I woke up in a Norwegian youth hostel this morning, where a January-Term class I’m leading is staying this week. We are traveling through Scandinavia to study social models and think about our desired future.
If I was home, I’d be participating in the Women’s March on Washington today. It would be a start to four years of working toward a future that works for all people—despite the new regime. Instead, I write…
During our trip, we’ve visited family centers, youth centers, a prison, schools, youth organizations, and other organizations working for social change and justice. It’s been inspiring to learn with the students about how the Scandinavian countries think about these issues. I’ve noticed some key themes that I want to share here.
In Vejle, Denmark, one of our speakers emphasized repeatedly that the Danish model requires that all citizens contribute to society, as they are able. When citizens work, taxes increase. Lots of tax dollars allows Denmark to provide social services and care for those most vulnerable in society.
A downside of this, our speaker noted, is that when you hand off the care of, for example, your aging parent to the state, it results in loneliness and a lack of personal responsibility. There must be a balance.
Moving forward, we must strive to include as many people as possible in society—in meaningful work and activities. And we must care for our most vulnerable.
A Focus on Children and Families
Never have I seen such emphasis on children and youth in a society. The Scandinavian countries truly understand the notion of investing in the future. Policy decisions are evidence-based and involve long-term thinking.
In Sweden, all children 0–6 and their parents have access to community family centers, where they go for well child checkups, playgroups, and other services as needed. And of course, the Scandinavian countries offer generous parental leave—not out of the goodness of their heart, but because it’s good for business.
Moving forward, we much continue to support organizations such as MomsRising and protest when basic health services and public education for our children are threatened.
Human Rights at the Center
Human rights are at the core of the Nordic ideology. This is apparent in their prison system, which treats inmates with dignity and respect. Rather than continuing the punishment throughout the sentence, they believe that restricting freedom is punishment enough. The sentence time is focused on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. And their recidivism rate is much lower than in the United States.
While the Scandinavian countries have received many times more Syrian refugees than the United States, they have now started to close their borders. This is a sad time in the history of these countries as anti-immigration rhetoric is at an all-time high. Right-wing parties are growing, and in Norway the right-wing “Progress” Party is part of the ruling minority government. In the US, we have Trump.
Moving forward, we must be vigilant and oppose any legislation or action that violates basic human rights, including “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3)
Equality, Equality, Equality
One of my favorite things about Scandinavia is the focus on equality as an underlying value. While there are certainly improvements to be made (e.g. men still make more money than women for equal work), these countries have succeeded in creating a society that is more equal than ours.
Income equality is a key indicator of the health of a society. As of 2014, the United States was the third most unequal country among OECD countries. The Scandinavian countries were all among the ten most equal.
Moving forward, we must continue to fight for equality. Getting anything done at the federal level the next four years seems impossible, but that doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands. Let’s bring forth the evidence that equality matters and is good for all people.
Caring for the Planet
Our new president has been pretty clear on where he stands on climate change. This is perhaps one of the biggest concerns among people we’ve met during our tour of Scandinavia. The Scandinavian countries have been pioneers in caring for the planet.
Everything from recycling and composting to biking and taking public transportation is a way of life here. They have made the right choice the easy choice. In Norway, for example, electric car drivers have huge benefits, including free parking all over Oslo.
Moving forward, we must continue to promote planet-friendly practices where we live. Reduce, reuse, recycle, my friends. Start a Transition Streets group with your neighbors. We must leave fossil fuels in the ground, so divest, boycott, find alternative transportation, insulate your home, buy local, do whatever it takes to minimize your own dependence on these sources of energy.
A final theme running through our visits here in Scandinavia is collaboration. In Aarhus, Denmark, we learned about the Aarhus Model to prevent and combat violent extremism. This program relied on collaboration between the department for children and youth, social services, and local police.
At the family centers in Sweden, nurses, pedagogues, midwives, psychologists, and social workers collaborated to provide the best support for families. And many of the social change organizations we encountered relied on collaboration with other groups. There is strength in numbers and diversity of ideas and experiences.
We cannot move forward alone. Organizations who want to see positive social change must collaborate and compromise. Individuals who want to speak up against an uncertain future must come together to develop pragmatic solutions and strategies. And we must have fun as we change the world, or we’ll burn out.
How are you moving forward?