Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Archive for the ‘advocacy’ Category

Day 7

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Today’s post finds me in my dining room, huddled around a space heater. I am home from work today, finally having fallen sick after my normally toasty warm abode has transformed since last Friday into a veritable icebox of a home.

I do consider myself lucky, however, as we are no longer in the dire straits we were when the heating system was installed in 2009. Like many post-divorce families, we moved from a comfortable upper middle-class existence to a situation that flirted dangerously close to the national poverty levels.

The fact that we had fallen so low, however, made us ironically better off in many ways, due to eligibility for several programs and grants for low-income families. My children were free lunch kids, then reduced-fee lunch kids once I found a job. This lunch assistance, I quickly learned, put us into a category to receive all sorts of perks that were totally out of reach to anyone earning even a barely-livable wage. For example, we avoided the $270-per-child school bus fee once the kids hit sixth grade, and we were offered opportunities to attend summer camps that even at our formerly comfortable, grandparent-subsidized income could have been able to afford.

We were lucky to have these opportunities, but it was also unfair, particularly to families who were just over the income limits. Because the lunch assistance is based on federal poverty levels, it is easy to struggle in Massachusetts at a much higher income than these programs allow. I continue to find it difficult to reconcile that there is such a line where people can qualify for considerable assistance, but they lose nearly everything once they begin to earn enough to sleep at night. Insomnia quickly returns when a family can suddenly lose everything from fuel assistance and fee waivers to housing itself, simply because of a very small increase in income. The jump required to be self-sufficient is such a grand leap that it is no wonder so many people never manage to climb out of hardship.

Not to sugar-coat the application process for financial benefits, it was humiliating. I remember waiting in line for food stamps a few days after my husband moved out of our house. The man assisting me asked if my husband liked to “rough me up.”  As he collected the paperwork to reveal pertinent details of our financial situation, he told me that I should get a nicer haircut and smile more, as if either were quite possible at the time. We received emergency funding that very day, though, so the questionable legality of his comments was hardly something that I wanted to challenge at the time. I immediately went to the grocery store and bought my family food, crying in the checkout line as I realized that my new EBT card was really going to cover our bill. I shook myself off, and sent regular proof of my continued shame, as requested, until I could no longer stand it. It never got easier for me to ask for help, and I never forgot that feeling. Still, to this day, I would be happy to sit in a SNAP benefits line with anyone else facing the same humiliation that should not be.

Over the years following that initial application, however, we received a great deal of help to improve our lives both short- and long-term, and I am grateful. I was also lucky to have grown up in a family with a highly educated, erudite stay-at-home mom and a high-school-educated, blue-collar, union-member dad during a time that this was a near-guarantee of middle class. (More on this in a future post…). I went to college, and went on to earn graduate degrees. I have uncounted advantages that made it much easier for me to network to find help and navigate the rules and paperwork required.

I also learned that many people want to help, and have ideas of how they can do it. I learned, later, as I worked with others seeking various forms of assistance, that help comes mostly not as it is really needed, though, as an official, obvious, mandated policy. Sure, some assistance is mandated, but much of it is also unfunded, or under-funded.  Some assistance has legislated drips of funding that may easily be squeezed dry in the next year’s budget. Eligibility tests may become all the more stringent in the process, leaving many people in difficulty. Often, great ideas are tested in pilot programs that may or may not continue. Same for grant-funded projects. And then, there is charity, less predictable, sometimes hidden, often wonderful.

Now, over ten years past my food stamp days, my children are now (at least officially) adults, and I manage. The heating system was installed in February 2009, a gift, as I understood it, from the then-Town of Framingham, with the agreement that our energy use could be monitored for some sort of study. A company called Climate Energy removed our old furnace, and installed in its place the innovative Freewatt system. The system included a high-efficiency furnace that was connected to a generator. The generator, a Honda motor, then produced electricity, which we sold back to NStar. The credits were applied to our electricity bill, and our energy bills for both gas and electric dropped dramatically for all the years that the system worked. Some winter months, we paid $10 for electricity, and our house stayed toasty warm. It was such a relief!

