Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

I am a protestor. This is the first in a three part series outlining my thinking and position as it relates to racial injustice in our society and lamenting racial divisions within the Church. In observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last Thursday (1/15) and this weekend’s observance of the Holiday set apart in honor of his legacy, Part One highlights Dr. King’s own words from a half century ago that still ring loudly in their call for freedom today.

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth, who won’t accept deception instead of what is truth. It seems we lose the game before we even start to play. Who made these rules? We’re so confused, easily led astray.

Sometimes it seems, we’ll touch that dream, but things come slow or not at all. And the ones on top, won’t make it stop, So convinced that they might fall.

Lauryn Hill “Everything is Everything” (1998)

On September 1, 1958, writing from New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. publishes “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in the September issue of Fellowship, an abbreviated version of chapter six of his book Stride Toward Freedom. Citing Jesus in Luke chapter 4, Dr. King writes, “The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’s words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’”

The Reverend continues, expanding on his long held deep concerns about the gap between superfluous wealth and abject poverty. Dr. King notes, “Capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.” These words would be exponentially prophetic, especially highlighted by the needless death of Eric Garner over sales of loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York on July 17, 2014 in which we became aware that the situation had escalated to one in which capitalism is now more concerned about protecting a living than taking a life.

Four and a half years later, on April 16, 1963, amidst an eight-day incarceration in Birmingham, Alabama for engaging in direct nonviolent protest, Martin Luther King Jr. pens an eloquent defense of work being done to advance Civil Rights and a stinging critique of the critical clergy who have failed to support the movement.

Dr. King gives the benefit of good will to his fellow clergy, but explains that their charges fall outside of the Biblical mission of Shalom, saying, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Dr. King’s appeal here lays the moral and ethical stare decisis for those listening to the Sprit’s prophetic voice to become involved in addressing injustice where they are able.

In his treatise from Birmingham, Dr. King expounds on the value of nonviolent protest explaining that the intent of such direct action is to create opportunity for negotiation, “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Is it possible that this is what theology looks like?

He continues, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

For Christ followers, especially those like me who enjoy asymmetrical power and unmerited privilege in our culture based on gender and race inequality, the challenge is to look to Jesus’ example of a King voluntarily stepping down from His throne and to ask myself if I am willing to pay the same severe price of such a costly interruption.

Mug shot of Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

After outlining a multitude of the inhuman offenses of the racism which he suffered, Dr. King makes a plea that, “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”– then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait… One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Our brother and hero in the faith then shares his broken optimism lamenting the racial divisions in God’s church, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The temptation is to say that things have changed; that Dr. King’s “Dream” was eventually realized and that a post-racial society has been achieved over the course of the last half-century. That simple academic knowledge of the Bible is we need to make things right. This would make me feel better. Allow me to discount the narratives that do not fit my worldview. But if we are willing to listen to our brothers and sisters of color, to hear the minority report, we find an entirely different story altogether.

Is it possible, as comedian Chris Rock recently pointed out to Frank Rich of New York Magazine, “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

Is it possible some of us just discounted the above statement because it came from a comedian and used that as an excuse not to hear the experiences and wisdom that could be gleaned from hearing a black man out?

Regardless of what you have come to believe about the character of Michael Brown following the tragic untimely end to his young life, are we willing to hear the anger and distrust of the Ferguson community? Even if it costs us something?

After a sixth bullet struck Michael Brown he fell facedown onto the double-yellow lines of Canfield Drive. Mr. Brown’s blood began to run in a small river down the pitched road. His body lay prostrate in forced submission to the police where he remained, at least partially uncovered and in view of neighborhood residents and onlookers for four and a half hours. In the aftermath, a 21 year old Ferguson resident, Alexis Torregrossa, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you. To set an example, that’s how I see it.”

Do we have ears to hear Ms. Torregrossa? If so, we must acknowledge that we have more work to do. Work that starts with listening, not to why all lives matter, but to how and why for so long the lives of black people have been placed at such a grave discount.

Are we willing to listen?

Jan 2015 New Yorker Cover

“We were just kids just living in wide-eyed innocence, minivan floor like a tenement. We were just kids who believed in more than just dreams, in more than just justified ends to a means” – Switchfoot “Who We Are”

We wanted to help. We did not know what we were doing. We changed the world.

In early 2006, during months a Southern Californian would refer to as Spring, but in Montana the ice is just starting to thaw, I read something that would change my life. The Facebook was limited to college students and prompted status updates (Joshua Fisher is…), so if I recall correctly, it was a post on Shanley Deignan’s Xanga site. There was mention of an organization that had made its way through Nashville advocating on behalf of orphaned children in Uganda. Children in danger of being forcibly conscripted into a guerrilla army comprised largely of child soldiers. I looked up the group online and discovered they had been founded by three kids in their early 20s and had set up their headquarters in El Cajon, CA, the city where I was born.


