Category Archives: Being a Professional

My Letter to Senators Durbin & Duckworth & Rep Quigley

Please speak out in support of public service loan forgiveness which is now threatened by the proposed budget and by the ill-advised agenda of Betsy DeVos. The people who will be eligible for forgiveness will dedicate a minimum of ten years to a public service career, making sacrifices in income and retirement savings in order to serve and improve our communities. Loan forgiveness not only compensates them for the work on our behalf, but also demonstrates that our society values the commitment they make to our communities. PSLF also says to the teachers, public defenders, social workers and other public interest professionals working in chronically underfunded and overburdened–but essential–services that we, as a society, value their work and demonstrates that can support our communities by supporting their work.

Gutting PSLF and income-based/income-driven repayment programs will drain talent and skilled professionals out of civic and community institutions, particularly in cities with a high concentration nonprofits and high cost of living. This will diminish the quality of these institutions and harm our communities. Investment in public and public interest organization–through support of their skilled professionals–pays off by strengthening our communities.

I work at a four-person 501(c)(3) court reform organization, as an attorney. The organization cannot offer a retirement plan. Even with the ACA, it is unable to afford platinum health insurance plans and no dental or vision plans. PSLF and income-based repayment are the only reason I am able to save for retirement on my own. I have invested in myself and relied upon the promise of loan forgiveness in choosing a career that allows me to invest in my city. Please tell me you will stand up for me and others who have done the same.

This administration and the GOP generally. is pounding a steady drumbeat of attacks against our public institutions and our social safety net and our community duty to another. It is up to you to push back.

I will be forwarding it to: Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions: Chair: Lamar Alexander (R-TN); Senate Ranking Member Patty Murray ([[D]]-WASHINGTON)
 and House committee on Education & Workforce Chair: Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC); Ranking Member Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott ([[D]]-VA)

If you have ever benefited from a public school, or a doctor in a rural clinic, or appreciate having social workers or public defenders or prosecutors, please consider calling, emailing or writing in defense of public service loan forgiveness and the attendant income-based or income-dependent repayment plans.

As an acquaintance noted: These programs are explicitly not need-based, they are income-based. Someone earning $40K in San Francisco is not in the same situation as someone earning $40K in Des Moines. There are many differences in how much access people making the same salary have to parental funds or property. These situational differences are also ignored by the income-based repayment programs, because the primary purpose of these programs is not to meet financial needs. Their purpose is to incentivize qualified people to take socially-useful but low-paying jobs. This incentive applies just as much to someone with a wealthy spouse or parents as to someone who is solely dependent on their individual salary.

As I have now said across many platforms: Increasingly, it feels this administration simply *will not rest* until anything and everything that might help a human being, affirm the value of a human being, or even vaguely acknowledge the worth of any given human being is wiped from all consideration in governance and public policy. That is not the world I want to live in; that is not a good society to leave behind us.

Is There a Point to this Cruelty? by Charles P. Pierce in Esquire.

Betsy DeVos wants to Kill a Major Student Loan Forgiveness Program by Jordan Weissman at Slate

Billionaire Betsy DeVos wants to scrap student debt forgiveness. Surprised? by Jamie Peck at the Guardian

Trump May End Public Service Student Loan Forgiveness by Zack Friedman at Forbes

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I’m Still With Her

Hillary’s admirers think she doesn’t get credit for her relentlessness, that she gets overshadowed by politicians who can give a better speech but don’t know how to get anything done, that she gets dinged by a press corps that loves to talk about optics but isn’t particularly interested in how policy gets made.

Some of this is fair; some of it isn’t. But the reason it’s important is that relentlessness is core to Clinton’s theory of change. If you want to know her plan for being a good president, it’s actually pretty simple: Read everything, learn everything, work with everybody, and never stop trying to push the ball forward. That may sound obvious, but it’s actually a sharp change from recent presidents and current candidates whose theory of change relied on the power of oratory to mobilize citizens to demand new policies.

Bill Clinton explained Hillary’s political style perfectly — but disguised it as a love story

I’ve had this conversation with a lot of people about Hillary Clinton for two reasons: 1) I believe it’s true of her and 2) I work in the slow, deadly details of social change (well, court reform, but they overlap quite a bit).

When I talk to my friends about being burned out at work (which happens, unfortunately) or when I talk to my colleagues about the next steps in a policy change or when I try to get my donors excited about some marginal improvement we’ve made somewhere, this is the context of what I’m saying. Policy is hard and it’s so slow, most of the time, people don’t see the change.

Then, suddenly, a bunch of people jump on the bandwagon and something, which has taken you years or decades to research, design, and advocate for, just seems to happen. But that is not true at all.

It’s not fair and it’s cold comfort, indeed, to people suffering injustice at this minute. But it’s a critical understanding for someone in charge to have.

PSLF, IBR, GULC, CAFFJ & Justice is the End

dc1109tagalxx_lgAs I’ve said before: As long as each of us lives within society, each of us is required to give to it from whatever personal abundance you have. I also recently tweeted that Public Service Loan Forgiveness is my retirement account.

