(P8): The System as Tool

An absurdly complex swiss army knife with scores of tools.
Swiss Army Godzilla

We mostly view government (The System) as a repository of solutions to problems we can’t solve ourselves. I don’t know if this was ever true, but it certainly isn’t true now, especially in the lives of our community of people with disabilities. The capacity of government to take responsibility for solving any problem is undermined by pressure to reduce expenditures, frank corruption, incompetence, and a virtually universal refusal to ever take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. This “Not Me” attitude occurs both in disaster, and more recently, as a general marketing framework. “Don’t expect much from us”. Government’s response is randomly useful and randomly destructive,.

So, when we act as though the government has as its purpose the solving of our life problems, and we suffer disappointment when it doesn’t, we are perpetuating a species of victimhood for ourselves from which we can’t exit. We can only feel more deeply victimized and helpless.

We need to stop looking at The System as a Solution to our problems in living as people with disabilities. It will never be that. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of resources tied up (embedded) in The System, even if an ever-increasing amount of those resources are used in monitoring, administration, and political purposes that have nothing to do with support. The mission of support, the supposed purpose, gradually becomes more and more to deny support, investing in administrative complexity to make support increasingly difficult to access. Everything about The System is double-edged, and we can’t ever be sure what edge we will get when we try to use it the way it is supposed to work.

While we can’t depend on The System, we can’t simply ignore it either. We must make use of The System or forgo the resources. Frankly, we currently have no way of taking the resources in The System and making them directly available, nor are we likely to anytime soon.

As we think they were intended.

To deal with this reality, we must adopt a dual approach that will seem unnatural:

  • We must get better at extracting support from The System as it is, not as we wish it would be. This will require us to be far more strategic in our interactions with the System, and we will have to understand that The System will continue to deteriorate even as our advocacy creates some local real improvements in how it works. Local improvement, but System-wide slow breakdown is the trend for the foreseeable future.
  • In addition to extracting support from The System, we will need to disassociate resources from The System that we can use for building an alternative that I have called Our System. For example, we might advocate to move resources from parts of The System that are moribund or useless to ones where there is a better chance of being able to use them to create Our System.

This is an abstract overview of how the three motifs must be woven to expand our control over our lives and our freedom of choice.

Next Time: Using the System as a Tool

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(P8): The Three Motifs

A stable three cord knot made of fiber light colored rope.
Weaving Motifs

FutureStrategy has three motifs, like the three cords in the image, but functioning as flows rather than things. The three flows arise out of the model from the last slide.

Using The System as a Tool

Our Community will continue to depend on The System for a long time, even as we build an alternative. The sheer amount of social resources embedded in The System makes it impossible to seriously consider going “off the grid”. But we can begin to reduce our dependence on The System by viewing it as a Tool that we use to support our personal and social lives rather than as The Solution, a perspective that makes us instant victims when The System fails to support us.

Advocating with The System for Valued Change

We can advocate with The System to trigger valued change, as I described earlier in this series. Advocacy requires us to perturb The System (whatever it is), making it choose between embracing the valued change that drives our advocacy or be forced to uncontrollably change by the pressure from The System’s environment. Our goal in expanding our advocacy is to perturb more deeply and comprehensively.

Building Our Systems of Support

We can build Our System to make up for the failure of The System, as we do now when we have no choice. We can build Our System as a local, stable, small-scale alternative to The System, so that between The System and Our System, we have better dynamic supports that allow us to explore life’s possibility and expand the scope of our free choice.

Although I outlined the three motifs as separate, it doesn’t take much effort to realize that they are intertwined as we play them out in our lives and communities. At the same time, each of the motifs requires its own ways and means to become effective. For example, if we were to take our success in building Our System and turn it over to The System, our work would soon be transformed into just another version of The System.

This reality doesn’t mean that we don’t look to improve our success by observing how each of the motifs is evolving, asking ourselves how success in one can support success in the others.

I’ve included the opensource narrative creation tool Twine because weaving multiple strategies is more like creating a complex story than it is like building a ”Strategic Plan”.

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(P8): Making FutureStrategy Real-Two

A diagram with two triangles pointing from the left and right sides at a circle. The circle is red and contains text, Expand Our Freedom, the left and right triangles are yellow-orange, and contain text, respectively, Change the System on the left, and Bild our Systems on the right. There is a photo behind each triangle. Behind the left an image of a cross community protest related to disability rights. Behind the right a poster of mutual aid around the pandemic.
Our Complementary Strategies

Even though our strategy of iteratively improving the legal framework of disability rights has certainly expanded our life choices, over time it has become less and less effective in making new improvements. The System has gotten better at undermining our advocacy and using its System Logic to marginalize our gains.

We need a way to move forward that doesn’t require us to allow our gains to be degraded by the logic of the System.