Walking from Missoula Valley Church to the Courthouse in Downtown Missoula for the Global Night Commute in solidarity with the children of Northern Uganda (April 29, 2006)

I felt reborn in outrage at the plight of these children and responsible to help both them and my fellow San Diegans in the battle. With that sum of knowledge I found myself dialing the fledgling offices of Invisible Children and asking what we could do to help in Missoula.

I learned that Northern Uganda was in the trenches of a 20 year ongoing war that had left nearly two million people left internally displaced, nearly 60,000 of whom were living in absolute poverty in housing camps. Key to the country’s conflict was rebel Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) comprised of and sustained by kidnapped children, forced to commit terrible acts of violence or have these same acts carried out on them and their families.

By 2006, an estimated 400,000 children nationwide, referred to as “night commuters”, were walking from their rural villages into city centers each night in order to sleep in groups, hoping to avoid the fate of the 25,000 children abducted before them. With a quarter of all Northern Ugandan children over the age of 10 with at least one deceased parent, the kids had banded together for self-preservation. Invisible Children co-founders Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey had discovered these children on a 2003 trip hoping to make a documentary on the conflict in the Sudan. Instead they turned their lenses toward this true, untold story in hope of making a positive change.

Armed with a rough cut of their documentary, a non-profit was birthed with a goal of providing resources to the “invisible children” of the world, to inspire and empower the “young and young at heart in the developing world.” A three pronged approach of objectives was formed, to build a grassroots awareness of the war in Northern Uganda and the children it was affecting, to empower individuals stateside to engage in direct action and finally to provide aid on the ground in Uganda.


Jaime, Lana and Katie get prepped for the Global Night Commute (GNC)

Action step number one would be to “lay down for what we believe in” by participating in a Global Night Commute. Rain or shine, on April 29, 2006, people were asked to both empathize and make a statement of unity with the children of Northern Uganda by walking in groups to their respective downtowns throughout the United States to sleep overnight and peacefully advocate for the end of the war. Late to the game, this gave us in Missoula approximately one month to plan, organize and execute the event. I was put in touch with I.C. National Tour staffer Genevieve Luippold who could have easily told me that Missoula wasn’t a high priority for engagement or participation, but instead matched my enthusiasm and offered full support in getting Invisible Children on the ground in Montana.

In order to gain approval to use the Missoula Courthouse grounds for an overnight peace demonstration, City Officials informed me we would need the approval signatures of the city’s Police Chief, Fire Marshall, City Attorney, County Commissioner as well as the Transportation/Engineering Department and the Maintenance Department’s Facilities Manager. Undaunted and assisted by the relatively small size of the city, I gained all the signatures over the course of a one week period.

We got permission from the Missoula Valley Church to screen the documentary film twice before the 29th and eventually also facilitated a screening on the University of Montana campus. We ordered t-shirts and bracelets to fundraise and set up a church-wide tag sale, which netted approximately $1,400 in to support the organization and sponsor education for the kids in Northern Uganda. I sent out a press release, made a local appearance on the evening news, and made sure our event information was available on the internet. We made signs, put up posters, rented port-a-potties.

It was a whirlwind. With all the wisdom of my 23 years, I had not even viewed the actual film myself until four days prior to our first screening and two weeks before the Global Night Commute. Taking 21 units in my final college semester and working a part-time job as an Afterschool Program Director for the Boys and Girls Club didn’t leave time for much. Adding the responsibility of coordinating an event of this magnitude wasn’t well advised.

I was stressed out and the stress carried over into my relationship with my wife. Jaime was willing to help to a larger extent, for this to be a joint work, and I had not yet learned how to relinquish control over my what I considered my projects.

I got some pushback from church members who were uncomfortable with the idea of the church organizing a social justice event or screening a film with moments deemed questionable.

I received tough questions I did not know how to answer and pretended to be more knowledgeable than I was, fooling no one. I still recall trying to navigate in a public forum how my support for possible U.S. troop involvement in Uganda differed from my opposition to the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

But throughout the process we did our best to help. We were encouraged. We grew.

The conversation between Jaime and I about how to balance responsibility and ask for help is one we continue to this day raising four children and being pulled in many different directions simultaneously between family, work, social and church responsibilities.

Where my knowledge of the situation faltered I did research and also learned an important lesson that it is okay and often preferable to admit I don’t have all the answers.

For every brother or sister who was skeptical of our commitment to peacefully demonstrate, I was pleasantly surprised by many more who stepped completely out of their comfort zone to offer support and show up. Even more, I was thrilled to meet the cohort of folks who were eager to show solidarity and lend their support for the cause in the face of their antipathy for the church. I learned when the church expands out of the building to meet needs in the community, whether local or global, new faces who will not approach stained glass stand ready to side with the values of God’s Kingdom.

