Ms. RCW

As a young person I was never interested in politics. I have vague memories of sitting in civics class trying to keep my eyes open while some teacher droned on about government, democracy, and the political process. I did the bare minimum to get a good grade and then I moved on.

Considering how bored I was, it’s funny that I now do public policy work. Why was civics so excruciating? Well, I was never good at learning by sitting and listening to someone talk. Knowing there are many people like me, a few of my co-workers and I created a fun tool to use at our lobby day. It’s simple, it’s visual, and it’s fun. So take a look and learn how laws are made in Washington State. And then share it, because when we understand the system we can make our voices heard.

Dependence, independence, interdependence

A fascinating article in the New York Times describes how some single mothers identify as Republican. Here are people who have not created traditional families, or for whom the traditional family structure has failed, and who are disproportionately in need of government supports like food stamps. And yet, about 25% align themselves with the party of “traditional family values” and small government. singlemom

Why? As a single mother friend of mine says “I am not looking for more independence” as she raises her young son; and sometimes it seems like that’s what progressives/Democrats have to offer. The emphasis on equality in work and educational opportunities leaves some of us feeling as if we should achieve economic success while at the same time providing a fulfilling family life for our kids, too—all by our liberated selves. The bar is just higher and higher, and that does not feel liberating.

My friend knows she needs interdependence—neighbors she can count on to watch her child so she can run to the store or work late (and vice versa); people to bring her food and help care for her little one when she is sick; involved grandparents who will help nurture a strong sense of family. The fact that she has someone dependent on her makes interdependence necessary, and more that that, attractive.

I think mainstream feminism has missed the boat on this point. The emphasis on equality in public life: politics, workplace, finances, on women having access to the social goods and opportunities men have has put the movement at risk of devaluing the work traditionally done by women: nurturing children, caring for the frail and elderly, building community networks. Too often, progressives and feminists have let conservatives “own” these issues in public debates, or make it sound as if prioritizing caregiving and prioritizing women’s liberation are at odds with each other.

A lot of social policy is based on the idea that everyone is an independent, rational adult who can choose whether or when to connect with other people. What a fascinating fantasy. This assumes no pregnancy, no children, no frail elders, no dependents, no dependency. Just as medical research that assumes everyone is a male aged 18-40 isn’t particularly useful to women, social policy constructed on the assumption that we are all independent atomistic individuals doesn’t tend to work too well for infants, single mothers, parents, adult children taking care of elderly parents, and those who need assistance from others to live their lives.

The fact is everyone starts out a very fragile, vulnerable baby. And as parents know, carrying a pregnancy and giving birth is exhausting, challenging and even dangerous, and just about everyone needs help with the process in order to live and have the baby live. And most of us are going to spend the end of our lives in need of profound assistance from the people around us. In between, we may have periods of illness or injury where our survival depends on others.

In reality, dependence and taking care of those who are vulnerable are deeply integral to the human experience and should be finely woven into everything about how we think of organizing every part of our society. For example, this hospital emergency room.

Conservatives claim ownership of “family values” yet their vision involves enforcing traditional gender roles. But liberalism and feminism leave some feeling like they have to do it all on their own, and they are not measuring up if they can’t. So here is the challenge for all of us as we shape public policy:

  • To always keep in mind dependents and the people who care for them. Whatever choices we make or aspirations we hold must take into account and work for them.
  • To find ways to support caregiving that do not rely on oppressive gender roles and do not require caretakers to sacrifice their economic well being, social connections, or status.
  • To realize the deeply human task of caretaking requires qualities and skills our public lives sorely need: patience, thoughtful observation, empathy, and respect for the dignity and value of those whose abilities differ from our own.
  • To keep in mind that liberation actually means that everyone, men included, gets to participate in the important task of caregiving—because it is only then that the full range of humanity is available to them.
  • Not all equality has economic measures—some of it happens in places where the rewards and challenges are immeasurable, yet profound, like parenting or helping an elder die with dignity.

