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)
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.
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.
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