Category

Inspiration

Stroke Work

I am a subpar swimmer. Growing up in the middle of the United States– far from an ocean of any kind– predisposed me to be more adept on solid ground than water. I never participated in a swim team and never spent significant time in the pool. That was the case until  a few years ago when I fell in love with the sport of triathlon. As a lifelong runner who developed an obsession with cycling, the addition of the third sport was a must. I’ll never forget the first day in the pool — gasping for air after a mere 25 yards — afraid that I was going to be the first fatality in the long history of the East Side YMCA. But, I made it, and I’m proud to say that I’ve done a few triathlons since– even completing a Ironman 70.3 (half ironman) event a couple years ago (for those unfamiliar that is a 1.2 mile swim in open water with a bunch of other people who are likely to kick you in the face under water). Fun times!

Despite this progress, I have never been fast. Despite my level of fitness, my heavy legs and absence of any form of form make me more prone to sink to the bottom than to glide forward. I know this. I have tried so many things to amend it with only incremental progress.

So now, I am once again in that crazy, life-sucking/life-exhilirating cycle called triathlon training. A few days ago, I awoke in the morning (or more accurately sometime north of 5 a.m.), dreading the early morning trudge to the pool– coming off a sad swim the week before, doubting myself— secretly wishing the person in charge would not show up to unlock the doors. No such luck.

Reluctantly, I made my way to the pool, jumped in and started my slow-mo version of a 400 meter freestyle warm up. Upon completion, I gazed up at the coach through my semi-fogged goggles, and she said the most shocking of things: “Your stroke looks pretty solid.”

You said what!? I had never heard that before. I had seldom felt that my stroke resembled anything close to being “solid” as grandmas and people twice my girth whizzed past me in the next lane.

But, there it was. “Your stroke looks pretty solid.”

I know that she could have been lying– or just trying to be nice– but despite my awareness of such a fact, that one statement affected my entire attitude and approach. I went on to have the best swim yet of this training series and felt positive as I left the pool and got on with my day.

Did this comment fix all the things that are wrong with my stroke and turn me into Michael Phelps? Of course not. But, it did change my outlook and it reminded me of how this simple concept might work in our approach to communities.

Mothers (and fathers even) all across the world have been known to implore their kids “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. This sage advice is designed to suppress excess criticism or at least to connect it with praise. We know from research that positive reinforcement has a bigger impact on modifying behavior than does punishment. An encouraging word goes a long way. If I were being told– as other coaches have done– to “fix this” and “don’t do that”– it can become overwhelming and perpetuate a self-belief that inhibits performance and desire to push through. But, emphasizing what was good about my stroke changed my entire outlook.

The same is true for communities.

One of the biggest mistakes that is made by well-intentioned people looking to create change in communities is to begin with identifying what is wrong. These are often the stimuli that draw us into the fray– we see data or hear stories of malnourished kids, unsafe living conditions or environmental injustice, and we are drawn to act, to unleash our fury on the problem to fix the community. Face it. Sometimes those things are glaring– staring us in the face like a large graffitied-wall. This approach is even embedded in our processes that require “needs assessments” and the incentives to make things sound bad are strong—making it more likely that you’ll succeed in winning a grant or recruiting volunteers.

The reality is that, much like my swim stroke (debatably), most communities are “pretty solid”. Sure there are disparities and visible challenges–but most often there is also incredible resilience and dynamic resources that are already at play. An approach which begins with “what is wrong” at best risks missing out on these opportunities and at worst layers another level of damage on a community that needs someone to see what and build on what is good.

Fortunately, there are approaches that flip the script and begin with “what is right” with a community, rather than what is wrong. These “asset-based” approaches have been defined by my colleagues at the Community Tool Box define as “anything that can be used to improve the quality of community life”.  As with many topics, they have a helpful guide for folks who want to learn more about asset-based approaches. I highly recommend it.