The most recent wave of feminism had many tasks. Two big ones were to secure equality in the public sphere and to redefine the very nature of what it means to be human. To do the latter, we must embrace and affirm the fact that we are all dependent at different points in our lives, and the profound and loving work of taking care of dependents (traditionally women’s work) should be valued and shared among men and women.

To create beloved community, our vision must include non-oppressive, liberatory ways of maintaining connection, dependence, and interdependence.

Caring about Obamacare

I’ve had the government shutdown on my mind for the last couple of weeks (like many of you, I’m sure). As I’m writing this, it looks like there is an agreement in the works, and just in the nick of time because it was about to get even uglier for women. But I don’t want to get into that. Let’s think happy thoughts…thoughts of Obamacare.obamacare-logo

What?

Obamacare doesn’t stir warm fuzzy feelings in your heart? It’s actually called the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Better? No? OK, full disclosure; I have mixed feelings about it as well. But something that does warm my heart is to know that many folks who were unable to afford health insurance before will be able to get it now. This will undoubtedly include people who are dealing with abuse in their lives. Access to healthcare for survivors of domestic violence is key to getting and staying healthy, healing from the physical and emotional wounds of abuse, keeping a job and income flowing…I could go on.

It’s part of my job to think about the implementation of Obamacare and how it affects those who are experiencing abuse. Here’s what I know:

  • Washington State, after a rocky opening day, has one of the best working systems for implementing the ACA in the country right now.
  • The ACA gives financial incentives for health care professionals to screen patients for domestic violence and refer them to local supportive services.

This is all really good news for survivors of abuse in Washington. But, there is still a lot we don’t know about the system and how it will (or won’t) work for those dealing with abuse, like:

  • Tax credits are awesome, when you can get them. To get this one you have to file jointly if you are married. That’s going to be a problem for many married survivors.
  • What exactly happens to the information entered into the Health Benefits Exchange, the marketplace for those purchasing private coverage? As an advocate, I know how important it can be to keep information confidential if someone’s abuser is stalking them.
  • How safe is this system for undocumented mothers trying to get healthcare for their children? Can the feds access and use information from this process to track immigration status?
  • Who is teaching medical professionals how to screen for domestic violence? Are they considering a person’s safety when asking these questions (like not asking in front of their partner)?

Sigh. So many questions and only 24 hours in the day. There is still a lot that remains to be seen about how Obamacare will ultimately fare, but I’m optimistic. And overwhelmed. But mostly, optimistic.

Why aren’t they restricting condoms?

Not exactly on point, but I got what my teenager was asking. Even she gets the double-standard of the Obama administration’s position on emergency contraception. She asked, “If they think that making it easy for girls to get emergency contraception means that they are going to have more sex, then why do boys get to buy condoms without any problems?” This is mind-boggling coming after President Obama’s speech at the Planned Parenthood Conference: “When it comes to a woman’s health, no politician should get to decide what’s best for you.”condoms

Why do I have a problem with the government policy? Because of all the barriers: you must be 15, you must have a government-issued or photo id (not something all schools provide), you must purchase it in a store that has a stand-alone pharmacy (rare in rural and remote communities), and it is expensive—even though Medicaid covers other over-the-counter medicines like condoms.

We have plenty of evidence-based scientific studies proving that emergency contraception is safe, prevents ovulation, and cannot terminate an existing pregnancy. We have research that shows the dramatic decline in unintended teen pregnancy and abortion rates when teens learn how to use contraception more effectively.

We also know that teens who are abused experience birth control sabotage, pressure to get pregnant, and significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy. Emergency contraception is important because negotiating birth control methods is awkward in any relationship, but it’s nearly impossible if you’ve got an abusive partner who wants control.

The perfect valentine

Valentine’s Day takes new meaning for me as I celebrate it with my second-grade son and his classmates. What are we really celebrating during this super-commercial holiday? Romance, or love? By whose definition? Who’s included and who’s left out on this day? And what do I want my son to learn about both romance and love?

