Friday, June 9, 2017

At Odds

I recently had a huge argument with a friend about poverty. He may never speak to me again. Seriously. It's been weeks. We used to at least text every other day. It's total radio silence. 

It started as a result of our local mayoral election. One of the candidates recently caused a stir with her answer in a debate to a question about poverty. My friend and I started out by discussing the role of religion in politics, since the mayor got herself in hot water by answering the question from a perspective of faith. Despite my friend being significantly more religious than I, we were in agreement that religion has no role in governance. So far, so good. 

The conversation turned to whether or not people who believe one way or another and/or participate in any religious activity are less likely to be poor. Again, harmoniously, we both agreed that was highly unlikely.

But then I asked this question: 

Me: "Do you want to cure poverty?"

Possibly assuming this was a rhetorical question, he answered this: 

Him: "Of course."

But I wasn't asking rhetorically, and so then it went down like this: 

Me: "Well, we know what the cure for poverty is."
Him: "What's that?"
Me: "Give people money." 
Him: "That's not a cure." 
Me: "Of course it is. Poverty means you can't meet your basic needs for food and shelter. If you give people enough money to cover those needs, they are no longer living in poverty."
Him: "We can't just give people money." 
Me: "Then you don't really want to cure poverty."
Him: <visibly annoyed>

This exchange represents the more civilized part of the conversation, which ultimately resulted in the actual physical slamming of my back door by a grown man who has lived for nearly a century and has in 100% of all my other interactions with him behaved in a perfectly reasonable, rational manner*. But this topic clearly made him crazy. Or maybe my stance on it. 

When we ask "Should we give people money?" we get these questions and assertions in return: "Why?" "No one gave me money." "I work hard for my money." Or my favorite: "They'll just spend it."

Well, duh. 

That last one happened with my friend**:

Him: "They'll spend it on drugs."
Me: "I agree there are complications of poverty."
Him: "We should fix those."
Me: "We agree on this." 
Him: "But you still think we should give them money." 
Me: "Yes, so they are not hungry and homeless." 
Him: "But there are programs for that."
Me: "Do we know which ones work the best? Have they cured the problem?" 

And round and round. 

At one point we were talking about how much money I'd be willing to give them and how I could possibly get the majority of tax payers to agree to this. I probably went too sanctimoniously far when this happened: 

Me: "Shouldn't we give as much as it takes so that our fellow human beings aren't hungry?"
Him: "There's a judgement there that I'm ok allowing people to go hungry." 
Me: "It sounds that way to me." 
Him: "So while you work your ass off in your job, you're happy to just give people who aren't working, as much money as they need?"
Me: "Yes! How much money do we all really need? We all exist on this planet together. We have to help each other out."
Him: "You clearly were the kid in school who when the teacher assigned group projects you picked up the slack for the slackers who never did any work."  
Me: "What's wrong with that?"
Him: "Everything." 
Me: "And you were the insufferable bully who looked down your nose at the slackers making them feel even less capable and relevant than they already did." 
Him: "Yes and then I went to Business School and made a ton of money and you became a social worker and worry all the time about retirement." 
Me: <oh dear>

The last thing he said to me before the door slammed was something to the effect that I was idealistic, unrealistic, simplistic and stubborn, and that none of the problems I worry about will be solved with my attitudes. He's got a great vocabulary. And maybe a point. 

The next night I texted him this article and commented that I want people to be able to focus on making and achieving their life goals, but if they use all their energy on survival, when they lack basic dignity, when their life is reduced to a "hand out," how can we expect them to have anything left for strategic thinking? Especially if they didn't get the education they needed as a kid. 

No response. 

I tell myself that I can't really be friends with someone whose values don't align with mine, but this isn't really true.  For years I've skirted around the issues with friends. It might be that as I get older I'm less willing to compromise, to gloss over the things that cause social problems to persist so disastrously. When I was 25, I was sure that poverty and equality would be worked out by the time I was older. At 50, I'm shocked by the lack of progress and I'm afraid that for many of those years, I was part of the problem. 

So where do I go now? I was so sure that if we all came together we could find common ground and move forward, but values are strong barriers. If we can't even talk about the issues constructively, if the gaps between our values has widened so much that we are incapable of relating, where do we go now? 

I don't have any answers. For the past decade it's become increasingly clearer to me that the older I get, regardless of the more I learn, the less I actually know. 

I don't apologize for anything I said to my friend,  or about how I feel, but it seems pretty useless to even have the conversations at this point. 


