Sunday, March 10, 2013

Issue #104- Politics, "Truth" and Organizing for the Future

Statewide Politics…
All elections matter, however, not all elections get the attention that they deserve from the general public.  Far too many voters turn out to cast a ballot every four years during a presidential election.  They sit out the other elections for many different reasons, but the results are damaging to our democracy.  Because of voter indifference, apathy or disillusionment a small number of committed voters can essentially dominate democracy and can fill elected positions with individuals who share a particular political ideology. 

Supreme court elections in Wisconsin are frequently low turnout races.  Recently they have been increasingly bitter and partisan, leading to calls to change the way our justices are selected.  Some of those who are seeking change feel that a nomination process (similar to the way U.S. Supreme Court Justices are selected) would result in improvements in the process and results.  Of course, we have seen that the nomination process at the federal level is filled with partisanship and doesn't guarantee a qualified, unbiased court. 

Whether we elect or nominate our justices isn't as important as the reality that we need to see increased participation in the process.  This is obvious if justices are elected, but if they are nominated then those doing the nominating and confirming are still elected by a disturbingly small number of voters.  Either way, the majority of people don't make their voices heard, until it's too late. 

The people of Wisconsin need to wake up and realize that all elections matter.  Too often people don't see politics as something that impacts their lives until after their ability to influence the process has gone past.  We saw this in the election of Scott Walker where a significant portion of the population that voted in 2008 sat out the 2010 election.  Once the population of Wisconsin realized their error, it was too late and the recall effort faced an uphill battle that ultimately was unsuccessful. 

Lies Become Truth…
There are many political lies that, when repeated frequently, become political realities.  We are bombarded with rhetoric that leads us to believe certain things are true, or that there is an issue that needs to be fixed, or that we are in some type of crisis.  One of the most prevalent is the myth of the "Job Creator".  Republicans would have us believe that any wealthy American is a potential job creator who needs to be protected from the vicious governmental forces that are out to steal their wealth away.  All the rich want to do is make money so that they can help the rest of us.  This has given us economic ideas like "Trickle-down Economics".  It has also given us the reality that we live in today, where the gap between the rich and the rest of us is widening exponentially.     

Another myth, this one a crisis, is the idea that our electoral system is fraught with fraud.  There is little evidence for the accusations, but conservatives will cite potential examples of fraud to generate fear about the process.  They use rumor and innuendo to create an atmosphere of mistrust.  Then once the trust of the public is weakened they use their rhetoric to promote restrictions on voting.  The whole time their agenda isn't to hold fair elections, but to hold on to power.

What about the rhetoric that the GOP uses to undermine the credibility of their opposition?  Republicans claim to represent the "common taxpayer", the everyday citizen who is struggling to get by in a world dominated by special interests and "big government".  They support these claims through rhetoric and claims that are too often unsubstantiated.  Many times these are efforts to "buy the silence" of the voters by placating them with small gifts after taking away things of significance.    

Take the tax breaks that the Wisconsin GOP wants to give the taxpayers of our state.  The whole amount of tax savings sounds impressive, but the reality is that each person will receive less than $2 per week.  This is more of a scam (like the large class-action lawsuits on TV) than it is a demonstration of real concern for the everyday citizens of Wisconsin. 

Of course, education is an area where the lies of conservative "reformers" have set the tone for any discussion about our public schools.  They have put public schools on the defensive by setting unrealistic goals based on flawed standardized tests and have made public educators into scapegoats who are portrayed as oppressors of the students and families they work with.  They have framed the debate so that our educational efforts are reduced to financial and political debates.     

What makes it more difficult is that we don't deny that Achievement Gaps exist.  Educators know that there are students who are not succeeding in our schools and we are constantly grappling with ways to change this reality.  "Reformers" prey on this and use the existing gaps to drive wedges between groups that should be united to improve educational opportunities for all students.  Suddenly, it is educators and their unions versus students, families and other members of underserved communities.  Instead of using our energy and resources to improve our public schools we find ourselves fighting to simply preserve them.  

This issue gets to the heart of the problem.  Our society pays for what we value, and we spend our money to bail out bankers because of their value, but let public education wither on the vine.  We offer tax breaks to companies and businesses to improve our communities, but bemoan paying taxes to support local schools.  We see efforts made to turn our schools into pipelines to careers, rather than as opportunities to create well rounded, educated citizens.  Citizens who will have the knowledge to create their own opportunities, rather than becoming cogs in a machine built to reward the few at the expense of the many.   
There is some good news in the fight over public education.  The conservative "reformers" may have overreached in their efforts and are proposing "reforms" that will harm local school districts in areas under GOP control.  This has resulted in a break in the Republican ranks and the possibility of some alternative proposals seeing the floor of the Wisconsin legislature.    

