majority of actual women. You can never go wrong by not going home with someone. The opposite is not true. Be careful who you allow access to your body and under what circumstances.
  22. Some things cannot be undone.

Finally, moving on to different topics:

  1. You are paying to be at school. If you don’t understand something, ask questions until you do. Any question you are brave enough to ask out loud, someone else is thinking. I promise.
  2. You are much more likely to get what you want if you can communicate what you want. That goes for professors, bosses, friends, guys and roommates. Don’t leave a note, send a text or post something on line when you are angry, frustrated, sad or confused. Gather your courage and say out loud and in person what you need to say and listen to what is said in response. Once you have, you can form your counter response.
  3. Everyone is not going to like you. It’s okay. You’re not going to like all of them either. Don’t waste energy being sad that someone you don’t like doesn’t like you.
  4. Don’t be afraid to be who you are.
  5. Let other people be who they are.
  6. Don’t accept the options other people offer you. If you don’t like the choices presented, find new choices or new people.  There is always a choice.
  7. Surround yourself with people who are kind to you and make you feel good about yourself. We have all known people that cut us down and make us feel bad about ourselves. Minimize your time with those people.
  8. Don’t believe everything you think. Some of your thoughts will be based on biases you didn’t know you had and couldn’t articulate; some will be based on fear, negative messages or inaccurate information. Don’t believe them.
  9. Challenge everything. College is a time of inquiry. Poke at things until you are confident they are based on something you understand, agree with and can explain.

You are not in high school anymore. This is your life.

Stand tall. Be proud. Have fun. Be safe. Make good decisions. Call home every so often.

Be great!

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