*Except when massive quantities of alcohol were involved. 
**Or un-friend as the case may be. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sex and Misbehavin': Life is a Musical

I frequently tweet about how my life is a musical
In 1997, when my middle daughter, Lacey, was 3 years old, she was bitten by a dog in the face.  We spent 3 days in the hospital over Spring Break. It sucked, but we were really into a musical at that time, Evita, that helped us pull through the ordeal. While I had loved this musical for years, the film soundtrack had just come out with Madonna and Antonio Banderas, so I had just introduced it to the children. Lacey in particular, was enthralled.

For those of you not familiar with the music, here are the lyrics to "I'd Be Surprisingly Good For You," the song that 3 year old Lacey introduced to her nursing staff:  

"I'm not talking of a hurried night
A frantic tumble then a shy goodbye
Creeping home before it gets too light
That's not the reason that I caught your eye
Which has to imply, I'd be good for you
I'd be surprisingly good for you."

You can imagine that a 3 year old's diction is often not very clear, so it was a little difficult to understand what she was singing at times. Here's how that hospital scene went down in 1997:  

Lacey:  <sings over and over>
Nurse:  "What's that about tumbling in the night?"
Lacey's Father: "Denise, please make Lacey stop singing that." 
Me, to Nurse: "It's okay; it's a musical.  Music is art.  She's very advanced for her age."  
Nurse:  <looks worried>
Me, to myself:  <So I let my kids sing about whores and dictators. What's it to you?>*

It only got worse from there.  Turns out that there is a lot of sex and misbehavin' in musicals.  Over the past year or so in particular, there has been a lot of interest in a certain musical called Hamilton. This musical is filled with death, revolution, war, infidelity, murder, betrayal, arrogance, and despair. It makes Evita look like a Disney Channel original movie. #ImJustSayin'

Since 1997, our collective love of musicals has resulted in the evolution of a family that thinks nothing of belting out the lyrics to any musical song, like Light My Candle from Rent while grocery shopping in HEB, or singing about Agony from Into the Woods while eating hamburgers** at Willies, or trying to hit the high notes in Phantom of the Opera on a family vacation. 

I started writing this blog post in 2016 when all the attention to "Hamilton" was in full swing, but it took me this long to get it done.  We thought the collective excitement about Hamilton was a great opportunity to make recommendations of all of our favorite musicals over the years.  We've been fan-girling for 20 plus years and we have a lot of opinions, so here they are:   

Ariel, my oldest, was turning 9 in 1997.  She graduated college with communications and English degrees and currently works in the marketing department of a gaming company in Austin, Texas. This is her list of favorite musicals:
Ariel thinks that "Dr Horrible's Singalong Blog" should count as a musical as well.  

Lacey, the theater major, has a more extensive list. She currently works as a theater lighting designer in California at the Pacific Conservatory of the Arts.  When I told her I was writing a blog post and asked her her favorite musicals she sent this comment, and list:  "Just to name a few off the top of my head:"
Zoe, is currently 15, and of course was not even born in 1997.  This did not stop the indoctrination.  Zoe recently played "Olga, the Grand Duchess Katrina" in You Cant Take It With You in high school. She is my child most-inclined-to-become-a-stage-performer.  Her favorite musicals include: 
She is not a fan of Phantom of the Opera. ***

For what it's worth, my favorite musicals are from a different era.  When I think about the musicals that made a difference in my life as a kid, my list is: 
Then as an adult I'd have to list a few others:  

It was well after these that came the Rent and Evita and Mamma Mia shows that became the fodder for my kids' fervent affinity for the musical.  The kids have since made me a big fan of these classics: 
  • Anything Goes 
  • Into the Woods
One of the best things I got to do last year was see Shrek, The Musical at the Solvang Festival Theater in California, where Lacey works. Ariel made this video of her work. 

A typical tweet

*Lacey graduated from college with a theater degree about 20 years later.
**It was actually just me eating hamburgers, my kids are both vegetarians and aliens who don't like hamburgers  
***no haters, says Zoe

This post was edited by Zoe for "readability"

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Making Outcomes Really Matter: Paying For Success

In the late 2000's, my nonprofit wrote a grant in response to a Request for Proposal (RFP) by our state human services agency to provide mentoring services to at risk youth for the purposes of juvenile delinquency prevention.  Youth eligible for the program were selected based on criteria that determined their at risk status. For 4 years we provided these services to hundreds of children in South Texas, and thousands across the state. We had amazing outcomes: 98% of youth served statewide stayed out of the juvenile justice system.

Then the RFP for year 5 came out and youth mentoring had been removed as an effective youth development approach.  Hmmm. The approach that was 98% successful was no longer conspired to be effective?  I was confused.*  It took a while, but I finally got a meeting with the department to ask them why mentoring had been removed as an effective approach:

"Did you take the outcomes into account?" I asked. 