Climate Energy also received alerts whenever our system was not functioning properly, and within days–or hours, even–a technician appeared at our house to repair equipment. Every year, they called to schedule the yearly maintenance.

In 2014, though, I took off work for the yearly service day, and instead received a visit from a woman offering to buy back the Honda generator. She told me that the system was no longer being offered in the US, but that maintenance would still be provided until the end of the warranty, after which I would have to pay for service, including an oil change. I kept the generator, and planned for service, anticipating the continued reduction in my electric bill.

A year later, no one called for regular maintenance on the furnace. Climate Energy had warned us when the furnace was installed that the equipment required training and experience to maintain, so I called the company myself to schedule service. I was so spoiled in the past by the company’s proactive management, but I knew it, and never wanted to neglect the maintenance.

Climate Energy was a part of another company called Yankee Scientific, so when the phone rang to their number, I was not surprised. I left a message, then another, then emailed the contacts I had had with the company in the past. I never got a response from anyone, and began the search for another experienced installer. A year later, I had no success, and kept trying, poring over the paperwork I had–I kept everything! I probably should have had someone–anyone–come in to service the furnace, at least. But I didn’t. I was afraid to wreck it, and may have wrecked it anyway in my neglect. Maybe the blower would not have failed with maintenance, but maybe it just wore out.

If you search for Freewatt now, you will find the http://www.freewatt.com website, which directs you to the dreaded site of nothingness. Reviews and videos touting the efficiency of the Freewatt system date back years, and some former installers now seem to offer solar panels instead. I did reach a man who had installed a few systems, but he told me that he had also ripped those same systems out after he received no support from the manufacturer.

A kind man in the now-City of Framingham tried in vain to find records to help us, but the social worker who had originally contacted us had left her position years ago, and her department of social services was apparently eliminated.

Now, despite the current breakdown, I am grateful to have had a great furnace for nine years. We called a large company for repairs, and will restore the furnace, if not the generator, even with a cold wait for the parts. The cost of this repair, however, is not small. I am not sure what might have become of the other households included in the study. I sent out a message to a neighborhood group to find someone with a similar experience, but no one answered. How do low-income households who depend on support manage when assistance so abruptly vanishes? The cost of the repair could easily send a struggling family into a downward spiral financially–clearly not the goal of the original program, but a problem for so many good intentions.

I think now of sustainability and charity, and how intended kindnesses may backfire when the funding runs dry. As we look toward the end of the year, and our wishes to be generous in the spirit of the season, we must also aim for compassion. Receiving generosity does require effort, too, as those in need balance humility and gratitude with self-respect and a desire to give back. We must always consider that when we offer help, or accept it, we develop a relationship. It is a connection that can give hope, but when we do it right, it also allows us all to open our hearts and accept our human condition together. It may be anonymous, and sometimes these are the greatest kindnesses, but only when we accept that the gift never stops with the immediate gesture. As I think back to the ways we struggled in a time of change, I know how easy it is for anyone to end up needing help for any number of reasons. I also know that a lasting difference will consider the future at the outset. A lasting difference will always bring people into the fold with empowerment, choice, growth, and dignity.

 

 

 

Written by Only Anecdotal

8 Dec 2018 at 9:11am

Posted in advocacy, assistance, community

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An Outing to the Zoo

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As I have been watching the families at the border, I have remembered also that I spent several years in St. Louis volunteering at the International Institute. The refugee organization was generous to me, and I gained far more than I gave in assisting people in English classes, and in working with a social program for Amerasian teens from Vietnam. It was the early 90s, and most of the refugees then were from Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia.

I remember in St. Louis that the area around South Grand was an area where many of the families I met lived. For most of my life, I knew these areas as German (though my own family lived in North St. Louis), but the change was good. My family came under some hardship, but nothing like the trauma that the families I met at the International Institute.

