|[UPDATE: It may help to stress that I mean this as much as an extended question as an argument. It's not PC to suggest that democracy isn't always right, or that small groups of people should develop ideas "for" others. I don't even particularly like writing stuff like this. But I'm interested in any responses this post might incite, and this is an issue I struggle with, especially with the very limited time that I, personally, have to volunteer to these overall efforts.]
One of the issues I am working on at the moment is health care in schools. Last year we successfully won $4 million dollars for school nurses in the state budget. Since then, we have been exploring possibilities for providing dental care to inner-city kids through a school-based program.
I may talk more specifically about these efforts later on. Here, I just want to discuss how we decided on health and dental care as an issue.
Real Choices in a World of Limited Options
Fighting for school change in my state is extremely challenging for a city-based organization because funding is controlled on the state level. Unless it achieves the power to "move" the legislature, then, an organizing group is generally limited to non-funding issues on the local level. After banging our heads against this challenge for a couple of years, key members of the education committee of the congregational organizing group I work with, MOVE, came together and decided we would try to focus on "school" issues that might be able to tap funding streams outside of the traditional funding process.
We decided that health care would be an important arena to explore.
For the next year and a half, or so, the committee spent time doing research and talking to key stakeholders about health care for children and about the effects of health issues on education. As part of this I created a brochure about the health care challenges of Milwaukee children and relationships between health and learning. Still, we struggled to find a good issue to "cut" out of the "problem" of health care for kids.
At one point, we began to focus on the fact that nearly all low-income Milwaukee children were not only eligible but actually signed up for the state Medicaid program. Would it be possible, we wondered, to leverage children's health insurance to fund school-based programs? We asked a key representative of the state health department, and, to our surprise, they were quite interested in this idea.
I won't go into all of the details of our negotiations or our engagements with the local district to help make the school nurse funding a reality. Interestingly, we ended up dealing with the state anyway around this issue, but because we had an identified funding stream to help support the effort, it was easier to make change happen.
Hiring school 24 new school nurses for the schools that had had no nursing support at all prior to this was a real achievement, but we had actually started our discussion with the state talking about how specific services might be provided through schools. After winning the nurses, we turned back to the services issue. And everyone told us that the "hot" issue right now was dental care. So that's what we began to focus on.
Over more than the last year, with more and less intensity, we've been exploring how we might "cut" an issue out of the dental challenge, talking, again, to different stake-holders in an attempt to uncover a specific model that we might fight for. This time, given the interest in the issue, we recruited our state-wide network to this issue, which agreed to join us if we could figure out a way to "cut" this issue by finding a specific, effective model. This is where we are at the moment.
Benefits of Being Anti-Democratic?
You will notice that I have nowhere in this story talked about any effort to foster broad-based democratic discussions. While we received agreement from the organization at our yearly meeting for our direction, this did not involve any significant or substantive consultation. All of the decisions were essentially made by an extremely small group of leaders.
It gets worse. There is an extent to which what we have been doing is actually somewhat "non-"democratic.
Some years ago we went through a process of surveying our members about what they thought the key issues were in education that we should focus on. The clear winner was "discipline" in schools. But we never went in this direction. Why?
The "discipline" issue is extremely problematic for a progressive organization to tackle directly. Focusing on "discipline" can, for example, frame youth as the problem, not part of the solution. Focusing on discipline also may end up magnifying what may not be the key problem for schools for the organization's members and the larger public. Further, many discipline issues are the result of non-discipline, community and school challenges. In fact, the most effective efforts to increase order in schools involve building school community, not punitive interventions. In fact, punitive measures have been shown to actually increase disorder. But "building community" is a pretty vague and hard-to-measure challenge-not something community organizing groups with their fairly blunt tools of conflict and demand are best equipped for.
Furthermore, we discovered after we finished the survey that almost none of the survey participants from members churches actually had children in the most challenged schools in the city. In other words, the relative privilege of this population allowed them to keep their children in "better" schools. Were our members really representatives of the "grassroots" in the community, then? How much did they understand about the school issues they were surveyed about?
I could go on. There are other pragmatic limitations of this area. I'm sure if we thought hard enough we could have cut some kind of effective issue about discipline. But we didn't. Instead, we focused on health care, which wasn't even listed on this earlier survey, and that people we surveyed didn't raise as much of a key issue either.
It gets worse.
