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Children's Voice Article, January/February 2003

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

Like many of you reading this piece, I spent the holidays with friends and family members who gather far too infrequently--including plenty of time with my children, who are heading back to college for their winter terms. For the next few months, we'll communicate through short phone calls and e-mails, exchanging brief notes on our daily activities. It's far different and less fulfilling than the leisurely pace of the many talks we've had during meals and long walks over the last few weeks, but it does provide a "convenient" way for us to stay connected at some minimal level, given our busy, unpredictable schedules.

Yet the more I find myself relying on modern modes of communication such as e-mail and cell phones, the more I contemplate the changing nature of communication, and the more I appreciate how people kept in touch with one another 30, 50, or even 100 years ago. I recently saw the film Possession, and I was quickly pulled into the story of a pair of researchers combing through the hundred-year-old letters of an English writer-poet and his suspected lover to determine if an affair had taken place between them.

As the details and emotional content of every letter came alive onscreen, I realized that it has been ages since I sat down with pen and paper and invested the time and thoughtfulness required to write such a letter. Only going back to the passing of my mother can I remember receiving letters of this depth, when friends and colleagues shared wonderful expressions of sympathy and personal experiences in helping to console me.

It made me wonder if we lose more than we gain through the "convenience" and expediency of electronic communication--not just when communicating with loved ones, but with coworkers, constituents, and the general public about the children and families we serve. The instant message mentality that comes with electronic communication deprives us too frequently of the depth of communication we need in our personal and professional lives.

Whether you're reading this column in Children's Voice or viewing it online, you're no doubt aware that the League communicates in many different ways. Our government affairs and policy experts use e-mail to inform our constituents about pending legislation and budget decisions in Congress. Our website is constantly updated to include current information about upcoming conferences and ongoing program initiatives. Our journal and newsletters include research results and feature articles that take a closer look at important child welfare issues. Our consultants often spend several days onsite with many agencies, reviewing their policies and procedures and informing their practice. And I find myself authoring op-ed columns, appearing on radio and television, and delivering speeches to conferences around the country.

We use these multiple levels of communication to target a variety of audiences and to accomplish varied goals, but is one approach better than the others? Does the public remember a lengthy column about the need for stronger child protection services or the complexities of mental health issues facing our young people, or do they cling to buzzwords like lost generation and child death, which lock in an entire concept, but one that's overly simplified?

Do we remember the complicated political positions of Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy, or do we simply cling to the stirring words of their speeches? Is it a mistake to cling to those words if we don't also understand, through deeper exploration, the underlying messages?

This is where I believe we are failing. In the face of today's constant media bombardment, we all struggle to process the incredible amount of information presented to us each day. Ever since the events of September 11 brought about an insatiable need for facts concerning that tragedy, most cable news stations run so-called crawls along the bottom of our television screens--while a reporter discusses one story, we read the details of a second, and see images of yet a third. These instant messages give us instant gratification, but fast communication is like fast food--it meets the immediate need, but it doesn't nourish us.

Perhaps that's the defining characteristic of a meaningful message or series of messages--not their length or the format in which they're presented, but the emotional and sustained impact they carry. To accomplish this, we need to provide messages at different levels of depth and in a variety of settings. Whether it's an e-mail or brief note sent to a colleague or constituent, or a detailed summary of the status of children in this country, conveyed through a document, op-ed, or town hall meeting, the most effective, memorable communication arouses an emotional response and plants the seed for further action--and ultimately, change.

Our greatest success may very well come when we identify a balanced communication strategy that forges a connection with the person on the other end of the words, whether they are spoken, written on paper, or delivered to a computer across the country. It will be a message that brings to life the plight of millions of vulnerable, hurting children in this country--and it will be a message that is understood and moving in its impact. It is a message we must deliver in a powerful, uncompromising manner if we are going to make children the national priority they deserve to become.

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