Current events are challenging to analyze.  We have seen just how difficult it is to evaluate and understand events that are occurring rapidly and that happen in volatile circumstances during the past couple of years in Wisconsin.  Now that we are two years removed from the events surrounding the passage of Act 10 more information is coming out.  It is important that we share all the information from those turbulent days so that we don't forget what happened and allow someone else to write the history of our struggle.   

Organize for the Future…
As the struggle continues here in Wisconsin, it becomes more and more clear that our best hope for success lies in organizing ourselves and creating  broad based coalitions to defend the things we value.  Individually, most of us don't have much power or any real ability to represent our interests.  Instead, we find ourselves to be one of many, trying to make our voice heard.  Too often individuals don't feel like their wellbeing is being looked after, or that the groups, organizations, government that is supposed to advocate for them is failing to do so.

Part of the problem is that each of us is ultimately responsible for being our own advocates.  Whether it is something relatively simple like voting, or more complex and challenging, far too many people have "checked out" and given up on impacting the conditions that they live and work in.  For those that do get involved, staying engaged over the longer term is often difficult.  It is also hard to stay motivated when success isn't achieved quickly.  An example of this is found among some people who participated in the recall process in Wisconsin.  They feel like they tried to do something, but weren't heard and therefore have retreated from active roles in any further actions. 

This isn't to be critical of anyone.  The level of energy that was put forward during the protests and recall efforts probably wasn't sustainable for most of us.  However, while we may not be able to be as active as we were over the past two years, we can't allow ourselves to completely disengage from the process.  Finding ways to continue the struggle is important, otherwise any progress made in the recent past will be lost.

This problem manifests itself when we see people stop advocating their own interests and relying on others to speak for them.  Whether this means letting an elected official represent us, or an organization like a union take on that role, the results are the same.  We know that organizations of any size can only represent the views of some of their members.  No group can represent every interest of every person in it.     

Another challenge in organizing and engaging citizens is the loss of trust and the lack of hope.  For many people it seems like no matter what they do, their voice isn't heard.  This can be on a larger societal level, or on a more personal basis.  I often hear people express the idea that what they say doesn't matter because those in charge will just do what they want anyway.  Others express the feeling that things will never change and the past inequities are the reality for the future.  Whether this is because of past history that goes back generations, or a more recent phenomenon the losses are felt keenly by many.  This leads to a lack of faith in any action and results in apathy or unvoiced anger.  Two conditions that breed discontent and are difficult to channel into positive action. 

So, we are faced with a seemingly unsolvable dilemma.  On one hand, most of us don't have the individual power to make change happen, but at the same time, don't see a place for themselves in any group that could make positive change occur.  It is this void, or Participation/Advocacy/Engagement Gap, that we need viable organizations and groups to fill.  The potential for organized people to make positive change is one of the reasons why the existing leadership of our state and nation is so vehement in their efforts to destroy unions and dismantle public sector safety nets.  

Their efforts have met with some success.  Union membership nationwide is down and public sector unions in many states, notably Wisconsin, have seen their power diminished in many ways.  In addition to the visible legislative and policy efforts, anti-union forces have also worked hard to portray unions in negative ways through the media and other propaganda.  They have used issues like the Achievement Gaps and public educator unions' efforts to protect their members working conditions to depict public educators as selfish and unwilling to change to promote opportunity for all students. 

What conservatives too often fail to mention is, that after dismantling protections for individuals we are left with a system that is even more inequitable than the one that we have now.  In a world where each person must advocate for themselves with limited, if any, support, it is the wealthy and powerful who will thrive.  This has been demonstrated throughout history and there is no reason to believe that things will change in modern America. 

We find ourselves facing an uphill battle, but shouldn't feel like we are left without hope for the future.  There are many ways that we can continue to have a voice in the process and to positively impact our society.

One key component to our efforts to create a socially just society is to hold on to the institutions and organizations that we currently have.  Those of us still in unions must maintain our membership and become activists in defending our ability to organize as workers.  We need to defend public institutions like public schools.  Institutions which may not be perfect, but which represent opportunity for change that isn't present in a privatized world.  Public institutions which are accountable to the public, if the public chooses to hold them accountable.          
These institutions need to adapt to the modern world that they exist in.  The pressure and accountability that citizens put on them can have real, positive results.

However, if we keep our organizing efforts at the group, or larger scale levels, they will not enjoy the success that they potentially could.  Trust in the system and hope for positive change have been eroded by past experiences and promises broken.  It is understandable that many groups are frustrated and angry.  It is understandable that a significant number of people feel like any promises made by these larger entities will not be fulfilled. 

The Achievement Gaps provide us with a clear example of this mistrust and loss of hope.  For too many, there is no reason to trust that anything will change unless the system is dismantled.  Yet, in doing so we risk a return to the days of segregation and a divided society with groups of people separated by race, gender, religion or other characteristic.  We face an incredible challenge in trying to create a society where we can value all of our people and not live in fear of advancing one group at the expense of others. 