Some months into working on the dental issue, after we submitted a response to a request for information for grants from the state to work on this issue, a key person on a local health task called me. One of the things she noted was that they had actually run focus groups with parents, and that parents had indicated that having kids served in schools wasn't what they most wanted. What they wanted was direct and usable access to dentists themselves.
If parents don't want their kids served in the school they don't have to, of course. But there are over 90,000 students in our schools. And the school-based approach could actually get them comprehensive care, which we don't have any other effective (e.g., winnable) strategy for achieving right now.
So it turns out that we may actually be going against what some parents actually most want with this school-based program.
How Much Do People Want to Be Consulted?
Middle-class professionals expect to be consulted on pretty much everything. But if you aren't so privileged, don't have a lot of time to learn a great deal about education issues, and are facing enormous challenges, and someone comes to you and says, "hey, I can help you solve one of these challenges," are you going to worry so much about which one of them gets chosen? I doubt it.
Does it really matter that much if we focus on dental care, or vision care, or smaller class sizes first? Not really, to a lot of people.
And, as I've tried to explain, the fact is that there is not like there are huge numbers of good issues just lying out there to be engaged with. Finding an issue that is both important and that you have enough power to intervene in turns out to be pretty challenging. We'd be happy to work on broader access to dental care instead of the school-based issue but it's not clear that this is winnable right now. Certainly, there is not a groundswell of support for broadly increasing payments to seemingly already privileged dentists, which would need to be part of any effective solution.
Democracy Is Important
The point is not that you shouldn't consult with your members. Broad-based democratic participation is still important. But you need to choose when and how you make this happen. Because every time you do it, it requires a lot of resources-especially time for busy members-to have extensive discussions, meetings, etc.
For example, if we can get the dental issue cut, which is still a big if, then we could have many educational and discussion sessions about how to pursue it, how to tweak it, how to get broader participation in the effort etc. You can't get grassroots engagement without grassroots participation.
But the fact is that the statistics about health care for inner-city children are horrific. For example, 64% of the children in our schools have significant dental problems. 64%! And there are very few dentists that are even willing to see them. People see these numbers, come to understand the problem, and they become engaged. They probably didn't realize before.
If we put this issue out, and people yawned, well, then we couldn't pursue it.
But the fact is that there are a huge number of horrific problems out there that would engage people if we could just find some realistic solution (and I mean politically realistic) to fight for. As I've noted before, it's by finding a realistic possibility for successful change that one can get people engaged. Going around and around about challenges that you have no realistic way of approaching is likely just to make people stop showing up. This is true EVEN IF YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT THE PROBLEMS THAT THEY WERE NOT INITIALLY MOST CONCERNED ABOUT.
What Kind of Issues Require More Democratic Consultation?
Other issues seem likely to require more extensive education and dialogue. For example, we were thinking about joining the fight of a couple of local school board members to reinstate arts programs and/or other extracurricular activities in MPS schools. An effort like this, which would involve shifting $$ from one area of the school budget to another (instead of providing new $$ like the dental plan would, above) seem problematic to pursue without extensive and broad input. There is deep disagreement out there about what schools should "do" or "be." Should they limit their focus to the three Rs exclusively, or do they have a responsibility to provide more broad-based experiences to students? And do extracurricular activities really matter on an academic level? Are they simply add-ons that are fun, or do they, for example, keep students in school that might otherwise drop out?
To me, it seems problematic for a few leaders to decide what the general population of their organization believes on something like this without engaging with them in some way.
Three Kinds of Issues?
There may be three different kinds of issues, here.
- There may be issues like dental care or class size that don't require as much intense democratic engagement or education. Anybody on the street can see why they are important and they don't need to learn much to understand what needs to be done in a general sense. The specifics of the solution are not really that important to them.
- Then there may be issues that require education and some democratic dialogue, but that revolve around issues that people generally will support unproblematically. People need to understand the complexities of these issues in order to participate effectively in the fight, but don't need to have extended discussion about whether this particular fight is worthy.
- And then there may be issues that require both education and more extensive democratic dialogue, like whether an organization should join an effort to bring extracurricular activities back given a limited pool of $ to do everything a school needs to do. They need to have discussions about whether this campaign is worth getting into in the first place. And they need to understand the structure of the budget-the specific details of where the funding will come from and the implications of this act for other programs-both to have the dialogue in the first place and to effectively fight for the change if they decide to pursue it.
To complicate this even more, there may be issues that you need to win on BEFORE you worry about democratic participation. For example, if you could include avenues for community participation within the school dental programs, then the creation of these programs might CREATE opportunities for democratic participation that didn't exist before you developed them.