At the same time we will continue to need the System as a source of funding and expertise, because of the complexity of our needs. Few of us can simply drop our relationship with the System entirely.

But we do not need to view the System as The (only) Solution. Instead, we must learn to view the System as a tool, and begin to make our own systems to augment, replace, and finesse what we need from the System. We must build what we need together and use it to orchestrate a more effective strategy for achieving our freedom. The systems that we build will be:

  • Local
  • Intersectional
  • Collaborative
  • Community-focused
  • Self-funding

They will be based on social justice models, rather than civil rights entitlements. That doesn’t mean that we don’t use civil rights laws to advocate. Again, we view civil rights laws as tools, not solutions.

Our systems will build from the bottom up, not from the top down.

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The Burghers of Calais

Rodin Statue of the Burghers in sackcloth and with ropes around their nects going to meetheir deaths to save their city.
Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais is a statue by Rodin, pictured above, and a story of commitment by actual politicians to the lives and future of those they represented. This commitment brings up some interesting questions about the future of US political elites after the current election.

Around the time that Britain became a hotspot for the Black Plague, King Edward was fighting in the early part of the Hundred Years’ War. Edward was conducting a siege of the French City of Calais that had lasted almost a year. Needless to say, the citizens of Calais were suffering from starvation and disease.

Edward (being a nasty piece of work) demanded that the Burghers (the most prominent citizens) come to him dressed in rags, with nooses around their necks, carrying the keys to the city, ready to be beheaded. Edward said he would spare Calais destruction once the city was open, but would kill the Burghers.

Six of the Burghers met Edward’s demands in order to save their city. At the last moment, Edward pardoned them for reasons that are obscure (many stories have emerged as to how this might have happened).

My question to you as you participate in the 2020 election, no matter who you vote for, or how you vote, is:

What current officeholders or candidates for this election do you think would be willing to give up their lives for those they represent?

Rodin, The Burghers of Calais

The story behind the sculpture

Part 8: Making FutureStrategy Real-One

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge wildly rocking just before collapse in black and white photo
Rock and Roll is Here to Stay…

Summary of the Current Situation:

Until recently, the strategy of the disability community has been one of incremental improvements in civil rights law, and local initiatives to improve some aspect of daily and community life.  This strategy has resulted in substantial policy and legal changes over the course of our lives. But I believe that we are now getting less improvement for our efforts from this strategy than we were, and that the changing conditions of global culture and economy are moving this approach to organizing our community’s future to a declining path.

Some of the changes that make our current community strategy less fruitful:

  • The global reaction to civil rights initiatives of all kinds has been to slow their impact and undermine the resource commitment needed to make the advances effective.
  • The global connection of diverse communities of people with disabilities has made the white nonprofit model of disability civil rights advocacy a real barrier to progress.
  • Advocacy organizations have two missions. One is the purpose for which they were created, and the second is to keep the doors open. There has been a gradual shift to focusing on keeping the doors open by advocacy organization management and boards, though there are many small organizational initiatives to refocus on original purpose. In the same way that politicians have increasingly focused on getting money as their job and modifying their ideologies to match the most effective ways of getting that money from their constituencies, so too has there been a gradual shift in the organizational base of the pursuit of personal autonomy and freedom of choice in our community.
  • Our current approach envisions the creation of disability freedom as
    • Creating models of effective and meaningful policy and law
    • Getting these models embedded into policy, practice, and law
    • Using the System to implement and enforce these policies and laws.
  • But the System is far less open to effective implementation and enforcement than it has been since the early years of our civil rights movement (true for all devalued community rights initiatives). The System’s logic for implementation and enforcement is to minimize the impact of  successful rights initiatives both in terms of their values and the resources committed to them. This means that our successes have less and less actual impact by themselves. In effect, the imposition of System logic gradually guts our successes.

Our community needs a different strategy to confront these realities.

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(P7): A Broader View of Strategy and Change

Young child playing Jenga, a board stacking game where the object is to pull wooden parts from the stack without causing a collapse of the tower.
Be Careful!
  • We know more than we can tell
    Michael Polanyi
  • If you want to change things, then you need to let a thousand flowers bloom —Dave Snowden
  • Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy. –Sun Tzu
  • Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking
    Antonio Machado

Back to Basics

In my model of Disability Rights Systems Change, Strategy is a framework for making decisions when the decision processes are clouded by future uncertainty and scarce resources. Ultimately, your strategy is an enacted framework of change design. The change design concerns four arenas of action:

  • Ends
  • Ways
  • Means
  • Integrity

Ends

In the language of advocacy, ends are valued outcomes, not simply possible outcomes or most likely outcomes. Advocacy fails if a valued outcome isn’t achieved, even if some other outcome is achieved.

Ways

You can think of ways as design paths to change which  you try and learn from. The paths can be conceptual, rather than geographic as they might be in a military action.