"No," they replied. "That has nothing to do with the creation of the new RFP." 

I was speechless. I have a hazy, surreal memory of them describing the research the PHD they had hired to write the RFP had been doing on evidence based parenting programming that informed the new approaches they wanted to try out.

That was a low point in my nonprofit career.  I felt helpless and hopeless.  I came closer to quitting than at any other time I had had to deal with this kind of self defeating situation (which actually happens all the time in the nonprofit world, unfortunately).  So, I read some books, sought out mentors, and signed up to chair the Advocacy Committee for The Nonprofit Council.

The nonprofit sector struggles to identify, define, demonstrate, measure and prove outcomes.  For such great success to be so summarily dismissed was heart-rending. In the for-profit world it's so much easier. The more money you make, the more successful you are.  The more demand for your products and services, the more you grow.  Demand for nonprofit services may very well be an indication of success but by no means determines growth or impact.  A lot of the time it makes us less successful as we try to stretch already stretched revenue to do more.

I hear more than ever now about how we need to improve outcomes, and it always makes me think of that RFP.  No one cared about the outcomes in that situation and it became a microcosmic illustration of the problem for me. It was particularly frustrating because there didn't really seem to be any real solution on the horizon. 

And then I heard about Pay For Success: an innovative approach for addressing persistent social problems.

I am so excited about this program.  I first heard about it related to a program in the UK that aimed to reduce recidivism - keeping people from re-offending and going back to prison after they had served time and supposedly been rehabilitated.  An enormous amount of money is spent on rehabilitation and yet recidivism remains alarmingly high.  The Pay For Success concept is to invest only in proven effective approaches and programs and only pay for success.  If your program doesn't do what you said it would, you don't get reimbursed.  I am reminded of my favorite saying:  "Don't confuse activity with achievement."  The nonprofit sector is filled with well meaning people running around doing things. It has only been important to "do good work" regardless of outcomes.

In the Pay For Success Model, it works like this: 
  • The funder invests in the organizations with the most effective models.
  • The organizations with the most effective models implement their programs and services, with results.  
  • The government pays the funder back with revenue that was saved as a result of effective programs.  
A real world example is of the Friends of the Children (FOC) Program that is attempting to interrupt the cycle of generational poverty. One of the ways they are doing this, for example, is to reduce the number of days that a child spends in foster care, thus reducing the cost of foster care.  The savings can be put back into the FOC programming for additional outcomes, and additional savings. 

This is scary for a lot of people. As you can imagine, it's a hard sell to ask organizations to spend money and risk not getting reimbursed for it.  This post is a really simple explanation for a very complex program, but that's the gist of if.  We cant' afford to spend billion of dollars every year in the social sector and not solve any problems.  Pay for Success is the wave of the future and I for one am thrilled!  You can read more about the pay of pay for success here

I'll be writing more about this in 2017 since the annual Issue in Profile event put on by the Nonprofit Council in October will feature a keynote on this topic.  Stay tuned.  
*I was also very pissed off.

** and drank wine.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Marie Singer Wechsler

Having written 2 blog posts about granny over the last couple of years and then recently, her obituary, I thought it was going to be difficult for me to write about her again for her funeral. What else would I say? But it wasn't difficult at all. I guess that's because a lot can happen over 93 long years, so there's volumes of material. I could write a book. But for now I'll just have to share a few remembrances and anecdotes. Please forgive me if these memories are a bit disjointed at this point. The book is only just starting to take shape. 

If there was ever a life and a death to be celebrated, it's this one. We should all be so lucky to live such long, full, happy lives, blessed with love, family and good fortune. Blessed with relatively good health and all of our faculties. Granny was pretty healthy and pretty dang sharp all the way to the end. 

I remember a family reunion in St Pete Beach a few years ago when Granny fainted by the pool. She was probably just dehydrated but they ran every test in the book on her at the hospital trying to find something wrong with her. The last doctor to release her was a cardiologist and he basically came in and told her that his diagnosis was that she was just plain old. With all due respect, ma'am. The same thing happened in San Antonio this summer. She was trying to get cleared for an eye surgery but her echocardiogram kept showing abnormalities. The echo tech told her that her 92 year old heart looked better than most 50-60 year old hearts she saw every day. "Beautiful arteries, Mrs Wechsler," she said. And then another cardiologist said he could keep testing to try to find something wrong but basically her heart was 92 and probably a little tired. Were I more eloquent I could come up with a way to express how appropriate it is that Granny ultimately passed away because her well used heart wore out from being in use so much and so often. 

