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You Just Don’t Understand

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an

By Susan Paddock
March 22, 2016

Columnists write that many (most?) American citizens do not trust government. That, they write, is the genesis of the anger being displayed in the current presidential campaigns.

Another view might be that government “doesn’t understand us.” As someone who lives over 2,000 miles from Washington, D.C. and New York City, and used to live in the “flyover” Midwest, it’s easy to believe that leaders in those political and economic power centers don’t understand anyone who lives more than 500 miles to the west.

That was the basis of the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s. In some ways, this was reflected in the 2014 and 2016 protests by Cliven Bundy and his followers, and in state level efforts to change federal land control, use and disposal policy in the American West.

The complaint is heard at state and local levels as well. It was the basis of disputes between residents of northern Wisconsin and the state department of natural resources as to how the size of the deer herd was determined. It may be the basis of citizens’ efforts to bring officials’ attention to their concerns about racial discrimination in Ferguson, Missouri or Baltimore, Maryland; pollution in Flint, Michigan and on the Gulf Coast or homeowners’ attempts to receive government assistance following Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy.

head-674129_640The complaint that “you just don’t get me” says, “You don’t understand my point of view. You don’t understand what is happening to me.” It suggests a lack of empathy, sympathy or compassion for another person, group or community. It is a failure to appreciate another’s perspective or history. “You don’t understand, so your response is inadequate—or wrong. And I may become disappointed, frustrated or even angry.”

However, this goes both ways. It is a complaint by teachers who are criticized for students’ underperformance – teachers who work in crowded, multilingual classrooms. It’s repeated by good police officers who work every day with reduced resources and/or insufficient training, or by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officers rounding up wild horses.

It’s not possible to change the distance between Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, California to eliminate long-standing problems with pollution or to increase budgets for governmental activities. The solution, rather, is incremental and individual.

William Johnsen, referring to individual success, wrote, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” This is also true of organizational, community or governmental success. Rabbi Hillel recognized the importance of individuals’ actions when he wrote, “If I am only for myself, then what am I?”

That was the essence of rapper Killer Mike’s conversation on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Jan. 5, 2016. When asked how to respond to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, how to bridge the gap between black and white citizens, Killer Mike repeated what he tells students at white colleges:

“Get outside the … environment, find a child who is marginal or who is doing exceptional in school, who is a minority and doesn’t look like you – not of the same religion, not of the same background – and help that child matriculate into college. Help them by being a big brother or big sister. Help them by mentoring him. Don’t give them gifts. Don’t make yourself feel good by giving them a new pair of sneakers. Teach them the path you were taught to help them become a successful human being.”

Killer Mike’s advice can well be applied to other situations. Encourage those who disagree with official actions to learn more or become involved. Ride-alongs improve understanding of the police. Those who volunteer in classrooms, shadow school administrators or serve on committees appreciate the basis for school decisions.

Spending time with a BLM officer increases understanding of federal land decisions. Becoming acquainted with someone of another religion, with an immigrant or someone from another culture, or talking with people who work with the homeless, the mentally ill, or the addicted can increase understanding of others’ circumstances and an awareness of problems dealt with on a daily basis.

Killer Mike’s advice is echoed in the story of the starfish. A man on the beach challenged a young boy, who was throwing beached starfish back into the sea. “Don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish?  You can’t make a difference.” The boy replied, as he threw yet another starfish into the surf, “I made a difference to that one.”

You may not change opinions about all federal officials, all police officers, all schoolteachers and administrators or all people who differ with you. But you may understand at least one of those who differ, and may make a difference to them. They may make a difference to you.

When you work with those who disagree with your official actions, they will understand you better. The time spent may not change beliefs, but it surely will improve understanding—both yours and others. Understanding begins with each of us.

Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected].

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