Missoula, MT Global Night Commute (April 29, 2006) at the Missoula County Courthouse

Missoula, MT Global Night Commute participants (April 29, 2006) at the Missoula County Courthouse

Over 100 people showed up, from as far away as Edmonton in Alberta, to our Global Night Commute in Missoula to offer encouragement, write letters to lawmakers, pray on the hour for the children, share in each other’s company under streetlights and eventually get drenched in our sleeping bags overnight.

I will never forget Lana (McCrary) Miller on the morning of April 30, shivering after little sleep, covered in cold Montana spring rain, saturated sleeping bag in hand, smiling.

We were smiling because Invisible Children had provided us an opportunity to put our faith into action, to start being the change we wished to see. It was an opportunity relished and capitalized on by many, but especially by 20-somethings over the course of a decade of work.

After Jaime and I relocated to Connecticut we remained active in Invisible Children’s work highlighted by participation in another overnight commute in 2009. The Rescue in New York City resulted in Jaime (five months pregnant with Shepard), myself and 19 month old Clara sleeping outdoors with friends, family and strangers in Brooklyn Bridge Park raising awareness for the continued troubles of our Ugandan friends.

Via continued advocacy efforts such as Give Peace a Tri, the #Kony2012 Campaign and the Fourth Estate Conference, a 92% reduction in LRA killings has been achieved in the last three years. 1.8 million displaced people have returned to their communities. 2,659 people abducted by the LRA have returned to their families since 2010. 11 Ugandan schools have been rebuilt and more than 6,000 Ugandan scholarships awarded. Two bills were passed in Congress and signed into law contributing to the peace movement.

Invisible Children's The Rescue in Brooklyn Bridge Park (April 2009)

Invisible Children’s The Rescue in Brooklyn Bridge Park (April 2009) with Karen, Chantelle, Garrett, Jaime and Clara

With so much achieved, as of December 31 2014, Invisible Children has officially closed down their media and movement offices. The focus of all remaining resources and future raised funds will be on only the most essential programs in order to complete the mission of liberating every captive man, woman and child from the LRA.

At the beginning we envisioned a full-length feature film to be released by the end of 2006 and a quick end to Kony, the LRA and the need for night commuting. We spoke of expanding the organization to help all invisible children across the globe. We encountered adversity, personally and organizationally, but all hardships only strengthened the foundation for continued advocacy for the thousands of us who learned alongside each other.

Sometimes our visions do not come to fruition. But in the end, we realize that dreams bigger than ourselves are always worth pursuing. That even if we never reach our initial desired ends, perhaps we plant seeds along the way, means of accomplishing much more.

Thank you Invisible Children. Thank you for your willingness to help. Thank you for inviting our assistance. Thank you for changing the world.


Today, February 19, 2012, marks the 70th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the displacement of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s order declared, “the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.”

Authority was then given to Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt who lied to the public and reported that Japanese-Americans were involved in sabotage and espionage despite having no evidence to back these claims. Sound familiar?

"All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area (San Francisco) by 1:00 o'clock noon, Tuesday April 7, 1942"

In April 1943, Dewitt testified before a House of Representatives Naval Affairs Subcommittee, saying, “I don’t want any of them (persons of Japanese ancestry) here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. The west coast contains too many vital installations essential to the defense of the country to allow any Japanese on this coast. … The danger of the Japanese was, and is now-if they are permitted to come back-espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty.”

Attorney General Francis Biddle and many in the Justice Department, on the backing of the actual intelligence gathered and the principles of the U.S. Constitution, strongly opposed the evacuation and imprisonment of American citizens, regardless of their ancestry. However the western United States (encompassing California, Washington. Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and the then Territory of Alaska) was declared to be under the authority of the military’s Western Defense Command. “War Relocation Camps” were prisons created to incarcerate thousands of Japanese Americans until Order 9066 was rescinded two years later in 1944 and the last of the camps closed after four years in 1946.

Forty-six years after Roosevelt’s order, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the “grave injustice” done to both Japanese American citizens and permanent residents during the 1940s. The act authorized reparation payments to be made, which would total $1.6 billion over an 11 year period, and noted the internment of Japanese Americans was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The attacks on Pearl Harbor certainly could not be condoned, but neither could our shameful response to imprison innocent American citizens out of fear. While self-preservation dynamics have played on repeat in U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the last century often resulting in tragic consequences, my intent here is not to dwell on our national sin. Instead, this history lesson is an occasion to look at the man in the mirror. What is it about fear that so often trumps my own sound judgment? Perhaps more importantly, am I to be held responsible for my actions in response to being wronged?

