Miracles Won’t Happen If We’re Afraid to Take Risks

Carol A. Hand

When I wrote A Birthday Wish about my hopes for the future, I seriously questioned whether sending the list to my Congressional Representative would even matter. I hesitated to send it, and I questioned whether it was worth posting on my blog. The list I wrote was simple, hardly something that would ever be seen as a cogent political analysis, a meritorious literary contribution, or even a realistic possibility. I suspected I might even be easily dismissed as a “wingnut” or flakey romantic. Then, it occurred to me that people need to have the courage to share what’s in their hearts even if others judge them as ridiculous. I was motivated to write because of my concern for my grandchildren’s future. It was my grandson’s sixteenth birthday and I was inspired to reflect about the world I wish for him and all of the children of the future. But I remembered something Albert Einstein wrote and decided to send the email and post my reflection.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” (Albert Einstein)

 

dandelion

Photo Credit: Dandelion Resilience

This morning I found myself wondering what would happen if every one of us sent a letter or email to our congressman or senators listing our hopes for the future. What if we sent one every week? After all, my email account is bombarded daily by scores of fear-based messages listing all of the threats we face – threats to animals, the environment, and people. I care about all of these issues, but they’re all connected. Sometimes I sign the petitions (although I can’t afford to make the requested donations), but I doubt that petitions will have much impact. None of the petitions really address root causes, and all are focused narrowly on addressing a part of one issue for one species or group. And all are really focused on problems, with quick-fix solutions that are firmly nested within prevailing solutions’ paradigms. Why not turn it around and connect the dots – identify the underlying causes and address those as a set of positive goals that describe the best we can imagine?

What is the best I can imagine? It’s a question I learned to ask in the first job I had after I finished my master’s degree. As Aging Network Supervisor for the Bureau on Aging, Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS)*, my job, with assistance from the five professionals I “supervised,” included developing the details of state policies for aging programs delivered by an array of regional, county and tribal agencies. (Really, any influence I had over what Network staff did was hard won by earning their respect, but that’s another story.)

The first six months of my job mostly consisted of responding to mischief fomented by the directors of the two most conservative regions farthest away from the State Capitol where I worked. Ed and Jerry (not their real names) sent an unceasing number of letters to the Secretary of DHSS and the Governor alleging that the Bureau on Aging had violated fiscal and administrative policies. Although I no longer remember the details of their allegations, I do remember that I spent at least 75 percent of my time scouring legislation and administrative codes to write responses to their charges. I vowed to myself that I would find a way to shift the focus so they would be responding to positive initiatives that the Bureau initiated. It took six months to begin turning the tide. I travelled to both regions with Bureau staff and got to know the agency staff, advisory council members and boards of directors, and I listened to the concerns of the older citizens in the region. I also observed the way the two directors omitted key facts and misrepresented the information they shared when they met with the elders on the councils and boards.

Information is power. People are easily manipulated if they don’t have all of the facts. I began to ponder a number of possible strategies. What would happen if state staff were a regular presence at all of their meetings, to listen and share accurate information? Would boards be able to make wiser decisions if they were better informed? And what if we took the time to actually consult with them on crucial decisions that affected the funds they administered and services they provided?

We decided to explore whether increased state staff presence would make a difference. It was certainly easier than continuing to deal with the never-ending irritation of responding to negative non-issues. Staff, including the Bureau Director, became a permanent feature at board meetings for all regions. Relationships and communication improved, as did the quality of policy decisions. The elders on the boards felt their views were important and their thoughtful input helped inform policy decisions. Soon, Ed and Harry were kept busy responding to the agendas proposed by elders on their boards, and the allegations they leveled at “THE STATE” ceased.

The important point is that Ed and Harry did highlight a crucial issue – the Bureau was not doing its job well. We were not making the effort to involve rural elders in the decisions that affected their lives. The elders we ignored didn’t know that they should and could have a voice. The problems Ed and Jerry uncovered helped me identify what we needed to do to include elders who had been ignored. My job, after all, was to serve as an effective and visible advocate in partnership with elders, particularly those in greatest need.