Another place to learn about this is explore the literature on “Asset-Based Community Development”. According to organizations like the ABCD Institute at Depaul University, asset-based community development (ABCD) is “a large and growing movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development.” They describe five key assets: individual residents, informal associations (e.g. clubs, institutions like government agencies or businesses), physical assets (e.g. parks or buildings) and connections between these other entities.The basic argument of these approaches is that in order to create community change, one should take into account the resources already at play in the community of focus and use them as building blocks to address the needed change.

While this is essential, there are two caveats that should be mentioned. First, these resources should not be considered solely as tools to remedy a problem, but as remarkable accomplishments in their own right. True asset appreciation must be divorced from the deficit conversations–otherwise they may been seen as a means to an end and not appreciated.

The second issue is that asset-based approaches should also be participatory. There is always a tension between an outside-in, helicopter approach in which well-meaning individuals or organizations bring their ideas and resources in from afar to fix the situation– which may or may not incorporate the assets involved. A better approach would be to identify those assets and work collaboratively with them to create bottom-up change.

These approaches have been outlined in methodologies like community-based participant action research. In these approaches, local knowledge is utilized and — importantly– power is shared between the external resources and the internal ones. An ideal situation is one in which the power to make decisions about direction are shared equally between the organizations and the individual resources within the community, but this is seldom put into practice for a number of reasons including the demands of funders, the desire of people with power to keep it and the logistics of engaging real people and not just those who are paid a salary to work in a place. However, these are obstacles that can be overcome.

When combined with a participatory framework, asset-based approaches have the capacity to be efficient, to maximize impact and to generate sustainable empowerment. Just as my mindset and motivation changed with a simple affirmation that I wasn’t seen as a horrible, slow swimmer– we can do the same by affirming the joy, wisdom, resilience and innovation that already exists in all places– even those with some significant challenges.

Like this article? Hate it? Leave a comment, idea or question below.

 

 

Somebody’s Hurting My People

Growing up an Evangelical Christian in the Midwestern United States, I had my share of lessons from the Christian Bible. I even memorized entire books of the New Testament word for word for Bible Quizzing competitions as a teenager. As I write today, one question from those myriad stories and words of wisdom comes to mind. This question is found in the book of Luke, chapter 10 in which an “expert in the law” asked Jesus — “who is my neighbor?” in response to the exhortation to “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

This fundamental question elicited a famous response — typically — in the form of a story. No doubt you’ve heard the tale of the outcast who went out of his way to help a man wounded on the road — something that more pious, educated, socially-acceptable people refused to do. The story of this “Good Samaritan” is one of the most recognizable religious parables in the world.

And even now–perhaps especially now– the question posed in that narrative remains one of the most profound — Who indeed is my neighbor that I am exhorted to “love as I love myself”?

Humankind has a long history of narrowly-defining those deserving of neighborly behavior. While there are functional reasons to maintain some limits on one’s circle of concern, the blind affiliation with an ethnic group, socioeconomic status, a political party or religious preference at the exclusion of those who look, live, act and believe differently than ourselves is at best limiting and at worst leads us to the darkest of places.

We are in a dark place right now. Polarization and segregation threaten to exacerbate tensions and expand inequities. Nowhere is this more true than between those who have financial means and those who do not. Despite generating more and more wealth over the last decades — the benefits of that growth have disproportionately gone to those at the top — and left behind many at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. As shown in the chart below, income inequality, as indicated by the GINI Ratio, has skyrocketed. The impacts of this decision extend well beyond the size of one’s bank account. From example, massive disparities in life expectancy exist from one subway stop to the next. Health, wealth and well-being are not distributed to all people, leaving too many people still hurting.  These are not just the facts of “the way it is”. These are choices that we make as a people, choices that define who our neighbor is — and who it is not.

Gini
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence to explicate this challenge can be found in the ALICE report from my colleagues at the United Way. I have had the privilege of serving on the New Jersey Research Advisory Committee for this group and have watched it expand from a county to one state to a nation. ALICE is an acronym for Asset-limited, Income-constrained and Employed. This is an economic measure of individuals and households that work but find it difficult to make ends meet. As I wrote in an op-ed published last year, we must begin to think about ALICE as a national priority. The costs are too high not to.