In 2005, some dear friends and mentors in Montana invited Jaime and I to participate in a marriage class using Dr. Emerson Eggerichs’ “Love and Respect” curriculum. To this day I have not seen a better exegesis of the practicalities of the Biblical definition of marriage. One of Emerson’s phrases that stuck in my head is “Our response is our responsibility.” In speaking of his wife, Emerson says “Sarah doesn’t cause me to be the way I am. She reveals the way I am.” He expounds by noting that a grain of sand in a human eye may ultimately lead to infection and loss of vision, while the same grain of sand in an oyster can lead to secretion and then a pearl. Eggerichs points out that the speck of sand in both instances is only an irritant that “reveals the inner properties” of both the eye and the oyster. Adversity cannot force us to behave in a certain way, it can only test and then reveal who we already are in that moment. To further illustrate the point, Eggerichs notes that a rose crushed underfoot reveals a pleasant aroma, whereas pressure applied to a skunk yields a much different result. When times get tough, are you a rose or a skunk? Too often, when the inner properties of my personality and soul are revealed under pressure, no one is mistaking me for a fragrant flower.

In three days, Ash Wednesday will usher in the season of Lent and offer a period of reflection and repentance. Forty days of intentionally preparing for Christ’s death and resurrection. In both small and large opportunities created by adversity, I wish to be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to dedicate the upcoming 40 days to welcoming difficulties and making my enemies my teachers.

What can we give up that has been pathetically playing the role of God in our lives? What can we engage in, that can increase our discipline and love, such that we refuse to be the cause of “grave injustice”? Lord, help us to relinquish self-preservation, to welcome sacrifice, and to remember that “One cannot be just a bystander, for a bystander cannot be just.”

Last Friday evening, the Department of Children and Families honored Adolescent Social Work visionary Ralph Zona for his 36 years of service to the State of Connecticut and his work with over 600 youth from the city of New Haven. The Department has made many well publicized mistakes over the years, but Ralph’s life of dedication and sacrifice for our teens and their resulting success is an example of the work that is done far more often but rarely appreciated.  Ralph has always been outspoken about the flaws and failures of the bureaucratic system, but never let that system interfere with his tireless advocacy for his kids. For that he deserves to be recognized.

Born and raised in the Greater New Haven area, Ralph began his social work career in 1975 at what was then the Department of Children and Youth Services in New Haven. He was promptly assigned a now unthinkable 122 cases of foster care children over the age of 12 who were placed in foster homes and group homes across the state. Ralph recognized that many of the adolescent youth in foster care were not being adequately prepared for their transition into independent living and in 1978 decided to create the first Life Skills classes for the teens out of the New Haven office. The program evolved into Community Based Life Skills, a statewide service that has become a cornerstone of the DCF Independent Living program and the DCF Adolescent Policy. A policy that Ralph actually had a large hand in creating and that was originally drafted with adolescent youth present. This was to ensure that the real experts, the kids themselves, were involved in the process and able to provide a clue to those of us who only work in the world they live in.

Ralph noted that much of his success can be contributed to thinking outside of the box or at times in his words “outside of the planet.” Ralph’s good friend and Adolescent Services co-conspirator Bill Pinto noted that Ralph was “never afraid to send 7 billion letters to anyone who would open them” to seek support for their unconventional ideas. Among those who did consistently respond to Ralph’s letters over the years to serve the orphans of our society were UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun and NFL Hall-of-Famer Joe Namath. Ralph’s “crazy’ ideas manifested in his long time coordination of the ConnectiKids Golf Tournament which raises money for kids in foster care. He created Big Brother and Big Sister programs which matched young men and women in congregate care settings to mentors from the Yale University football team and Albertus Magnus College. In the early 1980s, Ralph began organizing Holiday parties for foster children and helped arrange Statewide Youth Conferences into the 1990s.

But above all else, Ralph’s legacy will be the Department’s emphasis on post secondary education for our youth. While other adolescent workers were just trying to survive along with their kids, Ralph was a trailblazer that preached the importance of higher education to his teens as a ticket to a better life and the end of generational poverty. Ralph ran statewide college fairs and advocated that his kids dream big and work hard. With Ralph’s help, kids on his case load graduated from Yale, Harvard, the Berkeley School of Music and nearly every public university in the state of Connecticut.

The highlight of Ralph’s retirement celebration was the return of one of his former foster care youth, Crystal Astrachan, who spoke about Ralph’s substantial influence in her life and offered some words of advice to the rest of the social workers in the room. Crystal is herself a 2004 graduate of Yale University and currently a Manager of Business Development at Connecticut-based TicketNetwork, one of the fastest growing companies in the nation. As Crystal began to tell her story and of her appreciation for Ralph, her eyes welled up with tears and she could only continue with a hug of strength and support from a friend and fellow ex-DCF youth who also formerly worked with Ralph and who is now a domestic violence victim advocate.

Crystal collected herself and spoke about how she was hesitant to get to know Ralph after being let down by so many adults in the past, but that she slowly learned to trust him when it became evident that Ralph actually cared about her well-being and that his involvement in her life was more than just a job. Ralph was there to see her graduate from Yale in 2004 and as a token of her appreciation Crystal shared the secrets of Ralph’s incredible success as a social worker, which serve as a lesson for us all.

I’d like to thank Crystal for sharing the text of her speech with me and for her permission to use her words here. Here’s what she believes set Ralph apart:

Ralph was there for us. He was not interested in using us to advance his career or get recognition for his work.  He genuinely cared about our development and success. Our happiness and achievements were his profits.  I’ve learned that this quality in people is rare.

