Our priorities as a nation have to be shaken

I received this powerful letter from Kathie Olsen, a program officer with The Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation, after the shootings earlier this month at Umpqua Community College. Kathie is a writer and grandmother and occasional nonprofit executive. Her blog is at kathieolsen.com

Dear Friends:

Because I work for a foundation whose home is in Roseburg, I have received several lovely and heart-filled messages in response to the horror of the shootings last week.   I have felt the sincerity of thoughts and prayers, I have listened to the agonized expressions of frustration and anger, and they touch me deeply.  That said, they also make me very angry.  Our receptionist lost her son on that day.  There is no fixing that heartache.

People say, “I don’t know what to do.”  And I say, “Oh yes you do know what to do.  We all know what to do.”  To me this isn’t about gun control; that argument has polarized us and not moved us toward any real peace, and, besides, it isn’t always guns that inflict terror.  What I’m talking about is basic prevention, which comes from basic human services – those under-funded, over-tasked, programs that try to help unstable families, kids in trouble, the mentally ill.  If those services were easily and amply available, if the priorities of this country were on growing healthy and sane children, these tragedies could be averted.

I am thinking about the teacher with too many kids in her classes and one over-worked counselor available to a whole school.  That teacher sees a kid who is angry and lacking basic empathy, but she has little time to do other than make a quick note, certainly she doesn’t have time to do family counseling.  If the teacher refers the child to a counselor, and if the counselor has time to see the child, what can she do?  Even if Child Protective Services steps in, what are their options?  They don’t have enough workers to tend to more than the most severe cases, and even those cases have few solutions available: an over-burdened and under-funded foster care system?

I am thinking about the Mom who knows her kid is unhappy, deeply unhappy.   Or the neighbor-parent who doesn’t want their child to play with another child because they see violence there.  What can he do?

We need simple answers.  Easily accessible answers.  We need little cards that list fully-staffed  agencies who are prepared to help.  We need public service campaigns that give usable information.  And we need the big stuff:  We need mental health facilities that work.  We need family support services in every town.  We need child care centers with trained staffs to provide loving care to our kids.  We need a support web that keeps families from misery.  We need training for our first responders so they can deal with the mentally ill.

You know what we need as well, if not better, than I.

What we have to do with that knowledge is develop some passion, some anger, some hope, some ferocity sufficient to make us move and change.  You know the old saw – “if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”  Well… roll up your sleeves.  Stop whining about it.  Do everything you can.  Do it now.  Get strong and start where you are.

To my colleagues in the philanthropic community, I say this:  We are being asked to do the work of the Gods here.   I know that.  And we don’t have enough funding.  That said, we can shift our focus.  We can concentrate our energies.  We can really listen to those who are delivering service, and we can make it easier for them.  Multiple-year grants?  Yes.  Funding for think-tanks?  Yes.  More dollars going into grants for service and less into our own internal machinations?  Yes.  Demands for efficient and quality service?  Of course.

Cultural change isn’t going to come from the top down.  And it is cultural change that we need.  Our priorities as a nation have to be shaken.  Less war, more child care.  Less corporate privilege, better wages for the workers.  Less judgment, more support for parents.  Less incarceration, more education.

There will always be a sick person ready to do harm.  We can find them and stop them before they do.  We can do so without tromping on civil liberties.  We can do this in a humane and thoughtful way.  We know how.  We do.  We just have to do it.

That Thursday in Roseburg should  never – ever – be replicated.  Any where.  Any time.

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