Thinking about these questions in the context of the past few weeks, which brought the Komen kerfuffle, the joy of marriage equality, and the horror of Charlie and Braden’s deaths, inspired me to imagine what I hope my son and his classmates will experience in their lives:

  • You can marry who you want. Or don’t get married. It’s up to you!
  • You get to choose whether to have kids, and how many.
  • You’re gonna learn skills for having great, healthy relationships―both at school and from all the adults in your life.
  • Your government, the child welfare system, and your community will give everyone in your family really good help during times of trouble.
  • Your family matters, whatever it looks like.

Happy Valentine’s Day, son. Mommy loves you!

Irene, good night

I just got back from a two week vacation, turned hurricane tour to the East Coast. My parents have a house near the beach in Rhode Island where I grew up. Before now, I’ve never had to sandbag and board it up. It was frightening to evacuate inland and wait two very long days for the storm to pass.

Irene was a storm with a broad reach―requiring a hefty response. In my corner of the smallest state (.00000002% of the area this storm impacted*) I witnessed police going door to door issuing orders to leave, check points to protect evacuated towns, all hands on deck fire departments, every truck and crew preparing for the storm, and then undertaking the enormous clean up. Most roads were passable and power back on within the week. Impressive wouldn’t you say?

This, my friends, is infrastructure.

As noisy as the storm was, Washington, D.C. fell silent. For once, nobody was arguing about the need for big government because it was clear we needed it to prepare for and respond to this big problem.

Some of the deadliest hurricanes in America occurred before the convention of naming them. Sadly, like these storms, the disastrous number of victims of violence against women and children remain largely unnamed and unknown. The enormity of this problem requires an infrastructure that is up to the task.  There is absolutely no reason we can’t have it.

Meanwhile back at the coast, I felt palpable relief when I arrived home after the storm to find everything and everyone safe. I am so grateful to our government and to all the people who are loyal employees. God bless this mess.

* I made that up―but feel confident that it’s close.

What ever happened to human compassion?

I got a bit political in a status update on Facebook the other day. A comment about taxes caused a ruckus with my more conservative friends back home in the South.  Comments started flying about the role of government and how much we should be expected to give to our communities versus what we deserve to keep for ourselves. Looking back at the conversation I wonder: What has happened to basic human compassion?

I think we would do things very differently in this country if we could all tap into real, nonjudgmental compassion for others. To me, compassion means admitting to ourselves that other people’s experiences are not the same as ours, and that they still matter. This is actually quite difficult, and I struggle with it myself.

What if we all worked a bit harder to understand how big social problems like poverty, racism or domestic violence impact people’s lives? What would it be like if we took a walk in their shoes? For those of us who’ve faced some of these hard situations, we’re still not off the hook. Our task is to realize that our way of dealing isn’t the only way.

There is actually research that suggests that compassion causes a chemical reaction in our bodies which makes our desire to be compassionate grow stronger. All we need to do is exercise it! Imagine if everyone in your community was just a little more compassionate. Albert Einstein had it right when he said:

“A human being…experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest…. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.”

I’m busting out of that prison. Will you come with me?

What happens now?

photo by fibonacciblue

It’s a week after mid-term elections, and I have to say I’m still feeling the sting. Facing a colossal gap in our state’s budget, our ballot was filled with strategies to bring in some new money. Voters said no. Now our state and local governments will have to make devastating cuts to critical services.

I’ve always thought of taxes as a good thing – membership dues I gladly pay in exchange for a vast array of services (running water, meat I’m not afraid to eat, civil rights, cancer research, and so on). But others hold a different view, and now we shall see what happens when government must do less with less.

My thoughts naturally turn to my own work. And not just selfish ruminations about whether or not I’ll still have a job (though as the mother of a child with many special needs, income and health insurance are indeed big concerns). Rather, I worry – and wonder – what will become of the work: the work to end domestic and sexual violence. Over the last few decades,  our government has increasingly funded efforts to support victims and stop abuse and rape. I am proud that we the people have invested tax dollars in what used to be considered a private problem.

But now the variables have changed again. Our great radical experiment to create a world of loving and equitable relationships will need some new strategies. We the people can no longer rely as much on our government to take care of this for us. So what happens now?