Ralph was happy. Because Ralph was fulfilled in the act of his work, he did not expect to receive any personal benefits from his clients. This was comforting, since I had grown up seeing adults use their children for their own benefits and also had been a victim to this type of treatment myself.

Ralph was professional while still being human. He did not lean on us for emotional support or treat us like his friends or colleagues. He let me see that he was a real person with a life outside of work. He always told me about his wife and children and what they were up to.  His openness made me feel as if he were just a regular person – not just a DCF employee.

Ralph works with integrity. He is honest, reliable, consistent, and never made a promise that he did not keep.  Through Ralph’s actions, I learned that he was someone I could trust.

My dreams were always within reach with Ralph. During high school, I realized that I had an adventurous side and sought opportunities to combine travel with education and service. Ralph never made me feel that I was asking for too much. It would have been really easy to tell me that he could not get me the funding or approval to go to Mexico to study Spanish or to go to Honduras to volunteer. But Ralph knew that my passions for international travel, service, and education were important to me and he supported my goals.

Ralph did not sweat the small stuff. As an adolescent, I did some stupid stuff, but he kept perspective and knew that hiccups here and there are normal parts of development.

Ralph fostered independence. He was able to see that I made good decisions for myself and was there to guide, rather than tell me exactly what I was supposed to do.

Crystal continued by saying, “I believe that every foster care child has the potential to make their life better while in (care). Like all other children, they need support, guidance, and encouragement.  I consulted with my friends who lived with me (in foster care) and others who were in foster care. We are all in our late 20s and early 30s today. We got in touch with our adolescent selves, and, in our teenage voices, we wanted to tell you what we need from our social workers.” She then presented a list of seven needs of youth in foster care which could easily serve as the defacto “Manual for Working with Teens.” Again I express my gratitude to Crystal for sharing, here’s what the former foster youth collectively advised:

1.       Give to us without expecting anything in return, we may be too hurt and angry to express appreciation when you are helping us, but trust that one day we will remember that we had someone who gave to us this way.

2.       Help us feel that your job as a social worker is more than just a job for you.  Call us just to say hello.  Return our calls so that we don’t feel forgotten.  Be happy to see us. Be proud of us.  Make us laugh.   

3.       Never tell us how to feel about our situations today or how we should deal with the pain from our past. Let us be sad sometimes. Understand when we withdraw or act out.

4.       Give us room to mess up and make mistakes, for our mistakes are simply opportunities to learn and grow. Teach us how to forgive by forgiving us.

5.       Don’t make us feel as if we are a burden.  Show us that our presence is a gift.  Teach us that we, like all other children, deserve to be cared about and treated well. Before we (came into foster care), we may have learned through the actions, lack of action, or words of other adults that we are not worthy of attention, love, and caring – and that our needs should never be made a priority. Show us that this is not true through your actions, which will help us to make good decisions about the people we choose to have in our lives.

6.       Challenge us.  Ask us these questions: “What are your dreams? What is your purpose? What are your talents? How can you utilize your talents to help others?” Let us know that you are there to help us reach our goals and we will feel empowered.

 7.       Don’t just help us with our “self-esteem”. Help us with our “other-esteem,” which is how we feel about and relate to others. Help us understand how we are needed in our communities and our worlds to make a difference and how purposeful our gifts can be. This will help us to heal and fulfill our desires for interconnectedness and community that we long for. You, social workers, have this gift. Share it with us.

After Crystal finished her speech, it was now us social workers with the tears welling up in our eyes. I hope her words will be taken to heart and wanted to share them here to inspire all of us in social services, in teaching, in childcare, and those of us who are parents as we try to encourage the kids in our lives to find success, happiness and community.

Ralph addressed us as well after Crystal’s speech and humbly attempted to summarize his career in social work. He noted that in his nearly four decades of experience, it seemed 40 percent of kids in care will not find success in the system not matter how good their social worker is, the trauma they have experienced is simply too great. He also reported that it seems 40 percent of the kids will find success no matter how bad their social workers attempt to screw them up or get in their way, they are just too resilient. Which leaves 20 percent on the fence that we have a chance to make a difference with. Ralph said he believes that if over half of this 20 percent can also find success, then a social worker can be confident they did well and hoped his overall success rate was over 50 percent. If Ralph was in need of any validation of a job well done, he only had to look out on the sea of appreciative faces including family, co-workers and former youth, all of us inspired to follow in his footsteps. Thank you Ralph and best wishes as you begin a new Chapter.

Disclaimer: This account and the views and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author and are not necessarily reflective or representative of any State Employee Union in Connecticut or any other State of Connecticut employee.

All over the country Thursday night people stayed up into the early morning hours to witness the end of Harry Potter film saga. In Connecticut however, more than just the wizard fanatics had their sleep disrupted as thousands of state employees lay awake, wondering if their careers were destined to meet their own killing curse upon arriving to work Friday morning.