A reporter saw my tweet and asked me if I would talk to her a little about my experiences and opinions of the income-based repayment system and the public service loan forgiveness program. She said it’s clear that student loan debt remains out of control, but she’s trying to figure out how these programs change the landscape. I am happy to talk about it because these programs are life-changing and I am afraid they will be ripped out from under those of us who are depending on their rewards, who are basing career choices on their promise. I need these programs to stay above water and without them, I can never retire.

I told her that PSLF was necessary not simply because it lets me afford my job financially but also because it helps me afford my job emotionally. I chose this work–I always wanted to do public interest lawyering. But this work is hard. It’s tiring, it’s thankless and it’s exhausting. We can’t always show immediate or obvious benefits from our work, either–especially people like me, who work in systemic reform rather than direct services.

It’s also unstable work–funding is always at risk. We’re constantly begging for money from colleagues, friends and people whose annual bonuses are the size of our salaries. That’s depressing. It marginalizes your work and marginalizes you and your colleagues who do the same work.

So loan forgiveness as a reward for public interest work is huge. Receiving a tangible benefit from dedicating a good chunk (10 years) of your career to service changes everything. Having this tiny acknowledgement from the government shows that the work we do is valuable and meaningful. Having this small validation that I am important for the good of my community truly matters. Investment from society in public service careers makes me feel that my investment in society is mirrored.

The law library at the alma says “Law is but the means; Justice is the end”. I was moved by the concept then and I still believe in both, all evidence to the contrary. But we don’t get to justice without investment. Investment in society requires more than the personal effort, emotional or financial sacrifice of motivated professionals and the generosity of small (or large) donors. It requires government participation.

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Tangentially, the Marshall Project (which is excellent modern reporting) has a feature on a lawyer in Missouri who defends people in capital cases and who keeps seeing her clients executed. This system is brutalizing this woman, in addition to brutalizing defendants.

The people I know who are most passionate about capital defense and individual justice have this ungodly mixture of optimism, deep cynicism, lethargy and passion. Their coping mechanisms are all specifically very different but often seem to take on magical thinking components, especially those with very hopeless tasks at hand. We owe a duty to defense attorneys to fund them adequately and support them systemically.

I Don’t Have Much to Add

Unpaid child support became a big concern in the 1980s and ’90s as public hostility grew toward the archetypal “deadbeat dad” who lived comfortably while his children suffered. Child support collections were so spotty that in the late 1990s, new enforcement tools such as automatic paycheck deductions were used. As a result, child support collections increased significantly, and some parents rely heavily on aggressive enforcement by the authorities.

But experts said problems could arise when such tactics were used against people who had little money, and the vast majority of unpaid child support is owed by the very poor. A 2007 Urban Institute study of child support debt in nine large states found that 70 percent of the arrears were owed by people who reported less than $10,000 a year in income. They were expected to pay, on average, 83 percent of their income in child support — a percentage that declined precipitously in higher income brackets.

The Obama administration is trying to change some of these policies, proposing to rewrite enforcement rules to require that child support orders be based on actual income and consider the “subsistence needs” of the noncustodial parent, to bar states from allowing child support debt to accrue while parents are incarcerated and to finance more job placement services for them.

“While every parent has a responsibility to support their kids to the best of their ability, the tools developed in the 1990s are designed for people who have money,” said Vicki Turetsky, the commissioner of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. “Jail is appropriate for someone who is actively hiding assets, not appropriate for someone who couldn’t pay the order in the first place.”

Frances Robles and Shaila Dewan in the New York Times, emphasis mine.

I’m working a domestic relations pilot project at work right now. It’s a hybrid court, based off a community courts model, a triage courts model, and court-based legal services model. It’s a big project, with impressive goals and I hope we’re able to meet even some of them.

One intent is to connect families with non-judicial services that will help resolve conflicts and facilitate stability in the new family structure. Parents who no longer live together, after all, both remain part of the child’s family–that’s the family structure which needs facilitation when the family ends up in domestic relations courts. Among these moves to stability are providing job support services for precisely the reasons outlined in this article.

We have support from important people for the project and we’re getting excellent input from the community as to how the program should work. But I know there are problems not addressed by our proposal, chief among them the pull quote from Vicki Turetsky: “Jail is appropriate for someone who is actively hiding assets, not appropriate for someone who couldn’t pay the order in the first place.”

Small NonProfit

I work for a small nonprofit–really small. We have three attorneys on staff and a budget which hovers around the 350k level. This makes us too small for many grant sources.

Ornamentation on campus, where I work.

Ornamentation on campus, where I work.

I am very fortunate to have this job. The work is interesting and although the pay is low for law and law-related industries, it’s not low by most other metrics and the health insurance is good. And I have an office with a door, flexible work hours, and a nice work-from-home perk. My commute is a breeze, whether I’m on my bike or the bus. I could–and have–even walked home, if I’ve got nothing else to do.

