Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Every NO is One Step Closer to a YES"

Had another amazing seminar day in my LEND program yesterday. One of the (many) components of the course is policy advocacy, and that was yesterday's theme.

We were privileged to have a panel composed of a parent activist who's been involved in many organizations and policy campaigns on behalf of children with special needs; the executive director of the state's disability rights organization; and a state senator who co-chairs one of the most powerful committees in the state capitol, the Joint Finance Committee.

Together the three of them told an ongoing story of a decade-long effort on behalf of children with disabilities in Wisconsin, who sit for years on waiting lists to get Medicaid-waiver funding for support in their homes. Autism, with its high-profile political status and recent insurance mandate win, has rather jumped to the head of the line in this state; rather than playing one disability off another, they are using it as an example. Kids with autism shouldn't have to wait for support and treatment; neither should any other child with a disability!

In context of this ongoing struggle, where there have been lots of roadblocks and setbacks, they told a remarkable Wisconsin civil-rights story. The star of the story is a woman named Vel Phillips.

Vel Phillips was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school. She then became the first black woman to get elected as an alder on the Milwaukee city council, in 1956. One of her first acts as "Madame Alderman" was to propose a fair housing law, to prohibit "red-lining," the practice of refusing to sell homes in certain neighborhoods on the basis of race. The measure went immediately down to defeat, 15-1.

The rules on the council, the panelist told us, was that you couldn't re-introduce a measure for 90 days. Guess what -- 90 days later, she re-introduced that measure. And again, down to defeat, 15-1.

She did this over and over. Her friends started chiding her about it. This is ridiculous, you know, they said. You're not going to get anywhere with this. She heard their objections, but did not heed them. She continued right on doing what she'd been doing.

After a while, some of the aldermen (remember that everyone else on the council were white men) started coming to her privately and apologizing for their repeated "No" votes. I know you're right, they began to say. But my constituency is just not going to back me on this.

Vel went back to her friends and told them, They're apologizing to me! We're making progress!

And that's where the panelist quoted Vel Phillips' dictum:
Every NO is one step closer to a YES.

Well, the years began to pass, some members on the council turned over, the civil rights movement was brewing nationwide, and Madame Alderman started to get a few votes each time she brought the measure forward.

It took six years. But finally a majority came through, both locally and nationally. And, as the panelist told it, the night of that Milwaukee vote, there was a huge crowd awaiting Vel Phillips outside the city building. And they took this petite powerhouse of a woman on their shoulders, and "they marched all night through the red-lined neighborhoods of Milwaukee, where they had never been allowed to buy a home before."

This was the one point in the entire panel presentation, for all its riches, that tears sprang to my eyes. It wasn't getting to ask a direct question of the senator, as fine a privilege as that was, nor was it getting to meet him and shake his hand and exchange a few words afterwards. It was the story.

Two takeaways.

Every NO is one step closer to a YES.

And, stories have power. We have to tell our stories to the people who make things happen. Our stories are crucial in turning NO into YES. Together, we can move policy mountains.


mama edge said...

I knew Vel Phillips back when she was the Secretary of State, and she was remarkable. I need to hear this story again and again -- I sometimes take no for a final answer instead of asking again. And again. Isn't that what nice girls are supposed to do?

jess wilson said...

i love this .. LOVE this!!!!

Tanya @ TeenAutism said...

That is a great quote! I will definitely keep it in mind for dealing with future setbacks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this.

Yes, our stories do have power and this is one I won't forget.