I have been trying to change public policy for almost 40 years. I’ve won my share of issues and I’ve lost some. Winning is better. But, most of us who work in the policy arena, at least initially, do so more out of necessity more than desire.
This would be less likely the case if we thought of this as an arena “…concerned with the noble action or happiness of the citizen” as the ancient Greeks did. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Instead, we have seen, all too often, the truth behind the joke, “what do legislation and sausages have in common? You shouldn’t watch how either of them are made.”
But, we saw the challenges faced by the families we are trying to serve and we learned that no matter how valuable or necessary our service, it wasn’t going to be enough (as one of our Fellows said). Or, as another Fellow put it, “then we send them back into the bad world.” These obstacles and barriers are created at the system-level (often, but not always, unintentionally), and must be challenged at the system-level, at the policy level. How else can we address that “cities don’t work for people in poverty” as another Fellow pointed out.
And then you have that “aha” moment. When (as another Fellow observed) you reach the tipping point, and recognize “it is a different face, but the same problem”. Then there is no going back.
Direct services are necessary. They help people get through the day. But, when you realize your faith in the systems that are supposed to help people and serve people cannot be sustained, you can walk away or you can double down. Because righteous indignation, by itself, is not a strategy.
Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.