This begs the question, are freedom, justice and equality part of a zero-sum equation?  Is it impossible to raise people up without putting others down?  It would seem to me that there are some areas where a scarcity of resources means that this is true, but in the areas where we are dealing with non-tangible ideals, shouldn't we all be able to rise together? 

There are places where the two worlds overlap.  One example would be funding for education.  There are a finite amount of financial resources, qualified educators and technological supports available in the world.  We see funding becoming a large part of the struggle as different groups fight for a piece of the pie.  What is ignored is that our nation has the resources to adequately train, supply and support all students in their academic efforts.  We simply choose to fund other things.  The military budget, athletics and entertainment all sap resources away from our schools and into other venues.  We aren't putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to educating our people.

The problems are real and relatively easy to identify.  The solutions are in some ways just as simple, although not as straightforward to solve.  How do we reach a point where multiple viewpoints are always a part of our classrooms and society and we don't need a specific month or day to promote a groups contributions?  How do we reach a point where everyone feels like they have an equal opportunity and separate awards or Affirmative Action are truly no longer needed?  How do we reach a point where everyone assumes positive intentions from each other and the difficult issues can be addressed with honesty and trust?

I always tell my students that trust is one of the most important things we can have in our classroom.  If we can trust each other then we will accomplish much more than if we don't.  Once my students earn my trust I am able to give them more freedom in their studies and once they trust me we are able to work so much better together.  This is process that takes time and is a challenging one for many students. 

Unfortunately, trust is difficult to establish, but is very easy to lose.  This is just as true in the world outside the classroom as it is inside the school walls.  Trust isn't something that can be mandated, but must be earned through hard work and a demonstration of reliability.  We are beginning to realize the level of frustration and mistrust that exists in many groups in our society.  Often these are the groups that are not enjoying the same levels of success as other groups.  It stands to reason that, if you have been the object of discrimination and have a history of unequal treatment that trusting in the larger society would be a problem. 

In order to win that trust, our organizing efforts must focus on things that matter to all groups.  Too often we see organizations try and engage people on issues that are of importance to the organization.  Once again, the recall efforts, and most elections, stand out as examples.  Neighborhoods that rarely got visitors from "outside" were suddenly flooded with volunteers, knocking on doors, talking to the residents.  Asking for votes to support candidates who may, or may not remember the people who turned out to cast a ballot for them. 

This disconnect between organizations and their members isn't limited in scope.  Every individual member of a group has some level of frustration or feels underrepresented in some way.  In situations of extreme poverty or discrimination this is magnified, but we all feel like we have to struggle to make ends meet and to make our interests heard. 

One of the real struggles that unions have faced recently is the perceived need to be engaged in political issues.  Anti-labor forces have made the workplace into a political battlefield through legislation and policy designed to directly impact working conditions for unionized labor.  As a result unions have had to put significant resources into political actions that have drained financial and emotional capital.  Unions have been in a reactive mode and have scrambled to try and hold their ground.

However, in doing so it may be that unions have forgotten their roots.  Organized labor was born in struggle at a very personal level.  Workers rallied and organized to support themselves and their co-workers on issues of direct importance to them.  Political action and politics in general don't strike the same resonating chord for many members.  In other words the battles for the hearts and minds of labor is fought in the workplace and on the streets more than it is in legislative chambers.  We can't discount the need to be politically active, but you can clearly see the difference in engagement among union members when looking at the February, 2011 protests and the following two years of political action.        

It is also important for organizers to work at the personal or small group level.  We are dealing with some big issues and these are rarely addressed satisfactorily at the "macro" level.  We start changing the world at the "micro" level.  You can see that happening in classrooms across the nation where educators and families are working together to try and help a specific student succeed.  We often see families come in with "baggage" from previous educational experiences and the adults are filled with mistrust for the schools.  It takes time and a strong commitment to make change, but in doing so we can break the cycle and create hope for the future.

Face to face contact and actions committed with those we know are the most powerful.  It isn't easy to trust in a large group or in our political process on a large scale, but people are able to develop relationships with those closer to home.  The data that shows that most people don't think public schools around the nation are doing well, but who feel like their neighborhood school, or their child's educator are high quality, shows this reality well.  Even in organizations like MTI where a majority of members are supportive and engaged we see the power of individual contact when trying to mobilize our energy.  I've seen this personally at my own school and in the groups that I've been a part of over the past two years.  Making time to talk with people empowers everyone and opens doors that may have been closed previously. 

These are challenging, but exciting times.  There are the obvious threats to our rights and freedoms, but there are also the opportunities to use the conflicts to advance our society to new places.  This is virtually impossible to do through legislation, or through mandate from outside sources.  It also doesn't happen overnight.  Building a society where all are valued and all have equal opportunity takes time, effort and communication.  However, the results would make all of the hard work worth it.             

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