Means

What tools, resources, and other assets can you use to support your change efforts? In advocacy, there is also a dimension of morality in the use of means, which doesn’t exist in other arenas such as war, politics, and finance. Each effective use of means to change asks a moral question that must be addressed in our advocacy. For example, it wouldn’t be moral to fabricate a lie about the person representing a target in order to disrupt the ability of the target to negotiate effectively.

Integrity

Because advocacy can develop into long term negotiations with many ups and downs over the course of an advocacy initiative, we need to constantly assess whether our effort is retaining the values and broader advocacy purposes that were part of the initial change effort, or whether we are drifting away from that secure value-driven base.

The next part of this series will explore how FutureStrategy can be made real.

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(P7): Using the Dispositions of Your Targets

A pink frog-like human brain ready to leap.
Leapin’ Neurons, Batman!

Your target also has dispositions (policies, incentives and disincentives, cultural ableism, political pressures, economic concerns, etc.) that you can use to anticipate where advocacy might be needed, and where an advocacy ecosystem framework might be more useful than simply responding to an oppressive action.

You can think of these dispositions and system drives like thirst or hunger in us. You can also think of these dispositions as implicit biases which provide “answers” to “questions” that the system gets from its environment, including your advocacy “questions”.  They are all flows of ongoing perceiving and acting to deal with the unavoidable in the target environment.

As advocates, we also have dispositions, both as drives and biases, and we too act continuously in the same way that our targets do. You can use your target’s dispositions to enhance your advocacy, and you can use your own dispositions through reflection and dialogue to expand your vision of the possibilities of advocacy, as well as expanding your skills. Most importantly, you can use reflection on your experience and practice of advocacy to move along the 3 phases of becoming a capable advocate:

  • Beginning: Creating a base reference system of rules and techniques in your brain to recognize repeatable patterns and methods of advocacy.
  • Adeptness: Understanding when to break the reference system’s rules and tweak the techniques in order to solve difficult or unusual advocacy challenges.
  • Mastering: Being able to respond to the entirely unique aspects that a particular situation requires for a successful advocacy outcome.

Your brain can “jump” to new levels of capability through the experience and training you gain over time.  And you can collaborate with other advocates to expand the scope and impact of your advocacy. The process of reaching mastery of advocacy is a process of building pattern-recognition and reflection competence as an integrated internal complex adaptive system.

Your target’s dispositions are roughly similar across time, and once you have had significant interaction with the target, you can begin to see these dispositions as the structure of the system, and you can anticipate them as roughly standard responses to your advocacy.

We can think of target dispositions as constraints within which the target operates. They are like the weak link processes that the target has with agencies and local context processes. While advocates might have difficulty destabilizing a disposition (as advocates, we often don’t have the ability to do this), we can always threaten the relationship that the target has built up with some specific dispositional trend or force-say a millage election.

(P7): Advocacy and Negotiation

Decorative
Negotiation

Students with Disabilities: An Advocate’s Guide

What disability advocates do

What is Structured Negotiation & Tips from Lainey Feingold

All advocacy occurs in what might be described as negotiation possibility space. Each advocacy effort is an ongoing “conversation” with a target about the division of some resources.

These resources can be based on a rights schema but usually involve actual negotiation over other kinds of resources, including money, power, target control over infrastructure and decisions, and just about any other trait the target might have that impinges on the access by the person, family, or community being represented.

The target ordinarily views the negotiation as a contest over the division of resources-money, staff time, staff tasks and obligations, and so on. While targets have some commitment to the rights of the person, they view rights as negotiable precisely because rights involve the division of resources in a process of negotiation, not as inalienable rights of the person.

It is important for advocates to remember that the right to autonomy and free choice is not what is being negotiated. It is the resources that are necessary to make autonomy and free choice real. It is easy to forget this fundamental truth in a tense long negotiation over resources. Also, over time, it is easy to develop habits of thought and action that focus on the resources being negotiated  and not the autonomy and freedom that is the only justification for the advocacy.

When people negotiate over resources, they will suffer some loss even if the negotiation is viewed as successful. This is the nature of negotiation between parties who each have some power. This is another reason why negotiation should not be viewed as the same as the right to autonomy and freedom.

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(P7): The Map is Never the Territory

A map of native tribal territories from the time before Europeans came to North America.
Tribal Map

No matter how hard we try to make it so.

No matter how many times we convince ourselves.

No matter how hard we wish.

The map is never the territory.

We use our ability to abstract as a way of making a map of some territory. We use the map to get some insight into, say, the target of our advocacy work. Once we have the insight, we are supposed to put that insight back into the territory. But we often stop before putting it back. Instead, we treat the insight as though it were the truth of the territory.  We confuse the useful map for reality, and we make decisions based on our now false sense of reality.