Once, I helped a man to translate course certificates from an IBM course. The certificate was in French, and the man told me that he once spoke French as much as he spoke Vietnamese, but he could not remember now, and hardly remembering the programming had learned in those early days, a different time. But still, a certificate could make a difference for him.

A couple worked with me on conversation. They were former Soviets, and the man–an engineer–drove a taxi and complained, and resented that his wife (a patient woman) was learning English far faster than he was.

I worked with the teen program, but it was hard. The kids did not want to do “refugee things”, and preferred hanging out and enjoying normal American teenage life. I couldn’t blame them. And because all of them were their families’ tickets to refugee status–children of Vietnamese woman and American soldiers–they had even more reason to grasp tightly to their new country.

One day, a very cold day, I went to pick up my teen partner for a trip to the St. Louis Zoo. When I arrived, though, she was gone. Instead, I found her mother and four-year-old half sister bundled to the best of their abilities, and ready to go.

So we went. It was incredibly cold, though, but in the trunk of my car I had two extra pairs of mittens that my mom had knitted for me. We were warm enough now, and crossed past the bears (only a polar bear was out where we could see him). We looked to some of the enclosed exhibits, still, the reptiles. As we wandered, the mother began to see animals she remembered from Vietnam, and she started to talk about her country, and her past.

She told me that she could not remember her daughter’s father’s name. She tried and tried, but so much had happened. She told me of her house in the mountains, and of her other child, the one she begged not to cry, so they would not be found. She told me of the fire they set to her house in the mountains, and running, running with nowhere to go. She told me of the kind Vietnamese man who accepted her–he came to  the US with her, and he was the father of the little girl who went to the zoo with us that day.

At the end, I didn’t know what to do. I drove the family home, and they left–wearing my mom’s mittens. I never asked for them back, and I never told my mom, either. But I think that she would have been happy to know that they had them now.

I’m not sure what happened to the family, but the last time I was with them, they were working hard, and had moved to a nicer apartment.

That day changed my life.

I have thought about many of the people I met then, people who had fled horrific hardships to come to our country, to have a better chance. We all must know many of the immigrants who come here with their dreams and their ambitions, who give up everything for the sake of their families. I think of the incredibly educated, sage scholars who worked in ordinary jobs in car plants (like my sister-in-law’s father, an art history professor working for GM).

I think of my own friends, literature students who came because coming to the US was the way to succeed. I think of the richness of our diversity, the music and food and art and texture of cultures, and I admit to falling silent in despair in the face of hatred to all these things that I love. I have not always been proud of the aggressions of the US–hard to argue that many of the refugees I met suffered in their own countries because of us. But in my life, I was often also encouraged as I saw us change, grow, love.

I want to think we can find this in our hearts again. Our biggest danger comes as we harden souls by torturing children, by pushing away those who need our shelter, by giving even more power to greed.

Written by Only Anecdotal

21 Jun 2018 at 6:56pm

Behind the Scenes

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This is not the post I had intended to write today.

I did not imagine when I was thinking through my article on the drive to work this morning that I would leave work to learn that Trump had reversed his policy of jailing immigrant children. But he did. And thank goodness for that.

Goodness. It is a word that I think a lot about. I think about it lately in the face of pure evil.

Evil. Sadly enough, it is a word that I have thought about far too often in the last two years. Thinking back, I felt a very real optimism in the 2016 election about two years ago. It unraveled all too quickly, though, and even in the face of that optimism, I saw the increasing fervor in the voices of hatred.

In the last weeks I have watched, in horror, as multitudes of asylum-seeking families were torn apart at the southern borders, I have also watched the defenders of this practice. As wrenching as the scenes of crying children have been to me, I am chilled to the core by the lack of compassion in so many who defended the family separation practice.