When I was initially hired by DHSS, I commented to my faculty advisor at the time that I was afraid because I really didn’t know anything of value. How could I possibly develop policies and oversee a State network? His response, chuckling, “Don’t worry. You won’t have any power to do anything in a state bureaucracy. They never get anything done.” I was revisited by a similar thought after I wrote the letter to my Congressional Representative. Why bother? Who cares what I have to say? I’m no one special.” Then, I remembered my own experiences. When I worked for state government, it was my job to listen to the people who were directly affected by the policies I helped to develop and implement. It was not my job to serve the power interests of petty bureaucrats like Ed and Jerry who wanted to manipulate others for the own agendas. In essence, at least in theory, it’s much the same job as that of an elected official in a representative republic.

The challenge as I see it how is to let legislators know what constituents really need now and want to see in the future. Legislators don’t have time to understand many issues in depth or look for the root causes, so they rely on their staff, policy think tanks, lobbyists, and opinion polls like the one my representative sent me. They are not likely to read our blogs. But what if we each decided to send at least one letter or email a week that made it easier for legislators to access accurate information about their constituents’ needs and visions, along with thoughtful suggestions for addressing the root causes? Many of us have accepted the fact that those in power won’t listen to anything we have to say, like the elders in the state regions Ed and Jerry oversaw. But what do we lose if we try? If enough of us communicate with our legislators on an ongoing basis, things may begin to change in a positive direction. Who knows, some of our ideas may take root and blossom like seeds of dandelions that come to life in the cracks between slabs of concrete… Miracles may happen if we continue to share alternative views of what could be.

two views of power

Photo Credit: Two views of power (Bill Moyers (2001). Doing democracy: The MAP Model for organizing social movements. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Press.

*Note: The structure, names and functions of state agencies have changed many times since those years.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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About Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.
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20 Responses to Miracles Won’t Happen If We’re Afraid to Take Risks

  1. susanissima says:

    Seems like the power in this idea is that repetitive communication let’s our legislators at least know that we are a tangible entity, a continuous force with which to be reckoned, and on the stated issues. The challenge, of course, is rampant apathy; so many people have given up, only see themselves on the bottom of the pyramid and can’t imagine that there may be power in that huge base. I appreciate your reflection, as always, Carol.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Although I don’t vote, I do call, write, and petition “our” representatives. I do it to annoy them because I know they aren’t listening–not to me, not to us, but rather to the corporations who exert their influence on Washington, bedfellows.

    Unless I am completely off my mark, I’d say we are not a democracy, or republic, or whatever of the people by the people–perhaps we never were. More of a fascist regime projecting the illusion of democracy I’d say.

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  3. Joan Treppa says:

    Even if our inquiries get set aside or ignored, which is something I encounter often, there is no ignoring the fact that we are out here…watching… I believe some of what we do is primarily to show perseverance and engagement despite apathy and that, to me is empowering. Nice commentary Carol.

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  4. The petitions and the letters are important – even if we’re sometimes whispering in the wind. As long as we still have some semblence, however small, of a representative democracy we need to keep poking.

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  5. mandy says:

    I have to admit, Carol, I’ve been lax in “doing” anything when I’m not happy with something. I vote, but I’ve always known that that doesn’t always mean much–and then I complain about THAT. In recent months, I’ve decided that if I’m not happy with something that someone else has the power to change–or try to change–like a representative or congressman, I will pick up the phone and tell their call-taker.I know those concerns get to them. It still may not create change but it feels so good to have taken that step. I find myself complaining so much less! It sounds like, from your previous job, you learned that concerns of the people must be listened to. I’m going to bank on that. 🙂

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    • carolahand says:

      How exciting to hear that you are developing your advocacy muscles, Mandy! 🙂
      It helps to share your perspective – you have far more expertise on many issues that legislators and their staff. Of course, lobbyists and wealthy people have more influence to frame policy, but the number of voters who share their views have an important impact, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Perhaps the cliché of a question “did you vote?” needs to be updated to “did you run for office?” Men and women across America who want real change need to enter the political arena; whether they win or “lose”, communication of serious ideas happens. At this stage in America, candidates who let voters know that their campaign war chests aren’t even close to as large as the favorite will resonate strongly with the people, sharing positive, much-needed, reform-based information in the process.