Those following the labor situation here in Connecticut may not have much sympathy, as the estimated 6,500 layoffs of state employees follows the rejection of a money-saving labor deal previously negotiated between rookie Governor Dannel P. Malloy and the unions. The tentative agreement that was being counted on to balance the budget called for wage freezes for two years, a raise in the retirement age, and slight changes to the pension and healthcare plans offered to state employees in exchange for no layoffs for four years. The health care changes mainly consisted of mandates for regular health checkups in an effort to offset the future cost of health care by addressing health issues before they metastasize.  Especially in light of the difficulty our neighbors and friends have experienced in the private sector in recent years, the proposed concession package was likened to a sweetheart deal and ought to have been an easy yes vote.

Ah, what ought to have been. Instead, despite some deft negotiating, the unions botched the communication of the proposed agreement to its members. First, it took far too long to respond to false claims about the deal being circulated via state employee email (i.e. taking all State employees of our current health insurance plans and placing us all on the Husky or SustiNet Medicaid plans). Second, the union reps then presented the tentative agreement at the same time they implored all members to vote for it, creating a perception that the union had removed all choice in the matter and that the vote was just a formality. Well, Americans and especially New Englanders don’t like to be told what to do (for proof Wikipedia the American Revolution). Finally, the union’s own bi-laws prevented a popular vote, requiring that 14 of the 15 state employee unions and 80 percent of all voters approve the deal in order to ratify it.

But enough about the union leaders, because as Kristen Chenowith sang so poignantly in Wicked, “I guess we know there’s blame to share.” I understand the “no” votes from those looking to retire soon after a lifetime of service and even some of the sentiments from workers who were around during the last layoffs nearly a decade ago and felt they had already sacrificed repeatedly, including our vote just two years ago to accept furlough days and wage freezes. But on the whole the 40 percent of workers who voted the deal down appear nearsighted and egocentric. Many of the more seasoned workers confidently voted no, believing that their seniority would prevent them from being laid off and that concessions on their part were not worth the positions of their younger co-workers. Of course, my bias is with the younger generation, being in my late twenties with a wife and three children ages three and under to care for.

Unfortunately for all of us, many of these folks who voted no did not consider that even if they were among those fortunate to keep their jobs, that the state’s fragile economy will not likely be able to avoid at least a double-dip recession with the loss of an additional 6,500 incomes and taxpayers. It seems they did not also consider that our already stressful and often unmanageable social services caseloads would be oversaturated due to the absence of our departed co-workers, ultimately disservicing the very folks we aim to help. Sadly, it seems we have forgotten the Biblical message behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Friday morning arrived and in a sad but not unexpected manner, the least senior workers in both front line and supervisory positions were the first to be let go, despite their previous votes in favor of the concession package. The death march began after nine and continued until noon, one dedicated worker after another being escorted to their pink slips. Despite reports indicating that the administrators gave the news with as much dignity, respect and professionalism as one could hope for in the face-to-face meetings, images of people sobbing and their distraught expressions are hard to shake. Some of these folks just closed on homes or condos, others are newly married, planning weddings or expecting newborns. Most have poured the remainder of their lives into the clients they serve, staying late into the evenings, skipping lunch breaks and fighting the inefficiency of bureaucracy for more hours than they could count to be paid for.

Around 10:30 am, I was visited by a co-worker and sister in Christ with messages of encouragement and notice of a prayer vigil on my behalf. Shortly thereafter, I received a message from another co-worker and sister in Christ who reported she had woken up in the middle of the night last night with a sudden urge to pray for me and my family. This was echoed by another co-worker, who did not know I was a Christ-follower but also woke up mid-sleep to pray on my behalf. Incredibly touching and encouraging.

To be perfectly honest, I gave up worrying about potentially being laid off mid-June when the union voting date was announced for a day when I was already scheduled to be out of the state working and it was confirmed there would be no absentee voting or alternate voting times. With my small slice of democratic voice denied, I felt God speak peace into my life that the ultimate results were in His hand. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing professionally and have been methodically working at a slow pace with Jaime to prepare for bi-vocational church planting. I began thinking maybe a forced layoff would be permission to pursue such paths at a greater clip and that otherwise would be confirmation that perhaps I have more to learn and more to offer as a social worker.

As noon approached, the co-worker who sits closest to me was heart wrenchingly given notice and then news trickled in that workers and friends who were hired the same day I was in May 2007 were also being let go. It seemed my name was next on the list and I prepared to put on a smile, to accept a new direction from God. But ironically, I was called not by an administrator, but by a client in need of their immunization records from a health clinic faxed to their summer employment site by 2:00 pm or face the loss of their own position. So out into field I went to save a job while contemplating losing my own.

