Thursday, April 29, 2010

Standing with the People

As Lucienne Siers explains in our conversation this week, the Partnership for Global Justice believes in not only advocating on behalf of those who don't run governments or corporations but also helping make it possible for them to speak for themselves.  "Standing with," she explains, means listening to, offering moral support, helping organize additional supporters -- being present.  This is the role of NGOs -- non-governmental organizations.  So while she is clearly proud of the work of the United Nations, where her work is based, she also recognizes the importance of representing those who are not usually invited to the tables of power. 

As I spoke with her, I kept thinking about a recent column by New York Times commentator Nicholas D.  Kristof, reminding readers, in the midst of the latest discussions about how churches handled cases of abuse by priests, that there is another Catholic Church: "the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty."  The Partnership for Global Justice clearly represents this version of the church. 

I'm not Catholic, but unlike many of my politically-progressive friends I not only value the progressive work that many religious groups do but also participate actively in a religious community.  I do so without ignoring the limitations and contradictions that are inherent in all institutions and with the intention of pushing my religious community toward more engagement with the world and less concern about rules, boundaries, and control.  So I may be more inclined than some to respect the kind of work Sr. Lucienne Siers and her sister Catholics are doing.  Projects like this remind me that faith can -- as it should -- inspire us to act justly.

By the way, Lucienne mentioned the UN's "Millennium Development Goals" a couple of times in the interview.  You can find them here, and learn more about how they're being pursued.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dial 211

It's as simple as that.  If you need help with anything from paying bills to domestic abuse to your sister's depression, dial 211 and you'll be connected with Help Hotline.  As Cathy Grisinski explained in our conversation this week, if they can't offer help, they can probably direct you to someone who can.

Of course, nothing is that easy.  What struck me most in talking with Cathy is that the problems that lead people to call Help  Hotline are so rarely simple.  Someone who's struggling to pay a mortgage bill might well be unemployed or underemployed, perhaps because of health problems or just the state of the economy, but unemploymentcontributes to emotional struggles -- self-doubt, depression, thoughts of suicide -- and behaviors that create more problems.  Help Hotline staffers know how to respond when the rest of us can't even identify the cause of a problem.

But Help Hotline is much more than, well, a hotline.  They run a community center, organize support groups, and provide education to community groups, school children, and anyone who wants to understand mental health issues.  May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so it's a good time to learn more about one of the most important resources in our community.  Visit the Help Hotline website to learn more -- including about how you can get involved.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Solving the Urban Education Puzzle

I've done several interviews over the last few years about education, including conversations with Wendy Webb and Randy Hoover and this week's chat with Anthony Catale.  I keep hoping that someone will provide some hope -- not just good intentions or even a strong critique, though I've heard plenty of that.  And I know that districts all over the country are wrestling with the same problems we have, so what I'm looking for is, to put it mildly, elusive. 

I'm impressed with Anthony Catale's determination, and he seems to have a good grasp of what's happening in the local district.  But while he can identify a great set of goals, I'm not hearing from him or from anyone a clear sense of how to achieve them.  Catale touts the benefits of "data-driven decision making," which might be the most popular buzz phrase of contemporary education.  The right goals and a ton of data don't necessarily add up to effective strategies. 

I hope the folks on the school board, on the state commission addressing the district's "academic emergency" rating, and in the city schools administration are paying attention to a couple of things:
  • What's going right at Youngstown Early College?  Like some charter schools, YEC may benefit from self-selecting admissions and smaller size, but I can't help but wonder if the rest of the district couldn't borrow some strategies from the only building in the district to earn an excellent rating.
  • What's happening in DC?  Michelle Rhee is creating plenty of tension and attracting lots of attention, and I'm not sure whether her efforts are yielding much.  But they do give us a very visible model of what top-down, data-driven educational management looks like. Is it a good idea?  Education journalist John Merrow has been following the story for over  a year.
As my short list suggests, I have no real answers to offer.  I share the frustration that everyone I talk with expresses about this.  But that frustration also makes me skeptical that a new strategic plan is going to solve our problems.  It's not a bad idea, but we need more. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Justifying Ourselves

According to Carol Tavris, we all do it: justify our own behavior and beliefs, even when they don't quite add up.  As she explains, and as her book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), co-authored with Elliot Aronson, shows, we all feel cognitive dissonance when our beliefs, especially things we believe about ourselves, don't quite fit with clear realities.  She cites examples ranging from how some people justify continuing to smoke despite significant evidence that it's unhealthy to the responses of cult members to the failure of the world to end according to their predictions to the way hazing increases members' commitment to their fraternities and sororities.  We can see these phenomena, and no doubt notice our own experiences with it, every day.

I appreciate two things about Tavris's work.  The first is that she talks about the findings of psychological research in very accessible, down-to-earth ways.  Translating scientific research and theory into plain language isn't always easy, much less making the ideas seem both compelling and useful.  Second, I like how research like this invites us to connect our own experiences with psychological patterns that are common to many people and to link science with ethics.  So often, we think of these varied aspects of life as being entirely separate, and this work reminds us that everything is intertwined.