Bible-quoting Jeff Sessions of course wants the wall as much as his boss, and claims that they don’t want to separate families. But they have to, of course, to keep us safe. And the kids are all right. DHS’s head, Kirstjen Nielsen claims that only Congress can change things, and the kids are all right. Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained everything and explained nothing, as she always does. Fearless Leader himself blamed the Democrats. And Fox News was a great vehicle for spreading the gospel of hate, as they always do. Stephen Miller, a haunting soulless image who was unknown to me until recently, was apparently the mastermind behind this whole policy. I imagine there are masterminds out there who are finally coming into their prime, finding a place to voice their nationalistic sentiments and enact their horrifying dreams of supremacy.

A long time ago, I took my baby son to his pediatrician to find out why he was not doing all the things he was supposed to be doing–according to “What to Expect ….”

The doctor told me that he was “delayed.” But I was not to worry, because my son could still live with me.

I had never considered that my son would ever be taken from me, but the notion stuck with me when a developmental pediatrician came to our home and suggested that I apply for the Medicaid Katie Beckett waiver for my son.

Now, the Katie Beckett waiver is an amazing thing: it was a waiver designed to help families of children with disabilities to keep their kids at home. But I didn’t quite understand the world of waivers back then, and was convinced that by applying for Medicaid, I would also be putting my son’s name on a list of disabled kids.

The doctor reassured me that no harm could come of applying for assistance. Those days of lists and persecution were in the past, he said, those days when people were labeled “different” and sent away, or worse. We all do remember history to know that these times did exist, of course. I’m not sure that a return to those times was quite my fear, but I did apply for Medicaid for my son, and he quickly was approved for the waiver. And it helped him.

But it is a strange thing. My son is no longer a child, but he is on a list, probably a lot of lists. I do think about it sometimes, though he does not appear in immediate danger.

I am not sure what makes my severely disabled son less likely a target for caging than a migrant child, except that he is white. But as we watch the rights of immigrants erode, we must also notice the stories of benefits dwindling for people in need of all sorts. We exclude, and we punish the weak in our great nation.

Watch the defenders of evil. I try to understand the people who were fed up with hearing unheard and unhelped, and as they explain themselves, I think it is easier to look for blame in a face that looks different than to blame ourselves for the mess we have created in a rich country that cannot manage to feed and house everyone. I hear that hatred, but while I think that it is terrible, I don’t think that this fear is evil. Promoting the fear is what is evil. Trump may well have ended the tears of children, at least for now, but keep watching what happens behind the scenes while our leader makes noise and throws twitter tantrums. Oh, to be sure, there will be images of some joyful reunited families–the midterm elections are upon us, after all. And there will be plenty of families who face a tough battle to be reunited (one father has killed himself after being separated from his child, so no resolution there). There will be family camps, then, right along with proclamations of wanting the best for our citizens, and keeping the borders safe. But I won’t be fooled. The masterminds are hard at work while we watch the circus, and they are not working for love.

Written by Only Anecdotal

20 Jun 2018 at 6:27pm

Posted in advocacy, disability

Tagged with ,

Twenty

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He was the first of my children to be born in Vermont, about five miles from the Canadian border. Less than a year into a new life in the Northeast Kingdom, we drove the hour in moonlight to a quiet hospital in the middle of the night, and my second boy was born.

I had no idea then how much my perception of the world would change within the next year–hadn’t it already with his brother? Doesn’t it always witha child?–but no. This was a child to make me throw my “What To Expect” books clear into the backyard snow the next winter. That quiet, sweet, beautiful boy did learn to walk, yes, taught by a horse when he was four (true story, yes a miracle). He learned some things, and not some things, and everything more slowly than those books said he was supposed to, more slowly than his brother, and his sisters, and he stayed young–as the developmental experts said. Say. He did not learn to talk, not yet, but still, over the years, he has told me so many things.

