Category Archives: Social Justice

Re-framing the Immigration Debate

"Promised Land" by Christoph Niemann

I was pleased to hear at least one of the GOP contenders speak sanely on immigration during the CNN debate last week.  Specifically, Newt Gingrich re-framed the rhetoric in a more accurate context by noting that many immigrants are long-standing members of our community who contribute by working and paying taxes.  “I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century. And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families,” said Gingrich.

An on-going poll at msnbc.com currently shows that a majority of you, whether you’re for Newt or not, agree.

Should illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for many years be allowed a pathway to live in the United States legally?

While this shift in the conversation is helpful, I’d love for at least someone to recognize corporate America’s culpability in our immigration issues.  Or has everyone forgotten how large US companies such as Tyson were indicted for bringing immigrants here to work illegally?

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Think You’re Too _____ to Change the World?

On Becoming an Anonymous Extraordinary

I was COMPLETELY inspired by Natalie Warne’s TEDxTeen talk! Rather than worrying about what limited her, she looked beyond the confusion and conformity of high school and realized her potential to combat social injustice.

The video is a great teaching tool for parents and educators who want to give kids an opportunity to engage positively in their community and in public policy.  It’s compelling proof that you don’t need to be Bill Gates, Oprah, or Leymah Gbowee to save the world.  Rather, Warne demonstrates it’s up to the anonymous extraordinaries, “people who work selflessly and vigorously for what they believe in,” “people who are motivated by conviction and not recognition.”

Clearly, all of us can strive to make a positive impact, no matter how fill in the blank we are!

A Roadmap for Social Change

"All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual." Albert Einstein

Since a perk of my work is learning what amazing non-profits are doing to help families survive these difficult economic times, I was thrilled to talk to Crittenton Women’s Union, an .org located in Boston, MA.  CWU provides direct services, conducts research, and advocates for public policy to better support low-income women in their journey to economic self-sufficiency.

The foundation of CWU’s work is a theory of change for what moves a family from poverty to self-sufficiency, Bridge to Self-Sufficiency.  This model not only provides strategy and internal structure for developing programs and measuring outcomes, it gives the CWU clients a tangible set of goals to strive for in the difficult journey from poverty to economic independence.

CWU has a keen focus on specific, relevant data such as their Economic Independence Calculator that determines the actual costs of living depending on family size and location. A single mom in Boston with an infant and school-aged child knows she’ll need earn almost $60K/yr (about $28/hr) to achieve economic independence.  This data is linked to Hot Jobs, “careers that require two years or less of post-secondary education or training, meet the Massachusetts Economic Independence Index income level for a single-parent family with two children, and currently post high-vacancy rates.”  CWU is giving a woman clear, meaningful data to develop a career path that offers opportunity for advancement and breaks the cycle of poverty for her children.

To see what your community’s livable wage is, visit the National Center for Childhood Poverty’s Basic Needs Budget Calculator.

What is your community doing to support upward economic mobility of disadvantaged families?  I’d love to share your story!

Should Occupiers Take a Stand or Keep Marching Along?

"Make Jobs Not War!"

First, let me say I support the #Occupy movement.  This country was established to be a fair and just society and it’s clear for 99% of us it is ceasing to be so.  As Nobel prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz pointed out,

“We have a social problem, not only an economic problem. We have this strange situation of a country where we have increasing numbers of homeless people and increasing numbers of vacant houses.”

Watching city parks across the US fill up with occupiers intent on tweeting grievances but no concrete ideas, I’m wondering if protesters have read the  American Jobs Act?

The AJA has several initiatives that would positively impact our economy.  Two in particular would provide relief to the unemployed: 1) Reauthorization of unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the year; and, 2) Establishing the “Pathways Back to Work Fund” to create jobs for low-income and unemployed youth.  The former is a given, or 6 million people might lose whatever economic stability they have left.  The latter is a proven success in states as diverse as Mississippi and Michigan.

So, occupiers, while you’re marching for jobs can you take the opportunity to help create some?

Make funny signs AND jobs!

Opportunity is Like a Cupcake…

…or is it?  UC Berkeley College Republicans think so.  Their “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” charged customers different prices based on race and gender in order to demonstrate opposition to California legislation SB 185, which would allow public universities in California to consider race and gender in university admissions policy.

Goodies were priced at $2 for Caucasian students, $1.5 for Asian and Asian Americans, $1 for Latinos,  $0.75 for African American students, and $0.25 for Native Americans. Women got a $0.25 discount.  “The pricing structure is meant to be discriminatory,” said Shawn Lewis, the group’s president.

Accordingly, Native American women qualified to pay nothing for the cookies which inspired some enterprising  individuals to don feather headdresses in order to get free cookies.

Satire? Oops! I thought we were going for irony!

If demonstrators meant to highlight opportunity gaps by race and gender wouldn’t they’d have used a more accurate pricing strategy? Regardless of whether the metaphor is a fair one (bake sale = opportunity via college education), the question remains: “Is legislating affirmative action an effective strategy for increasing access to opportunity?”

Justice Restored?

Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last night, Georgia death-row inmate Troy Davis exhausted all appeals for clemency. At 11:08pm EST he was put to death for the 1989 murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail.

Troy Davis

While CNN switched between the jail where Davis supporters congregated and live interviews with the victim’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail, legal pundits commented on the convoluted Davis case which polarized people into two camps, those desperate to save a life versus those determined to see it ended. At the heart of both arguments was the idea of justice; or, “a scheme or system of law in which every person receives his/her/its due from the system, including all rights, both natural and legal”.

Is the death penalty just? Does it protect society? An overwhelming majority of the country’s top academic criminology experts reject the idea that there is “any deterrent effect from the death penalty.”

Perhaps Davis’ case will highlight the need for restorative justice. Restorative justice differs from our current system in that it views a criminal act more holistically; instead of defining crime as “breaking the law”, it recognizes that offenders harm victims, communities and even themselves. It recognizes that the criminal justice system is not effective in reducing crime; rather than rehabilitating or deterring criminals, prisons make offenders less likely to reintegrate successfully into society. Studies show a majority of felons released were rearrested within 3 years. Importantly, restorative justice acknowledges victims’ dissatisfaction with their treatment by the criminal justice system.

Looking at “justice” not by how much punishment is inflicted but by how much harm is repaired or prevented means we try to get a head of the problem rather than constantly react to it.

What do you think? Is it time for a change? Is our current system of justice working for us?

What Does a Great Teacher Look Like?

Research shows the most important factor determining the quality of education  a child receives is the quality of his or her teacher.

But what does a great teacher look like?

If you throw all the qualities of great teachers into an algorithm and ask it to define the most important characteristics, this is what it might look like:

Brain Bugs, Behavior & Boehner

In his book Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives neuroscientist Dean Buonomano gives some fascinating reasons for why our memory, beliefs and behavior are subject to serious flaws…even if we’re unaware of it.  Simply put, our brain evolved for a different time and place.  He uses the example of a skunk’s effective defense mechanism: When attacked they turn around, lift their tails and spray.  Very effective for scaring off a coyote, not so much against an oncoming car.

It’s somewhat comforting to know that there’s an evolutionary bias (i.e. I can’t help it) for eating naughty food and blowing my budget when I know these behaviors aren’t helpful.  So my brain’s operating system is outdated. Is there an upgrade?

Luckily there is: behavioral priming.  Buonomano cites an NYU study using word puzzles to illustrate how we create “behavior nodes”.  In the study,  subjects were asked to complete word puzzles.  Some had to come up with words associated with kindness while others had puzzles with words biased toward being rude.  After finishing this task, subjects were told to talk to a research assistance pretending to be on the phone.  In measuring how long each subject waited before interrupting the on-going phone conversation, it was found that those who completed puzzles using more rude words waited less time to interrupt the phone conversation.

If the words, images, and sounds surrounding us constantly influence our thoughts and actions,  what are we subjecting ourselves to on a regular basis?

How often are we bombarded with images of war, famine and Beohner?

More importantly, how do we prime our brains to turn it off without turning away?

How Earning More Keeps You Poor

191,000 kids live in poverty in Colorado


Why can’t poor people just “get a job”?  Hell, they get food stamps, free child care, tax credits, welfare checks…what else could they need?

I’ve heard variations of this question; truthfully,  I used to ask it myself.  What I failed to recognize (and now try to increase awareness of) is the unintentional negative affect of the 1996 welfare reform laws: the Cliff Effect.  Consider the real-life scenario of Shari (not her real name):

Shari began working at McDonald’s 15 months ago.  She is eligible for a raise, yet she refuses to ask for one or accept any promotions that McDonald’s may offer. If Shari got even a 75-cents-per-hour raise, it would trigger a cut in food stamps, childcare assistance, and medical assistance. She cannot afford to earn a little more. In order to escape poverty, Shari must earn considerably more. Like others in poverty, Shari is often stuck in survival mode, unable to imagine a better future and trapped without the support systems that families who are middle or upper class take for granted. It feels impossible for Shari to plan for the future or make long-term decisions because she is dealing with today’s crises.

Shari’s work supports are supposed to provide her family a means for climbing out of poverty.  These include the minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the child tax credit,  food stamps, health insurance, and child care.  But as Shari’s earnings increase, she begins to lose these benefits, negating any increases in income. The result? Hard-working individuals climbing to reach the American Dream of prosperity end up falling off the cliff…back into poverty.

Just another Shari

We’ve all seen Shari:  at the Wal-Mart checkout counter, at the bus stop, waiting on us at McDonalds.  And we think, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  Is that it?  Do we stop there?  Or, do we wonder, “Is there anything I can do?”

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” ~ Mother Teresa.

Schools as a Brand

Just this week I noticed an interesting Next!: urban charter school start-ups leveraging a well-known brand, in these cases, famous athletes.

This leaves me wondering: Will schools be marketed to kids like cereal?  In their efforts to attract students will charter schools, already serving a disproportionate number of low-income students, fall into a de facto means of school segregation?