Many of you know that she survived a fire a couple years ago. She told us afterwards about how she was crawling in the hallway of her apt bldg and the smoke was so thick that she didn't know which way was her apartment or which way was the elevator. So she just sat back and looked up to the heavens and said "Lord this must be it, go ahead and take me," but then a fireman appeared and picked her up and carried her to safety. Rescued by a fireman. How many people can say that? 

I'm grateful that she was so present up til the very end. About three weeks ago my dad and sister and I were over at her place playing rummy and poker with her and drinking wine -she always seemed to win the first game whenever we played - and her fair share of others- more games than I won for sure. 

One of my most treasured childhood memories was of a night I spent in a hotel room with Granny and Grandpa and Granny's sister, Aunt Lula. We were on a road trip- no idea where to or from, but the hotel room was absolutely infested with mosquitoes. For some reason it just cracked granny and aunt Lula up to watch grandpa and I running around the room trying to kill all those mosquitoes with rolled up newspapers. I'm really not sure why it was so funny. I think it was just the joyousness of a good life. Granny was fortunate and she knew it. To be on a trip, with family members she loved, with hardly a care in the world --so much so that she could just enjoy life, and sit back and watch her crazy husband and grand daughter clowning around swatting at mosquitoes, leaving a trail of squishy mosquito smears all over the walls of your hotel room.  Life is funny. Life is good. If all life throws at you are a few pesky mosquitoes then you are  a fortunate being indeed.  Granny could hardly tell the story afterwards , and she told it again and again, without dissolving into uncontrollable giggling. 

Her laugh -another sign of her joy in life- Her laugh was wonderful. I recently watched a tape of her and grandpas 50th wedding anniversary and there's this part where she and grandpa are cutting the cake, and someone off camera says something to her - apparently funny- you can't tell what- but granny turns and cackles at them. I played it over like 5 times to hear her laugh again. 

No one was more instrumental in my early developmental years than granny. My career as a youth development professional has taught me that there is no time more critical in a child's life than birth to three. Once I was old enough to understand that, I loved her all the more for being there. I hope she knew it. And while I don't remember any of that time, from birth to 3, I've heard the stories and seen the pictures and felt the love that followed me after that, from age 3 to age 50 and I know how it shaped me and made me into the person I am today. And I was only the first of 9 grandchildren, 23 great grandchildren and 4 great great grandchildren. I know that those who came after me felt as cherished by granny as I did. I know there are a lot of people in this room who have memories of Granny as vivid as mine are. 

Granny was not only a loving family matriarch but she was also a career woman - priding herself on her membership in ABWA -the American Business Women's Association and also on her membership in the order of the Eastern Star  - an entity which was founded on teachings from the Bible and committed to charitable work for Alzheimer's and juvenile diabetes research as well as funding scholarships for students of theology and music. To this day I'm still so proud of her for this civic mindedness. She was quite the role model of how someone fortunate chooses to give back. 

A tiny part of me kind of felt like she just might live forever. She's always been there and it was too hard to imagine her not being there. But 4 years ago when I visited her at Christmas time in Ohio, I could see that she was fading. When we moved her to Texas a year after that I watched her start to fade even more right before my eyes. And a few months ago she started dropping hints about being ready to go. Again, we should all be so lucky to go this way. 

I can tell you that she was hilarious to the end. I spent a good amount of time with her at hospitals and doctors offices. There was the time she tried to hook me up with her cardiologist -"isn't he good looking?" Granny asked. "Do you think he's single," she wondered? "He isn't wearing a ring." "I don't know, Granny. He's a doctor - it's common that they don't wear wedding rings."  I had to practically restrain her from grilling him on his marital status when he came back into the room. He was pretty cute though- she was totally right. But probably married. 

And then there was the time she complained about all the viagra commercials on the hospital tv. The nurses were dying over that one. 

My last moment with her will always be a sweet memory. She was asleep when I got to her room but woke up when I sat next to her on the bed. She told me that she was so sleepy and wasn't being rude, she just couldn't keep her eyes open. I played her video messages from the birthday party she was too sick to attend and opened her presents for her. Her nephew had brought her a tin of baked goodies and as soon as I popped open the lid her eyes popped open at the smell of sugar that came wafting out. She propped herself up on her elbow and started rooting around in the tin, settling on this ball of sugar - and she ate the whole thing. Just relishing the sweet taste of it. And then she laid back down and fell back asleep. I told her I'd see her later, but then 2 days later she was gone. 

I like to think of her with grandpa now. They were apart for 13 years, but now they are together. I will miss her dearly but always cherish her memory. Granny, Marie, Ree Ree- you rocked your life - and by association so many others lives too. Well done. Now Rest In Peace.