This sundial in New Haven's Edgewood Park was once a murder scene, but the daylight transforms a former place of darkness into a children's playground, giving hope to us all in times of adversity

While out in the community, I drove by New Haven’s Edgewood Park, where I had recently taken my three year old daughter Clara on Connecticut Trails Day in early June. Although we saw much of the park on our walking tour that day, I had not had an opportunity to visit the large sundial near the entrance to the park where Stanley Street meets the Boulevard. This particular location has come to mean a great deal to me since I read the remarkable story of Vicky Coward, whose 18 year old son Tyler was shot and murdered right next to this sundial just over four years ago on July 12, 2007. As I passed the park in my car, I pulled over to walk to the location of Tyler’s demise to pray over the spot, and to breathe peace into the lives of his family and the park; perhaps as a means of restoring peace to my own soul. But I was surprised to find that the sundial which had projected visions of darkness in my mind’s eye since reading of Tyler’s death, was now fully alive in the summer sun, a unique sculpture slash water park in which small children clad in bathing suits were frolicking in the streams shooting from the rock. I could not imagine that this space being shared by joyful families was the same location in which Ms. Coward lost her son to an act of senseless street violence. It was altogether stunning and beautiful to realize that a history of darkness tied to a location does not solely determine its prospects for light, and I envisioned the darkness surrounding the office layoffs as being transformed into a bright meeting place of joy in the not-too-distant future.

Upon my return to the office, I discovered Round One of the layoff notices had been completed. The list of pink slips stopped just before my level of seniority, as measured by the arbitrary nature of my being hired in a permanent position versus a durational one from day one. But please do not cease your prayers on our behalf and certainly for those who were not spared anxiety and anguish today. I pray that the union can resolve this issue and that jobs can be salvaged before the deadline in August. I pray that if I am eventually laid off that I will have the courage and humility to pursue the Spirit’s direction in revisioning the definition of vocation. I pray that if I am able to keep my position that God would use me to positively impact the lives of the young men and women I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with. Regardless of the outcome and the current uncertainty of this chapter of life, I am certain that just like the Harry Potter books, the last line of this series is destined to read “All was well.”

I recently heard a radio interview with Sissela Bok, philosopher, author and Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Bok spoke about notions of happiness in promoting her new book, but the radio show prompted me to think back on a writing exam I had to take as part of a graduation requirement for the University of Montana. The dreaded Upper Division Writing Proficiency Assessment. Most people fail the exam the first time out, but also don’t bother to read the assessment text which is made available two weeks prior to the test.

Below is what I handwrote in the two and a half hour timed exam in response to Bok’s 1978 article entitled “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life”. I received the highest score possible on the assessment and for a few years the essay was published online. Five years later, I feel some useful thoughts and information remain in regard to the respective rights of government and citizens as our country continually engages in debate over topics such as the effect of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, WikiLeaks and the current Congressional fight over tax cut extensions. The essay may lose a little of its strength without access to Bok’s original work, but I believe it stands on its own. Thanks for reading.

October 2005 UDWPA Exam
Author: Joshua Fisher, Junior, Social Work, University of Montana

The excerpt from Sissela Bok’s work, “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life” raises the question of the government’s boundary between discretion and deception. While some argue that deception is a right and tool of the government and those in power, Bok argues that unrestrained power in this regard leads to corruption. Thus, the public should at least have the right to question the government and have a forum to discuss what can or should be kept from the masses. In the historical context in which the article was written and in light of events that have since occurred, it is necessary to agree with the author in inquiring into political deception, yet it is also important to discuss whether the government’s power of deception is indeed warranted.

Bok published “Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life” in 1978, a time at which government deception was a hot topic open for moral and legal debate. Just four years previous, President Nixon found himself in the midst of the Watergate scandal; he lied to the public and then resigned the Presidency. In 1976, two years prior to Bok’s article, the United States Navy revealed the results of their investigation into the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana, Cuba in 1898. This had been the seminal event in the fighting of the Spanish-American War. Although at the time the cause of the explosion was unknown it was widely believed and propagated that the Spaniards had sunk the Maine. The 1976 investigation showed that the Maine actually had exploded from spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bunker. A war fought nearly eight decades before the report was shown to the American public to have been fabricated, perhaps as a “noble lie,” but certainly as a “myth played on the gullibility of the ignorant” as Bok describes. Events such as Watergate and the Navy investigation into the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine were bringing the American public out of their trusting nature and gullibility.

Bok maintains that “noble lies” are the result of “gennaion,” a sense that the noble or powerful of society are both “highminded” and “wellbred.” In other words, the powerful of society viewed themselves as both qualified to lead and more intelligent than the lower classes. Bok cites both Plato and Benjamin Disraeli as examples of championing this attitude. Additionally, Bok references Arthur Sylvester, the Assistant Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, as being more blatant in his “gennaion” influenced speech, stating that the government has a right to lie, especially to save itself. While in 1978 the government’s right to lie was open for debate, it had certainly been made clear by Watergate and Nixon that the government certainly would lie, regardless of their right, in order to save itself.

