Water Doesn’t Flow Up


You are right, that the problem devolves into a political concern. However, it’s not simply a matter of “hierarchies,” but the way in which the struggle to overcome that polity emerges.

Complaining about the abuses of the system is not a sufficient advocacy, however meritorious the complaints. This list is not about organizing the fight to change the system, but it does engage the advocacies for that. Drs. Fox and Prilleltensy set up this project on the basis of a community organizing perspective. That’s clearly a start, and now the “Occupy” moves the dialogue around struggle forward.

What’s your advocacy? How do you think we should move from ‘complaint’ to ‘struggle’?

ABO “Andrew Behavior Object”

Dear Andrew:

“You are right” are my most favorite words in the entire universe. Unfortunately, you are wrong when you say complaining is not sufficient advocacy. It’s all about how you complain and I always stipulate that I complain effectively. Like everyone else, I will bellyache or bitch once or twice, but the third time an issue comes up, I take action.

Advocacy is “the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending,” or “a political process . . . which aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions . . .” I do not consider myself to be an advocate.

I am an activist. An activist is one who engages in “the practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals,” or a person who wants to “promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic or environmental change.”

To me, the difference between the two is that an advocate wants new rules; I, as an activist, simply want the existing rules to be enforced. I’ve never personally come up against a rule (regulation or law) that I thought needed to be changed, however, what I experience virtually on a daily basis are rules, regulations and laws that are not being enforced, to the great detriment of the citizens who are to be served.

My activism is filing formal complaints and effectively pushing them to resolution. It requires in-depth study, good reporting, good writing, and extraordinary skills and diligence in moving the complaint through the system.

  • The local bus company was running substandard paratransit affecting about five thousand people. After I filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Civil Rights (long after the filing, actually) the bus company had to spend half a million dollars on new buses and completely revamp their application process.
  • A no-bid quarter-million-dollar contract was let for dispatching Medicaid transportation, resulting in substandard service. I pushed a complaint from the local Dept. of Health up to the Office of the Medicaid Inspector General, which fined the dispatcher $80,000 and forced him to sign a Corporate Integrity Agreement.
  • The city would not fix its broken curb-cuts. I filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and got the job done.

Particularly in regard to matters psychiatric, I got the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP—the local psychiatric ER, which serves about eight thousand people a year) investigated—twice. I also got the inpatient psychiatric unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital investigated resulting, among other things, in the nursing supervisor being transferred out. At Community General Hospital, psychiatric patients were not allowed to make phone calls. The Mental Hygiene Legal Service, which has oversight on these matters, knew about it and did nothing to fix the problem—until I filed a complaint.

You say “it’s not simply a matter of ‘hierarchies’” but I think it is. (You also say “the struggle to overcome that polity emerges.” I have no idea what that means; I am a practical person, out to get the job done.) The hierarchy of government—and most other organizations—is a waterfall in which powerful people pass down directives on how things are to be done. No one ever asks the end-point user if it is being done. Water doesn’t flow up, and there is no feedback from the citizen/patient/transportation-user to the fellow at the top who gives the orders.

The executive director of the bus company said, “There was an executive order that [such and such] was to be done. I know because I’m the executive who gave the order.”

To which I replied, “I ride in the back of the bus and I’m here to tell you it isn’t being done.”

There is a hierarchy of power and in order to effect change you have to climb the hierarchy. The difference between me and most people is that when someone tells me “no,” I call that person’s boss. If your cause is just and your facts are documented, then you just keep climbing the hierarchy until you reach the man who (a) has the intelligence to understand the situation; (b) the moral wisdom to know it’s wrong; (c) the power to effect change and (c) the courage to stand against established practice.

Using this method I have, among other things, gained access to the man who directs a multi-billion-dollar government budget. I don’t call on him often because he’s got a lot of things to do, but every year or two I will run into something that is so outrageously wrong that I reach out to him and he responds.

The system does not have any feedback process built into it; there is no loop from the user of services to the director of services. I am an effective activist (i.e., complainer) because I create the loop. The educational system does not.

Syracuse University’s Maxwell School is the nation’s leading graduate school for public affairs. A cadre of their students was assigned to study the Medicaid transportation problem. They interviewed lots of people but their research did not include reaching out to a single one of the twenty-two thousand users of Medicaid transportation—and, upon graduating, every one of those students had a government job in Washington. We are teaching tomorrow’s power people that those who are governed are irrelevant to the process of governance.

Andrew, I don’t think “we should move from ‘complaint’ to ‘struggle’”; I think we should move from complaint to resolution.

And I think more people should get off their butts and file complaints. It’s called “being an activist.”

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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