He told me of the important qualities to look for in people: love, strength, patience, honesty, connection. Not the loud, not the flash, not the big promise nor the fear. My son told me how to see, how to fight, how to love, how to choose, how to understand the smallest of things, and the quietest, and the most important.

When we think of the abrupt changes that can happen in a few words, a diagnosis, a guess, a realization that, alas, everyone else is growing up all around us, it is easy to think of what we did expect, what was supposed to be, sounds trite to say it, since we all eventually face some version of this, sometime in a life.  He is why I am who I am now, and on days like this, when I think of how far we have come, I have cake and open presents with him, and am glad to see him smile. I imagine life through his experience of it, and I hope/think it is a good life, so many changes, so much so hard to understand. It has been hard. No, I won’t lie about that. We face a future (yes, of course we think of it often)… well, didn’t we always face uncertainty and chaos?  Oh, my boy, I know that the best gift, today after all, is the one you have given to me. You give me hope.  Happy Birthday.

Written by Only Anecdotal

6 Mar 2017 at 9:32pm

Meaning

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This Saturday, I went to my first translation event in over twenty years. It was the twentieth annual conference of the New England Translators Association (NETA), and I was so happy to be there this year. I learned a lot in one day, finding myself back in a world that has changed so much in so many ways, but in others has stayed much the same.

I say this with some embarassment as I think back to my young self, so filled with ambition that I quit university rather than return after my father’s death to what I saw as less than what I wanted in my life. I told everyone that I wanted to be a translator, and literally knocked on doors all over St. Louis–anywhere with the word “international” in its name–until I got hired somewhere.

I was astoundingly lucky. A woman named Beatriz (Betty) Calvin had a translation company, and talked to me when I walked nervously in the door. I was twenty years old, had never been in another country, and learned my French (which admittedly was not half bad even then) from subtitled movies and pen pals.. and a few great teachers (thank you, Mme Eggers).

A few days after I visited Betty’s company, Calvin International was juggling an enormous job–translations and conferences for a big conference with a big client. They needed help. Could I come in?

I did help out, for several weeks. Within a month, I was hired, full-time. It was my dream, working in an office where I was the foreigner–the only native English-speaker, I managed projects, but also edited translation. I researched, and practiced, practiced, practiced. My French became so much better. Even my Spanish became pretty good (Latin Americans are enormously helpful teachers!). My German improved. I learned how to act around different cultures, became sensitive enough to pay attention to what everyone else was doing and saying, and adept enough to ask questions when I simply did not know.

I eventually decided, with some pushing from a poet who saw some spark in me, to return to university, and study literature. I managed to stay in school for a long time, and thought I would stay forever. I loved it. I never regretted it. I abandoned even that dream when the reality of my children came into play. Disability does not always leave room for the intentions we think we have in this life, but it often helps us become more who we really are. Boundaries. Understanding.

And so it was as I sat in the afternoon session thinking as I listened to Eduardo Berinstein’s discussion on why technology–despite its inevitability–will not supersede the abilities of the human translator.

The talk was titled: “The straw that broke the camel’s back OR The drop of water that overflowed the cup.” The reference was to common expressions… the point at which we cannot take anymore.. expressed so differently in two languages, and yet, conveying the same meaning, at least in the same context.

I suppose we could go back and discover more of the development of these idioms. Why straw and camels? The drop of water seems perhaps more clear to me, but we would never say this in English. Simply “the last straw”–this I often hear, but the camel is always understood. Camels so exotic; phrase origin, in truth I could never really even find a definitive source for this. I can imagine these phrases in works where we would need an enormous adeptness to get the point.. how to convey, for example, some rhyme, or some reference to, say, those camels, in some lyrical turn of words in a literary piece, obvious reference to the phrase, with all the connotations and denotations, and… Well, I get ahead of myself here.

I pondered this, though, on my drive home, and for much of my day afterward, thinking of what pushes us to new places in our lives, what breaks us, what sets us free simultaneously, and what it all means.