It is also important to note that “gennaion” manifests in not only protective self interest, but in predatory self interest
as well. Disraeli, and his assumptions of the superior noble, is best known for being the British Prime Minister who brought India under British rule in his pursuit of imperialism. This imperialism was evident just decades later in the United States government’s involvement in the previously mentioned Spanish-American War of 1898. One has to ask, if there was no evidence that Spain attacked the U.S.S. Maine, then what motivation did the United States have in starting a war? Or perhaps more appropriately phrased, what did the noble elite stand to gain from a war at the expense of deceiving the public? The answer lies again in self-interest, and the lie that Bok presents which states that the powerful feel they have the right to determine what is best for the public and to act upon this conviction without the public’s consent. This was certainly the case of the Spanish-American War which was first “furnished” by influential newspaper moguls William Randolph Hearst of the “New York Journal” and Joseph Pulitzer of “The World” who created war propaganda against Spain in order to fuel newspaper sales. Once the gullible public had bought into the idea of“Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain,” the government quickly followed suit, appropriating $50 million dollars for war in what amounted to a war declaration. What did the government stand to gain? Their own imperialistic self-interest in the name of the public good. At the end of the war the United States had gained control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam at the expense of nearly 2,000 United States soldiers’ lives. While the government felt justified in their actions, one has to wonder how the soldiers families would have felt to know their sons died in a war that was not necessary to fight.

That situation sounds familiar as we near the year 2006. Soldiers are again being injured and killed in a war that could be seen as a concrete example of the “noble lie” and government deception. Against the threats of terrorism and a promise of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction America has again arguably entered into an imperialist mode for the sake of self interest. What is the self interest the deception is based on this time around? That is what the public wants to know. As Bok argues, from the perspective of the deceived there are no persuasive arguments for keeping the truth from us. We indeed have learned through scandals such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair that “much deceit for private gain masquerades as being in the public interest.” If the public is ever to trust and approve of our government again a dialogue must be opened on the subject of discretion versus deception for the public good. The longer the American public is deceived, and especially knowingly deceived, the less attachment and loyalty people will have to the country. But is this sense of “gennaion” and these “noble lies” actually a violation of our rights as citizens implicating an “unwarranted” use of power or is a public forum on the issue of deception a right that we do not have and instead need to fight for?

It is easy to view the government’s use of power, discretion and deception as unwarranted in light of most people’s view of democracy as a government “by the people, for the people.” But upon closer inspection, a government “by the people, for the people” is not necessarily protected. In fact, this common definition of democracy is not found in the Constitution, but in President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” While the founding fathers revolted against the absolute power and “tyranny” of King George and instituted the balance of power between the executive, judicial and legislative branches as a combatant against absolute power, did they protect the right of the people to govern? With the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution and the institution of a voting and citizen supported democracy of elected officials it is easy to assume that the Founding Fathers viewed all people equally. Yet we know this is not entirely true because the only people who could vote in the late eighteenth century were white male landowners (wealthy). It seemed to be that the founding fathers also had the concept of “gennaion” ingrained in their thought. They wanted to protect the power of the people, but only in so far as those people were of elite status.

This idea of the “noble elite” and “highminded”and “wellbred” is apparent in some of the more important documents in this nation’s history. In Federalist Paper 68, James Madison makes it clear that government and other important decisions should be made by the “most capable.” As an example of protecting an important decision against the stupidity of the electorate, the “College of Electors” was created and instituted to ensure a selection of a President approved of by the “noble elite.” Known today as the Electoral College, the results of the Presidential elections today are still in the hands of 538 “electors.” While most electors follow a winner takes all format of electoral votes following the majority vote of the public, in most states the elector is legally free to cast electoral votes however they wish free of penalty or illegal charge. This allows for the possibility of the electoral college and the “noble elite” to possibly override the public’s choice for Presidency at any time. While this power has not been taken advantage of and corrupted, the possibility and right of the government still exist in this regard. But then again this loophole has not needed to be tested because there have been no Presidential candidates in modern history who had a legitimate shot of winning the election who did not also already belong to the “noble elite.” As in the past this “noble elite” is still constructed of people made noble by birth or by “training” through education. Nevertheless, it appears as if the public has indeed been duped into overestimating their rights.

Sissela Bok is correct in stating that the public should no longer stand for the bypassing of consent of the governed in order to be able to hold government leaders accountable to corruption, whether it be a “noble lie” or not. These “noble lies” have come in the form of both self-interest for protection or self-interest for gain, but it is time for the government to have the people’s interest as priority. This change can be started by calling for an open discussion of political deception, but it is important to acknowledge that although the government has acted in deception and corruption at times, that these actions are not necessarily unwarranted as the noble elite are protected by history and our own founding fathers. Instead, the public and the people need to rise up and fight for equality and representation to combat corruption. In order to make our democracy truly a government “for the people and by the people” we must fight and advocate to have our voice heard and to gain the right of consent through Constitutional change.