Example:

We can use the base metaphor as our example. I am old enough to remember when I had to use an actual book of maps to find my way around for the many advocacy activities I di at Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service. I might have 3 separate advocacy meetings across six counties in the Thumb of Michigan in a single day. It was common that I was traveling to a place I’d never been to before. I had to plan my trips to assure I had a decent chance of arriving on time. Poring over the maps was necessary most days.

But it was easy to forget that, especially back then, there were no notices of road conditions, accidents, construction schedules. The map route was not the actual process of traveling in the real world. And that is the difference between the map and the territory. If I did conflate them, I could very well get caught up short in my plan by reality, in a dead end, blocked by an accident, by the change of location of the meeting, and so on.

But a lot of map-territory conflation is not so easily detected or so quickly punished. Confusing the map for the territory is a common kind of misinformation that often goes undetected because believing the map to be the territory allows for political and financial control over the distribution of power, reputation, and wealth. There are no obvious consequences to the belief that the map is the territory (at least not in the short run), This failure of thought becomes habitual, and undermines our ability to see and plan with some level of clarity.

Results:

This fallacy arises from the way we use language, and so is unavoidable. We must question our abstractions, not just use them for real world analysis. By not questioning, we make strategic errors in our advocacy, and undermine our ability to create valued outcomes. We use planning and the logic of the “logic model” to organize “things” that don’t exist. We assume that people will change according to the way we manipulate them as abstractions (director, asshole, enemy, ally, etc.)

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(P7): Basic Idea of a Target Ecosystem

A simple model of a biological ecosystem, with the sun providing the basic source of energy, energizing producers to feed consumers, and letting consumers feed decomposers. All this action creates and maintains an Inorganic nutrient pool available to producers. Producers, Consumers, and Decomposers shed heat. And so the cycle goes.
How It All Works…

Educational Ecosystems
What Kind of Ecosystem Is Your School?
Net EDU Project: Educational Ecosystems
The Struggle of Two Missions

I’ll use education as the basic model for the discussion of the ecosystem idea since everyone has lived experience with it and advocating in education has been advocacy in which I have been deeply involved.

Ecosystems are self-evolving frameworks of many interactive parts and are a type of Complex Adaptive System (CAS).  The parts act for their own benefit, so the stability of the CAS requires interactions in which the parts need each other to survive. This idea is equally true of Advocacy Target Ecosystems.

Model of an Advocacy Target Ecosystem:

Imagine two circles.

The inner circle is the education system that is your advocacy target. Within this circle, the strong relationships/processes that make up the target  drive its ongoing behavior and purpose.

The outer circle includes all the peripheral organizations and communities that relate to the education system. They constitute weak relationships/processes that buffer the target system and effectively prevent the strong processes of the target from running away and undermining the ability of the target to fulfill its purposes.

These two subsystems make up the actual target ecosystem.  Together, these two subsystems act as a roughly stable ongoing process. If we wish to change the target, we must engage these subsystems.

The standard way of engagement is to disrupt or destabilize processes in the subsystems, to force the target to respond to a change in its control. However, it is very difficult to destabilize or disrupt the strong processes without undermining the ability of a target to pursue its purpose.  In fact, it is the gradual corruption of these strong processes that divorces the target from its reason for existing over time. (See The Struggle of Two Missions).

It is easier to disrupt or destabilize the weak processes.

Because they are weak processes, why would the target change its behavior to respond to a disruption or destabilization of its periphery?

The relationship between a target and its peripheral buffering weak processes (from the perspective of the target)  is ideally one where the weak processes cycle through a repeatable set of predictable actions.  If the predictable cycle breaks down, the target must invest energy in restoring the predictable cycle, even if it means changing in some small ways inside the subsystem of strong processes. It will expend this extra energy (from a capped total amount of energy that also supports its strong processes) in order to restore rough stability and continue as much as it can to behave as it did before.

So, advocates disrupt the weak processes by filing a complaint or calling for an IEPC or reaching out to stakeholders to which the strong subsystem can’t avoid responding. They try to leverage the target systems to make changes that expand the personal autonomy and possibility space of choice available to students and their families.  This engagement is the standard way that advocates change target ecosystems.

There are many variations on this standard way of engaging a target ecosystem. And, the weak processes that stabilize and support the target consist of much more than rules and due process. There are many weak processes that support any target, and all of them are potentially subject to destabilization/disruption, forcing a response from the target. For an education target, these might include the school board,  the various funding mechanisms necessary for the strong process subsystem, the political interface of the target in the larger community, target policy or action failures in any part of the strong process subsystem, and so on.

Our advocacy must become part of the weak process subsystem before it can be effective over the long term, and before we can be in a position to approach changing the strong well-protected processes of the target. This means that, in addition to our work to disrupt or destabilize weak processes, like the target, we must engage the weak processes and build ongoing relationships with them. We must become part of the target ecosystem to be able to effectively advocate.

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