I think back to a day when I sat, still frustrated with my lack of progress in my doctoral work, but not caring really so much about it anymore. I was instead looking longingly at a boy who at nine months still was (with his older brother) the focus of my attention. My younger son was not like his older demanding, ever-frustratingly barrier-breaking brother. My younger son did not try to reach for things that he clearly liked. He had not yet succeeded even in rolling over. He cooed and smiled at me, and loved to interact. But clearly, when the pediatrician told me that nothing had changed, when he said that my little boy could still live with me–even though–, I knew on the contrary that absolutely everything had changed.

My younger son lived with me for many years after that, as life became something quite different from what I had imagined, what we had imagined. The words from the doctor that day, I think, were the point that these phrases convey so well: that drop of water that would not fit in the cup we had prepared; the straw that our camel could not sustain.

Life did change dramatically, and as my children grew, I watched and learned. My son, now nineteen, does not speak at all, least in words. He has often made me think so much about the very nature of language and languages in this world. I so often can sit with him, despite his lack of words, and know what he means. His face lights up when he sees me, and there is a sense of wonder that fills me. I am filled at the same time with a strange sense of the irony in having a child who cannot speak in any official language to me or to anyone, despite the fascination I have always had throughout my entire life in the nature of languages.

I have had the luxury of returning to worlds where we bridge the gap of cultures and language. It has been incredibly rewarding to me to return to a place where I can consider the place where I started years ago with that desire to understand, to break down the barriers and boundaries and borders that separate one human being from another at the very source of our being, our meaning. What do we mean? What do we want to say? What do we mean to accomplish in our lives? And then, what stops us? What are the walls, the doors, the stairs we cannot climb?

I have moved into new worlds in the last few years, where I still see the bureaucratic efforts and frustrations, the wish to build (companies, worlds, dreams), and the efforts simply to maintain equilibrium in it all. Only Anecdotal, the stories that here started as discussions of systems of care and the people they affected, is evolving. The stories continue, perhaps with difference foci, but in essence, they remain stories about meaning: how we express who we are, and what we want.

I think of this as I think about Saturday, the relevance of translation and interpreting in our current world, so many languages at our fingertips in seconds, so many desires to have immediate access to worlds we used to wait years to see. We may wish for that immediate fix, the instant translate available so easily, and we may get the jist from this, but do we find the deeper sense of who we are as human beings? Can we read between lines, or do we end so often with word-to-word efforts, in utter jibberish that makes us throw up our hands in complete misunderstanding?

I realize that the old battles remain, as they did back years ago at Calvin International Communications, that words on a page are not so easily transposed into other languages, other cultures, other minds. But I do think that as we have become used to the smallness of the world now, we do desire–and will desire more and more–the quality of our experience much more than the quick fix of the general idea. Translation, interpreting, understanding take time, and expertise, and patience. It will be the desire in our experience that separates art from mere utility, and that brings us to embrace that art, and our own humanity.

 

 

Written by Only Anecdotal

15 May 2016 at 9:03pm

Thanksgiving

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I was recently reminded of a quote attributed to C.S. Lewis: “Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes but, when we look back everything is different?”

This quote has reminded me, in very real and tangible ways, of my own gratitude, the thanks that I owe to so many people and circumstances in my life. My children, my friends, my community.

In the last two weeks, we have indeed seen enormous changes, too, perhaps the culmination of so many small steps. Not all do I face with gratitude. I still cannot fathom the tragedy in Paris. Not yet. Not sure I ever want to.

But other changes in life I have considered, and am right now as I contemplate the last year and a half from a slightly more philosophical viewpoint, thinking over the perspective I gained moving from one world to another.

When I began working at the Consulate, the manager who hired me had described the role as “social services for Canadians in the US”. This was largely true, and as I saw it then, largely what I had been doing in the field–more like the trenches–for several years prior. I had worked around illness then, and disability, and dire situations that were often chronic; though, when I saw them, the need was indeed critical. I held a hand, shared a pot of tea, sat and listened, all the while wishing for a figurative hose to put out fires that had often smouldered for years before erupting in flame. But too often, my only defence for my clients was a squirt gun, at best, and always, always,  I wished for a magic wand.