But best about my job: I am well-suited to the work and the work-environment and I not only really like what I do, I sometimes even see good results from my work. This sort of policy work is why I went to law school and I remain very grateful that I found my way to this organization and this job.[fn1]

Lately, unfortunately, there’s been a lot of stress associated with my job because our funding is increasingly unstable. I found this job when opposing counsel in a case I had recommended it to me. I rather suspect I won’t find another job unless that happens again. It’s stressful–because I don’t want to leave this job and because I don’t want to ask people to help me leave this job. I don’t want to go if I don’t have to, but if I leave it too long, I might suffer.

Relatedly, this week The Journal of Consumer Research (which, oddly enough, was my first professional editing job, nearly 20 years ago) has an article (by University of British Columbia graduate student Kirk Kristofferson and co-authors Katherine White and John Peloz) examining how social media “awareness” & “support” campaigns relate to donations and time commitments to nonprofits and their causes

The Washington Post editorial “Does Slacktivism Work?” summarizes the paper’s conclusions like so:

In other words, those whose initial act of support is done more privately (for example, writing to a member of Congress) are more likely to engage in deeper, more costly forms of engagement later on. Those whose initial support is public (i.e. through posting to Facebook or Twitter) are less likely to engage more deeply. Moreover, the researchers find that most appeals for token engagement “promote slacktivism among all but those highly connected to the cause.”

As quoted in a CTV news story, the author says: “If the goal is to generate real support, public-facing social media campaigns may be a mistake.”

This is my experience. My NPO maintains a website which offers a nonpartisan judicial elections voter’s guide. The site collects candidate evaluations, as well as media resources and sample ballots from various groups and presents them in a non-electioneering manner.

This year, prior to the primary, the site had over 15,000 hits. Our tweets and Facebook mentions  generated favorites, likes, and re-tweets and no donations. Just five dollars from half of those hits would be 10% of our annual budget.

It’s very disheartening. The site needs an update. We’d like to keep our archived evaluations available. We’d like to offer more resources for voters to educate themselves about judicial evaluations and qualifications, as well as the slating process for judicial candidates.

We ran a pilot project for two years, which implemented the best practices developed over decades in other jurisdictions for evaluating sitting judges and helping them improve professionally over their careers. The feedback was positive, both from voters and some judges. But the funding is gone.

It’s taking a toll on me, right now.

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[fn1] I don’t, as a general rule, name or link my place of business here. Obviously, or even if not obviously, these are my own thoughts, not my work thoughts. Nothing here is necessarily a reflection of the policies we research and promote at work; it’s not intended to be. But there certainly is cross-over between the two. I think about social justice all the time even during the hours when I’m not paid to do so.

When judges force doctors to abandon evidence based medicine

When judges force doctors to abandon evidence based medicine.–Recent post at Dr. Jen Gunter’s blog.

When I was in graduate school–which I did not finish, ultimately going to law school instead–my intention was to study medical ethics and have some sort of career, positing ethics in medicine (I was young, my thoughts were vague, but I think there was some TV show with a character whose job it was to tell doctors when they were being unethical and I was sure that was a great job and I wanted it).

I guess I got lucky in that my ultimate career has a similar thrust: I look at justice systems and help identify what best practices are. There isn’t the moral judgment one associates with assessing the ethics of a medical practice. My work in life and death is less direct.

Bad judges, poor judicial practices, failure to coordinate services, prosecuting addiction instead of treating it–these things ruin lives and sometimes hasten deaths. Unfortunately, we don’t approach our judicial system with emphasis on the lives of the people who move through it. We examine and regulate it with an eye toward Law and Order, predictable outcomes, and efficient systems.

Thing is, systems are fine for protecting people, but systems are generally inadequate for protecting any given person.

At least the medical profession recognizes the impact its failures have on people; in law (particularly in criminal justice), we still refuse to name our failures “mistakes”. We cannot learn from error unless we do.

Getting Things Wrong

At a fairly young age, I thoroughly internalized the adage: it is better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it.

Mostly, the inclination to keep my thoughts to myself or consider my response before speaking has been useful. But although I have always been comfortable keeping my mouth shut and not worrying about the conclusions people draw from that, I learned that from other sources. The wisdom of keeping your own counsel and thinking before you speak is not really the message I internalized from the folk wisdom.

For some stupid reason, the message I internalized was “better not to admit you don’t know the answer, than ask the question that proves your ignorance.” And that is terrible approach to take to almost anything.

Unlearning a reluctance to ask questions is hard. Breaking a habit of not bouncing ideas off colleagues is also hard. Changing both of those patterns is much easier than treating yourself like you’re still competent, even though you had to ask for help.

Fortunately, most of the time when I have consciously gone against the bad habit of not-asking, I’ve gotten the information I needed to solve the problem. Unfortunately, I haven’t always worked with–or for–people who made asking for necessary information comfortable or productive. That’s the next step, making sure that I make it easy and productive for people to talk to me when they don’t know what to do next on a project, or don’t know the answer to a relevant question, or just think another opinion will clarify the next steps.