The latest ALICE data–released yesterday— paint a sobering picture. Forty-three percent of U.S. households have annual household incomes that fall below the ALICE threshold (meaning they don’t have high enough household income to pay for basic survival costs like food, housing, transportation, healthcare and childcare) – that’s almost 35 million households nationwide. While much has been written about the creation of jobs and low unemployment, the data show that a whopping two-thirds of U.S. jobs pay less than $20 per hour, a wage that is difficult to live on in many places. Of course, the number of ALICE and the cost of living vary from place to place — on a state level between North Dakota (32%) and California (49%) — and from one town or census tract to the next. These geographic variations in wealth correlate closely with the disparities in health (e.g. life expectancy as cited above, chronic disease, etc.), adding evidence to the growing body of literature on the social factors that produce or inhibit health and well-being.

This week another national movement has re-emerged that seeks to address this very issue. Based on the “Poor People’s Campaign” launched by Martin Luther King, Jr.– this call for “Moral Revival” is launching to
“challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality”
While the discussion of  morality is not a territory that I like to wander into frequently on this blog, the leaders of this movement has established  “moral analysis” as a key first principal–and I would agree– this challenge is deeply a moral one– one that is grounded in the question of “Who is our neighbor?”

One of the anthems of this movement sums it up best —  Somebody’s Hurting my Brother . The simple, yet irresistible lyrics say:
Somebody’s hurting my brother and it’s gone on far too long. And I won’t be silent anymore.
“Brother” is replaced by “sister”, “cousin”, etc.– maybe even “neighbor” in subsequent verses. This anthem answers the Samaritan question — particularly sung by someone who benefits from White privilege, education and enough money to meet my needs. My brother who is being hurt is defined broadly, inclusively — and I cannot– will not– be silent anymore.

 If we are to create a more healthy, happy and equitable world, we must begin first by defining who our neighbor is as broadly as possible. Is the recent immigrant my neighbor? What about the family that lives in the old house down the street? Would my neighbor include people who worship differently? What about those who vote differently? My answer to each of these questions would be “yes”.

Which brings us back to the song. If all of these people are my neighbors, than I am compelled do the hard work of noticing, caring and acting when someone is hurting that neighbor, brother, or sister. How is it acceptable that my neighbor lives in fear of deportation every time there is a knock on their door? How is it acceptable that my neighbor skips meals to make the groceries last? How is it acceptable that my neighbor works multiple jobs just to be faced with impossible choices like feeding their family a healthy meal or getting needed medical care?

It is not. And as the song implores us— we can’t be silent anymore.

I will be following and participating with the Poor People’s Campaign and continue to support the ALICE Project, and I encourage you to do the same. Follow along on social media, join a rally, engage in civic disobedience, and/or think about how your vote either makes this problem better or worse. Dig into the ALICE data at www.unitedwayalice.org and learn more about what is being done to address these issues.

Most importantly, consider your perspective — are you the pious souls that ignore the plight of your neighbor from the comfort of your suburban home or ideological veil? Or, are you willing to take up the megaphone and end your silence because somebody is hurting your brother and it’s gone on far too long.

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and ideas as we dialogue about how to build the beloved community.

Brewing Collaboration

Our confidence was pretty high. My friend and I were ready to unleash our first home brew on the world. A room full of dinner guests sat around the table as we pulled out our first bottle. Several weeks before we had bought a kit from a local lawn store and followed the instructions as closely as we could— and here we were, prepared to enjoy the fruits of our labor. What could go wrong?

It was a disaster. As I popped the top off that first bottle, an orange, foamy substance exploded from the lip and on to the floor. Once the carbonation had subsided and the floor was cleaned a taste of the remnants told us that this batch– in which we had invested time and money and energy– was simply undrinkable. We thought it might make good compost for the garden. It killed the plants.

We were homebrew failures.