I discovered quickly that a few things were quite different in the consular world. First of all, I cannot speak for the whole of the Canadian government, but from the start (my interview featured a test, by golly), it was clear to me that excellence was an expectation. That is it. You prove yourself, then keep working at that standard. I hit a huge learning curve of regulations and details, and I simply had to know them. I never even questioned that, and I enjoyed the challenge.

This had always been true, but now, rather than simply holding this knowledge as advantageous in my work, I felt the weight of responsibility much more. Was it the security clearance? Was it the various exams, and permissions, and processes? Was it the diplomatic cachet? Bilingualism? I am not sure, except that the culture supported high quality work. It made me  happy, too, to feel I was rewarded in perhaps subtle ways, and most of all from our clients, for giving it my all.

The above C.S. Lewis quote came from my manager, who spoke at a lovely party held on my last day at the Consulate. My term has ended there, and staff who had been on leave have all made their ways back into the work I had the great opportunity to live in depth. I will miss everyone. There were some very long snowy days riding the commuter rail, days when I was first learning all the various details of creating a document that for my entire life has been my symbol of freedom and adventure… and became as I saw it also a very real ticket to access, connection, and security. Winter. The very real lack of control we have over so many aspects of life on earth, and the many, many ways we learn to maneuver and thrive and love in spite of it, sometimes because of it. It was about the same everyday, in most ways. A few surprises, but the same walk to the station, people I met along the way, same roads, same tracks, the same gorgeous view of the South End, and the same kind faces who greeted me and shared the space everyday. It became natural after a while, as it does, and fun, and amazingly satisfying when there was a problem, a puzzle to work out, and we could do something truly meaningful, even small.

But now, looking back at where this all started, I see that Lewis was right. Everything truly is different.

And it continues, and onward to the next adventures, projects, my great desire to connect, to hear more stories and meet more people, to create something beautiful, useful, better in this imperfect, fabulous world. It is a wonderful life. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

Written by Only Anecdotal

24 Nov 2015 at 2:57pm

In Defense of Bureaucracy

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I have surprised my own self with the title of this little piece.

I hate when rules bog people down, and make it next-to-impossible to get anything done. I hate rules even more when they seem created to keep people out, rather than to devise a logical way to let them in.

I think about that question of entry, access, everyday. As I said in my last article, I may be feeling optimistic by an extraordinary ability in my present job to gain access to needed paperwork, documents–most often a passport. But it is a powerful thing, a passport, granting permission to enter, to cross, to leave.

My last jobs have not been so easy in this respect. Canadian passports require an extraordinary number of checks, I think–it often seems to surprise people here in the United States, who are not so accustomed to actual reference checks, or very specific photo requirements. A MassHealth application, though, requires a lot of documentation, as does a SNAP application for food stamps. There may well be no reference checks, but the systems in these two institutions are often kept ambiguous by overwhelmed staff who are most likely paid not enough to meet the high standards of customer service that are absolutely obligatory to meet the need well. Are there examinations that TANF employees must pass to have access to a database? I do not think so. Does MassHealth go beyond an initial training period to verify that employees really do understand their responsibilities, as well as their limitations? I am quite sure this is impossible.

And yet, when immersed in the trenches of people in need, we learn a lot. We learn, for example, that recipients of Supplementary Security Income (SSI) through Social Security automatically receive MassHealth Standard. We learn that permanent residents who are entitled to MassHealth nonetheless cannot receive all benefits for five full years–and this can be devastating to individuals with disabilities who are in need of long-term services and supports. We learn that immigrants who do not have green card status may well receive no or very few MassHealth benefits at all… and it is hard not to advise a parent, for example, to apply for permanent residency, for example, for their children who need more than a safety net.

