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April 17, 2021


The Uncomfortable Truth Of Ambiguity In Reforming Society




Installment #1 Introduction

Twenty-Five or so years ago, I was a state legislator in Hawaii. It was not my nature to be a broker of competing interests, or at the center of last-minute deals.  I was an advocate: The environment, education, the safety net…    The most powerful were not really advocates, they were brokers.   

I sat in the office of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, UHPA, the faculty union. I had always supported the success and autonomy of the university. My first job in Hawaii was at the UH.   UHPA usually endorsed me during many a close election.  

Opposite me was a seasoned, hardnosed lobbyist and union leader, one who believed that you needed to play for keeps and cut deals to get things done.   You ought to be a power broker. 

The late John Radcliff was not full of praise, and he told me, “Jim, you are not a real player.  You’re just a gadfly.”

Ouch.  A criticism with a healthy dose of truth hurts more.  I knew what he was getting at, and yet, to go all-in to cut deals even at the expense of ideals, wasn’t so simple.  I just could not abandon a strong voice inside that could not let go of wanting to be both effective and idealistic.  

The risk:  failure to do either effectively.  I was torn between eclectic views of society.   I was a straddler.

The Other Voice

Growing up, I loved music, played the baritone horn, got a degree in music education. Yet deep inside, there was that voice that kept whispering,  Can you really go all-in to teach music in a nice suburban high school,  when the world is on fire, with riots in Chicago, civil rights struggles,  great poverty, and the Viet Nam War?  The assassinations of King and Kennedy had an impact.  Could not do it.  Held myself back on the music gig, to be honest…and gave up a guaranteed draft deferment as a teacher to join the Peace Corps, and spent three and a half years in Korea.

Was I running away?  Did I lack the courage and grit to go all- in?  Was I a dabbler?  Attention deficit?  Did I fear commitment?

This book is not so much biographical, but rather a record of a lifetime of straddling two or more arenas, cultures, and professional careers.  It is about public policy through the eyes of a gadfly.  It is a rebellion against narrow specialization.  

I would argue there may be a few advantages.   You may be better able to put yourself in the shoes of people that are different, with different agencies, thoughts, self-interests, ideologies, cultures, and values. You may have useful insights.  You may have different eyes and ears and insights into how society really works.  

In the Peace Corps you are asked to look deeply at what part of your identity is essential, and what part superficial.  You are asked to conform with your hair and your clothes, with respect, to a host culture that can be so different is so many ways. In college maybe you were a bit of a hippie, in the Peace Corps you had to become an adult.  You are asked to make the effort to learn another language, new norms, new food, new politics, new perspectives on family and poverty.  

You come to recognize that it didn’t matter what you were or what you might have achieved before. Didn’t matter if you were rich, or poor, or into cars, or socially popular, or a loner.  Didn’t matter if you were chatty, or a good joker, or shy.

Success was redefined:  How well did you learn, appreciate, and respect?  How well did you fulfil the job your host county invited you to do?  How well did you at least make the effort to learn the language?  How much time did you give to “new” friends who wanted a piece of your time and attention every day, every night?  How well did you forge true relationships and friendships that might last a lifetime?  How well did you represent the best of your home and your country?   And for most of us just out of college, unseasoned by the real world, how quickly could we mature as young adults?

For all the efforts made by Peace Corps Volunteers, we were also straddlers.  We had one foot in a host country, an adventure for each of us, and one foot into our past and future back home. We could always go home.   Our hosts did not have that other option.   We could not go all-in.  

For many years I saved letters written by other volunteers,  written while in country, and when they returned.  There was a consistent theme.  They often loved many aspects of Korea, yet at some point, started quietly planning on their return.  Had to turn that corner.  Had to admit that their future probably would not be a Korean life but an American one.  

And yet, several months after being happy to get on with their lives, the letters took an interesting turn.  So many were trying to find a way to get back to Korea, usually working in a new PC training program for new volunteers.  But some also to take a job, to teach English perhaps at a Korean university, or even work in a private corporation in Seoul.  East Asia took hold deep inside. 

Most eventually moved on to professional success in careers, often linked to public service.  For some of us, however, our cultural centers of gravity were in two worlds:  our original home, and our adopted one. Quite a few became scholars of Korean history.   Taught and wrote.   This idea of having one foot here and one foot there seemed to be more interesting for me.   More comprehensive, more holistic.   It was more than nostalgia.  It was a habit of mind.  To see even various government agencies as independent cultures, with their own laws, language, politics.   Common advice for workers in so many agencies:  Stay in your lane. 

To truly understand meant to be always the outsider.  Always the “other.”  Nowhere is this straddling more evident than the gap between the pursuit of research and new knowledge at a university, and public political policy making.  

Too often, academics are frustrated by the lack of interest in applying research;  and too often public policy makers, especially the legislators, regard what scholars learn as too impractical and academic to be applied to solving real problems. A healthy bit of truth for each side.   At times, these two camps do feel contempt for each other.  Each sees the other as a kind of Gadfly.   The bridges between these two realms are few. 

Whether it be in public health policy, education, aging issues, a civic education, social science, or technology, the gaps can be wide.  And even when there is clear, persistent and conclusive research, for some reason it is oh so difficult to translate it into legal or operational change.

It is worth pondering how significant change is actually “made” in America.  In 2013, graduate social worker students in a social work policy course were challenged with this short survey:

  1. What are two examples of “significant” social change in the U.S. in the last 20 years
  2. What criteria did you use to select your examples?
  3. On a continuum where genetics (nature) is a 1, and the environment (nurture) is a ten, where do you think social change fits?
  4. Do you believe a single individual can cause significant change?
  5. Do you believe that significant social change happens:
    1. only gradually, or incrementally
    2. usually suddenly
    3. both
  6. Give two examples of a significant social change you would like to see in the next five years.
  7. On a scale of one (least influential) to ten (very influential), where would you place social workers as agents of significant social change?

That graduate class, like so many at the college level, was originally designed to look at social welfare policies.  Primarily, it was structured as a history class, not so much a How To class.  So many so-called policy courses are not about an examination of how to promote policy change in a complex democratic society, but simply an historical review of what happened.  Digging deeper to better understand how to make change,  this is rather rare.   Philosophy courses are similar: Not about how to develop your own philosophy, but what others said.  This is useful.  It is a start.  But not the end goal. 

We seldom challenge ourselves by asking: What is MY theory of change?  Most of us don’t have one.  Yet most of us have some beliefs and notions about it. Often it is a challenge to even recognize the difference between a passing fad, and a major megatrend.   Change and reform take on different dynamics in a legislature, in a profession, in politics, in administration, in community organizing, in law, in culture, in trends and in the details of implementation.  

In 1978, James MacGregor Burns wrote a book called Leadership.  He pointed out how it was quote different depending on the context.  Understand change in a democratic society, perhaps any society, means distilling the truths in multiple contexts.  It means, in other words,  the mind of a specialist may be less insightful than the mind of a Gadfly. 

Back to the main issue here.   Mostly we study what happened, or how it happened. But stay in your lane.  Seldom do we challenge ourselves to ask: How do you make change?  Don’t be a generalist.  Don’t be a Gadfly.  Be a specialist, we tell policy makers.   Nurses who wanted to change their clinics or hospitals, have never been asked about change.  Nor had social workers,  or educators.   

This book is about the gaps, the lack of understanding, and the need for more institutional bridges and personal gadflies.  This book is about NOT staying in your lane. It is about uncomfortable ambiguities of how we think about and confront the issues of the day.


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