Years went by before I would try again. This time I ventured out solo, and my results were mixed, but mostly I was left with this “meh” feeling of spending hours alone over a boiling pot. It wasn’t much of fun.

So, with these experiences behind me, I made one more attempt, to pull together a small group of guys to brew. We met to purchase supplies, for a main brew day and for a bottling session– and then came the big moment, when we’d open up and (hopefully) enjoy the fruits of our labor.

It was a smashing success. The New England IPA and Belgian Trippel that we produced were not just drinkable — and non-volatile– but really enjoyable! We had done it! And not only did we now have 60 plus bottles of successful homebrew to share– we had built relationships via common experience.

I think brewing beer is a lot like the work we do as community agents of change. It is a mysterious process– most of which occurs without human intervention, hidden under the lid of a bucket or concealed in a bottle. There is so much that is out of control and there is a whole lot of waiting that has to go on. Fresh off the taste of this successful experience, I wanted to share four lessons from home brewing that I believe can we applied to our work in the community

  1. We’re Better Together: When I was brewing alone in my kitchen, it was relaxing– and I don’t mind that sort of internal retreat that solo brewing might afford, but it wasn’t as effective and fun as doing it in a group. In a group, we were able to troubleshoot together. There were times where the directions we had were simply not clear. We had to discuss and make a communal decision about what we wanted to do. There were times where we weren’t sure how to do something. By sharing resources and ideas, we were able to come to the best decision. And the by-product of this was not just spent grains and oxygen bubbles– it was community, forged out of common experience. The same is true for the work we do in the community. While this may seem obvious, too many individuals or organizations go it alone– laboring in solitude, and the primary and secondary results simply aren’t as good.
  2. Ingredients Matter: This is an obvious statement to those who engage in any type of culinary pursuit, but it is an important lesson for those thinking about creating community change. Our friendly salesman at Cask and Kettle Home Brew made a great case for us to invest in Cryo Hops. Not only do these super-science-induced hops produce better taste, you have to use less of them than the normal hop variety. In our community work, we’re often coming with a set of ingredients that we have– and a common refrain in circles is “If we only”— had that grant, knew this person, got this funding, etc. Building the right ingredient mix is essential to making a batch that matters. Sometimes that means bringing a new stakeholder to the table. Sometimes that involves thinking outside the bounds of our normal relationships and resources, but whatever it is we have to put the right stuff in to get the right product.
  3. Fear Contaminants: In beer brewing the biggest enemy is bacteria. Every piece of equipment that touches the beer must be meticulously sanitized– otherwise you end up with the foaming orange stuff from my first batch. The same is true for community development. There are so many things that can inhibit the work– mistrust can seep its way in between potential collaborators, often undetectable at first until it blows up down the road. Small, indiscernible things can create disengagement, especially when people come to the table for the first time. Just like in brewing, we have to be extremely mindful of the potential contaminants that may affect our collaboration. This can be challenging because we always like to stay positive. We like to talk about the potential of this shared venture, which is important… but we should also stay really focused on things that could potentially go wrong so that we can do our best to avoid them.
  4. Embrace the mystery, magic and waiting:  Despite all our best efforts, in the end we don’t really know how something is going to turn out. That is the beauty of craft brewing, really. Because it is a process that is creative and collaborative– as opposed to standardized and systematic– it creates beautiful variation. And all of this takes something we don’t like talking about– time. In the “same-day-delivery” world that we are in today, the idea of aging things is a lost art. But there is no way around that in beer brewing, nor in collaboration for community change. Relationships, even between two individuals, take time and effort to form into meaningful collaborations. This becomes all the more complicated when talking about organizations or multiple stakeholders. And these relationships always occur in a context…there is history, there are cultural and social norms– that either facilitate or slow down the process. But, herein lies that most critical lesson from brewing– sometimes you just have to pitch in the yeast and let it do its work. Start the process with the right people, the right ingredients and the right intentions– and who knows something magical and tasty might happen.