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  7. Debra says:

    I think it is absolutely crazy that your list of priorities somehow isn’t. I hate saying this but I don’t think voters have much sway at all. Though of course if everyone dropped out of voting there would be some scary consequences. Real change (at least from what we’ve seen in the past) seems to come from a combination of mass action combined with positive and pervasive press. But not just any action will do — it has to be novel and it has to truly inconvenience or embarrass members of the power elite. So when women suffragettes held a huge demonstration in Washington, people took note. When those women went to jail and got abused by the guards and the press reported on it people were horrified and demanded some changes. Today, we can march for climate change or any other issue but a march these days seems ordinary and gets dismissed by corporate media. We need to think outside the usual lines and we will need to use the internet since corporate media just shuts out any kind of meaningful dissent.

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    • carolahand says:

      Thank you for such thoughtful comments, Debra. I’m also surprised that none of the issues on the list I sent to my congressperson are ever identified as a real priority by Congress.

      I agree that what we call “democracy” is not government of the people… for the people. And as you point out, change never comes easy. I appreciate the history you shared about the role of demonstrations in the centuries of hard-fought battles by women to gain the right to vote. Demonstrations were clearly one of the many crucial strategies employed – speaking, writing, organizing, marches, demonstrations. Just as the layers of oppression are multidimensional, strategies of resistance should also be diverse and layered. Suffragettes also had a clear vision of the positive goal they were working to accomplish, rather than a problem they wanted to solve or an enemy they wanted to defeat. A compelling affirmative vision or mission matters. It helps energize people around a shared purpose. In terms of strategies, we do need to think outside of the usual lines as you convincingly argue. Like all past movements for change, we need to keep inventing new ways to raise awareness and hope, and use both tried-and-true and new approaches to advocate effectively for alternatives.

      Again, thank you for deepening the discussion!

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  8. Carol, I like your idea. For as you know, it is ideas that have caused true and lasting change – from the idea of transcending our physical limitations and communing with a higher spiritual force – to the idea – arising in different ways among different peoples – the individuals and communities – have the right and need to control their own lives. I agree with Debra that we do have to come up with novel ways, but she contradicted herself. The “corporate” media may exist, but it is not the only or major player. I am one of millions who am not connected to network TV, (and when I did was smart enough to not watch Fox news). The internet provides a vast swash of very good information, if one looks. So, back to your idea. (Before I forget, you correct about the limits of petitions, but I’ve been an internet activist for years, and have seen many campaigns achieve their goals.) And whether its by drips of water or tsunamis, the rocks can become sand. Back to your idea – even though I think I have three worthless representatives (Murkowski has pushed the XL pipeline) – I’d like to see how we could develop this idea. You are a much more organized – system – policy thinker than I am. But, this is long enough for a comment. You have a good idea and I’d like to see where we can take it.

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    • carolahand says:

      Thank you for sharing important insights and ideas, Skywalker. I promise to reply in a more thoughtful manner tomorrow. (I’m too tired to make much sense at this point.)

      Liked by 1 person

    • carolahand says:

      Skywalker, you make such important points about the rights of differing communities to advocate in their own ways. And as you astutely point out, the internet can be a powerful tool for raising awareness and mobilizing resistance. We have not only the power (at least as long we have net neutrality), but also the responsibility to do what we can individually and collectively to educate (and someday many be even choose) decision makers about issues and alternatives to existing (in most cases foolish and counter-productive) policy priorities. (I say there is hope even though I can’t quite believe that today, the Senate is trying to decide if climate change science is accurate 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Reflections about Change and Resistance | Voices from the Margins

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