The only problem with this sort of trench-learning is that sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we have heard enough to make ourselves dangerous, and assume that the understanding we have gained in our own bureaucracy has made us experts in all others. We would do so better to embrace the complexities and build relationships with our expert colleagues in other systems. But this seems a difficult concept to achieve.

Now… I know I seem to be straying from my original defence. Do I like monotonous paperwork, and complicated regulation? Well, no. Hell no. But then, I think about it a bit more… The rules sometimes are complex from the start, due to the legislation that created the program. But really, this is rarely the case. More often, I believe, the system becomes more complicated as we consider the individual within it. We consider just one person who does not fit a certain mold, but still needs something, and we make an exception. Complication #1. Another individual happens into the system, and needs something else. Complication #2. An individual to whom complication #1 applies has other resources that cancel the real need for the program in question: complication #3. And so it goes. A community complains about the high level of X, and we face complication #4, 5, and 6, sometimes all at once. It is easy to create institutions, and we must create them, I believe. But making them fair is even more essential. And this is where the bureaucracy begins. It is a real shame when we do not expect excellence in our public servants’ understanding and administering of this bureaucracy. Perhaps if we had that, these systems would not have such a terrible reputation.

I do believe that most people who work in these systems want to be helpful. In a customer service-oriented environment, “making a difference” is the true motivation for most employees. Hard to say what happens in translation there. A crappy database? Bad management? An utterly impossibly large number of clients to handle with that crappy database? Rules that are created more to micromanage underpaid employees than to give employees tools to help clients? Who knows?

But I think of the last week, for example. A woman who may have been considered quite foreign in appearance arrived at our office requesting assistance with her children’s Canadian passport applications. As I reviewed her documents, I asked her a bit more about her children, and their citizenship, to see if they had other documents for travel. They were Canadians, yes, born there. The parents were not. The parents were, in fact, US citizens who had lived abroad for years. They had adapted the lifestyle and customs of another country, and came back to North America to study, work, research. But both parents were born in the US.

The mother told me that she wanted MassHealth for her children, and was instructed by a MassHealth agent to apply for permanent residency for them. Children of US-born citizens.

The children, in reality, ARE US citizens. They need proof of citizenship, not permanent residency.

The cost of green card applications is enormous. The mother later took my advice to verify her children’s status with an agent at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office. She learned, first, that her permanent residency application fees would not be refunded. She learned also that she did not have to resubmit paperwork for proof of her children’s US citizenship. Finally, she learned that her children were US citizens–yes! it was true! Upon receipt of their US citizenship certificates, they will be entitled to all privileges as American citizens, and without a five-year wait for full benefits under MassHealth.

In the meanwhile, I encouraged her to contact MassHealth once more. Unfortunately, in so many bureaucracies, the individual in need does not have access to an individual within the system. So, reaching anything more than a badge number or the next available staff is nearly impossible. I suggested that she could try going to a community health center, where an employee could access MassHealth as a professional, and perhaps find something more through that gateway… Another layer here to that system–that virtual gateway accesible to whom?? To hospitals.. to community health centers… to some provider agencies, advocacy agencies. It is a difficult system, fluid, and not smooth to sail. I hope her children can get what they need quickly here. They are entitled to it.

I defend bureaucracy, though I understand why we hate it. We hate it, because it is so hard to navigate through institutions that veer from their frameworks to try to be fair to all. We hate it, quite rightly, because it sometimes IS ridiculous, and more focused on preventing fraud than on the original mission. But try we must, and understand we must.

For, our understanding, in reality, is understanding the very complexity of our humanity, and the responsibilities of our government to provide fair treatment to the human beings who depend on it.

And do not be fooled by notions of self-sufficiency: we ALL depend on our government to do things for us. And we all are only human.

Written by Only Anecdotal

3 Nov 2015 at 8:51pm

Posted in advocacy