The Beloved Community

As I drove across Vancouver Island today, I was listening to the radio and hearing stories about the last days of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the 50th anniversary of this death– a milestone that gives us opportunity to pause and reflect on the message behind the man — a message so challenging to the status quo that his life was repeatedly threatened and eventually taken away from us.

I surmise that if you asked most Americans who MLK was, they would identify him as a civil rights leader who advocated for equal rights for Black americans. While certainly this definition is true, it is incomplete because King’s work was not just about lunch counters and water fountains– it was about power and injustice.

No doctrine of King’s illustrates this most poignantly than his vision of “the beloved community”. First coined by Josiah Royce, the founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, this term was popularized (although not sufficiently) by King. For those unfamiliar with the term, the King Center defines the beloved community as:

“a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries , instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”

Sign me up! This vision gives us a powerful picture of what we should strive for and aligns closely with what many other prophets and teachers have described, including Jesus’ notion of the “kingdom of god”.

This radical vision cannot be addressed without thinking about King’s triple evils: poverty, racism, and militarism. Much has been written about King’s legacy on racism and areas of progress and lack thereof. In these past years alone we have seen plenty of evidence that this exists– from police shootings of unarmed black men to white supremacist rallies.

We also must not forget the other two evils. Where do we stand there? In 2017, the gap between the rich and the poor hit one of its highest levels ever in the United States— and the policies of the current administration have further favored those who possess wealth and influence. We remain entrenched in a militaristic mindset– fueled by increased vitriol between nations and a general movement toward nationalism that threatens the progress of the previous decades. King would remind us to call these things what they are– evils– and to recognize them as the ultimate threats to building a beloved community.

And so the challenge is before us. What kind of community will we create? While few of us have broad ability to influence whether we keep troops in Syria or pass tax policies that entrench individuals in poverty–we all have the opportunity to contribute in more localized contexts.

Think about this?

Poverty. Does it exist in your neighborhood or town? Are people hungry or homeless? Why? Do we accept these disparities as a fact of life? Do we give a pittance to charity to show our sympathy? Or do we act compassionately to eradicate what is unacceptable based on the standards of human decency. King called a great nation a “compassionate nation”.

Racism: Are there people in your community who are excluded from the mainstream? These slights may not be overt discrimination, but simply a lack of connectedness. How can you break down the barriers? — by inviting the immigrant family to your next cookouts? by taking time to get to know the new person on the street? These little things can make a big difference.

Militarism: How do we settle our differences? What about your local police force? Are they engaged in community policing or embracing militaristic methods? Do the words we use on social media or at the football game reflect the beloved community or a militaristic approach to the world?

These are simple, little actions that we can all take action on. Of course, we must also use the power of our voices, our votes, and our purchasing to fuel larger, more systemic change. By dogged persistence and unwavering diligence, we can continue the progress, honoring Dr. King’s legacy and moving us closer to the beloved community of which he inspired us to dream.

Building Better Communities: A Blog Introduction

I will never forget that trailer park in rural Virginia. It was there, where as a home-based counselor to children and adolescents, I received referral after referral–moving from trailer to trailer, family to family trying to help solve the challenges that they were facing– academic underachievement, mental illness, substance abuse, etc.  Over time, I realized that these problems were eerily similar from one family to the next. I was on a revolving wheel of dealing with the same issues in a different living room, treating each situation as unique. It was there that I realized the power of community– and the limitation and inefficiency of treating community causes with individual interventions.

Communities Affect Us

We know from decades of research and our own experiences–that the characteristics and structures of the places and people with which we interact have a profound effect on the individuals nested within these structures. We are inescapably shaped by the communities in which we participate willingly or unwillingly. Ecological systems theory describes this most eloquently, placing the individual in the innermost of a set of concentric circles from which they cannot be separated. We are part of communities whether we like it or not– and the impacts are most profound.

