Many years ago, I served in Pennsylvania state government and among my responsibilities was the development and implementation of family resource centers (FRCs), which are community-based family support programs that provide easily accessible services in a culturally relevant manner. They encourage the development of strong families and supportive communities through a parent-driven approach. They resemble Settlement Houses that were part of social work’s early history. My role in government involved a great deal of in-person conversations and relationship building with local county leaders.
On one occasion, I had to visit with a rural county commissioner who the day before was quoted in the newspaper saying that state sponsored family centers were a socialist idea, aimed at having government subvert the role of parents. This was consistent with his other public statements that reflected his deep level of antipathy toward government-supported programming.
It was not easy, but eventually I convinced him to drop his opposition to the development of the family center. He actually became an active supporter of the initiative. The endorsement by this non-traditional partner opened the door for many other non-believers to step up and offer their time, treasure and talent.
This episode was a crash course for me. With the help of a trusted, more experienced colleague, I realized that there were several paths toward winning the commissioner’s approval.
Political strategizing and discovering the limits of compromise are essential skills for any leader of a family support program. If they don’t learn them quickly, they run the risk of being considered too naïve or indecisive – or even sinking their program.
In this case, I had to demonstrate to the commissioner that there was an added value for him, and more importantly for the county, if they developed a family resource center. We also had to clarify that our intent was not to usurp the role of families, but instead to strengthen support for parents so that the likelihood of government intervention would be reduced significantly.
In addition, the commissioner and I spoke about how families, local stakeholders and the county officials would be the drivers of the effort, and that state government would just provide startup grants, technical assistance and to help clear the path on selected regulatory issues. Finally, we discussed how he could be involved and become a prominent participant in the opening of the center, and even how county government could hold up some early wins that the center would likely demonstrate. In the end, this was a practical lesson learned for those of us who were trying to take the family center model to scale and ensure its sustainability.
In my subsequent collaborations with jurisdictions, this issue has emerged frequently. I do my best to help leaders and stakeholders traverse the political landmines inherent in any community stakeholder movement. Fortunately, most find a middle ground that allows the work to move forward.
Still, the ugly, unrelenting undercurrent of politics persists through all that we do in family support programs. Leaders of these programs have to be savvy enough to navigate a role that straddles everything from Mr. Rogers to Machiavelli. They have to do good and they have to do well, all the while minimizing the chances of alienating anyone who can help them advance their work.
The ethical dilemmas attached to the politics of our work are murky at best. We operate in an environment where almost 50% of our citizenry supported an administration that openly nurtured bigotry, white nationalism and a denial of science. Yet, it was the same administration that passed into law the Family First Prevention Services Act; funding increases for prevention and family support programming; and also made it easier for family members in the child welfare system to have legal counsel. Within the world of child welfare, the past four years made your head and conscience spin.
These dilemmas are nothing new but there are a few things we can do to address them, starting with three questions.
First, what are the core values of our organization and to what extent will we compromise them by partnering with certain individuals or government entities? Second, does my partnership violate any legal, professional or public standards that will harm the quality of our relationship with families? Third, is it possible to eventually bring this partner into our sphere of influence and have them support our values and goals?
When I speak with colleagues who are implementing family support programs, their local partners span the continuum of political beliefs and behaviors. Among their most difficult relationships are those with faith communities. Many congregations generously give to nonprofit agencies and programs to assist families in need, while also condemning LGBTQ youth and birth parents for being morally deficient. For most family support programs, it becomes very difficult to align their values of inclusiveness and equity with this type of thinking. This is when families, staff and other stakeholders have to make a collective decision about how to manage a transformational and enduring ethical compromise for the program.
In family support programming, it’s not about what you personally think is reprehensible, but more importantly, what does it mean for our organization, our programs and the families we serve, as well as our shared beliefs and commitments.
The decisions we make should enrich others. This is why organizational values and culture are so important in community driven work. To some extent, every stakeholder should be invested in those values and know what is negotiable, and what isn’t. In that environment, they can more readily respond to emerging opportunities without too much angst.
Ultimately this is the grandest of challenges. Family support program leaders cannot, as C.S. Lewis observed, mistake necessary evils for good. As Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, “…Indeed, the safest road to Hell is a gradual one…the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…”
In other words, pay attention to the warning signs of an ethical collapse.
When faced with the inevitable political compromises and choices, it’s good to know the milestones and signposts. Recognize your limits and consult with your collaborators in the discernment process. It might not make it any less challenging, but sleeping at night will be a little easier.