Take for example recent studies on variation in life expectancy based upon the zip code in which one resides. Map after map show big differences – or disparities– in how long someone is expected to live based simply on where they live. Often the difference from one side of town to another– or one subway stop to the next –can be seven or more years of life expectancy. These data are the end result of a series of effects on physical and mental well-being that are correlated with characteristics, not solely of individuals, but of the community context.

Of course, communities are not just geographical, but also form around social context, mutual interests and shared experience. Communities can be physical or virtual– they can be united around any of a million things from Bocce to Bayesian Equations, from a neighborhood association to a group of immigrant advocates. Regardless the type, we know that individuals need community– and that the communities you associate with have an effect on your individual health and well-being. Three decades ago, McMillan and Chavis defined sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”

So, why do we talk so much about individuals?

Countless volumes have been written about individual functioning. There are entire sections of book stores entitled “Self-Help”. In fact, a search for “self-help books” returns over one million hits on Amazon.com. We have gurus of all types and backgrounds– telling us how to be more mindful, how to lose weight, how to make more money. These life hacks range in value, but many produce personal returns in efficiency, productivity and well-being. Part of this obsession is our “rugged American (or Western) individualism” — it’s the critical component to the fundamental attribution error– in which we consistently blame the individual– and ignore the community context.
Our focus on individuals leads to a oversimplification, a polarization that is seen in our country today. It leads us to be incapable of taking the perspective of the other, of engaging in dialogue of substance as opposed to debates of repeating talking points. It pushes us to invest resources downstream in treatment, in individualized education, in psychotherapy— that at worst ignores and at best presents a naive concept on the role of community.

The Community As the Unit of Intervention

Communities are living organisms and individuals are the cells. The symbiotic relationship between the two is necessary. We do need to think about individuals inside out, acknowledging the contexts that impact them. This is essential for the doctor or the teacher and has been a key lesson in medicine and education over the past years– that we must acknowledge the context in which the student does homework or the patients tries to manage their diabetes. Increasingly, these professions are beginning to address the whole person, wrapping around supports and building partnerships to address needs that exist beyond the domain of the initial intervention — e.g. helping food insecure patients get to the food pantry or assisting low-income families in accessing the internet so their kids can do their homework. These interventions are absolutely critical.
But, there is another type intervention that begins in the community and makes the community its focal point. These interventions focus on the community as the primary unit of analysis, acknowledging that the changes within the community can have a dramatic and sustainable impact on the individuals associated with the community. It is an outside in strategy that is wholly different, but complimentary to the individual-out approach.
We need to talk more loudly about  principles and practices that help communities thrive. An Amazon search for “community help” (in contrast to the ubiquity of “self-help” resources cited above) reveal only profiles of individuals– law enforcement, fire fighters. While there is a robust literature out there on the power of context– it has not gone mainstream– and this limits our ability to be successful. There is so much research around this– from the characterics of neighborhood segregation to specific elements on what makes collaboration successful. Since our communities are key–to our health as individuals, to our flourishing as a group, nation, world, we need to put more effort and attention to thinking about what works to make our communities better— to highlighting the stories of who is doing it right, to translating the research to the masses and to building energy around how we shape the places and settings that are so critical for our individual and collective success.’

We do know, from myriad stories of heroism, leadership and innovation–that individuals can shape the communities in which they intersect, by their own personal behaviors, through their leadership and more. I call these people “Community Change Agents”. They are our champions. But, often their stories don’t get told widely or loudly enough. Often the lessons that they have learned, their successes and failures don’t see the light of day.

Launching this Blog
This space is now dedicated to sharing ideas and stories, distilling research and best practices and inspiring all of us to become agents of change in our communities. I will be curating the best ideas, the strongest research and the most inspiring stories and share them in this space. If you are a Community Change Agent (or want to become one), I hope you will follow along and add your comments, ideas, and stories to these posts. This is difficult work, so we all need to help one another. Too many great ideas or inspiring stories get lost in the boundaries of neighborhoods or limited networks. Too many research results get sequestered inside peer-reviewed publications at $40 per article– and written for an academic audience– not for those of us who are dedicated to making change. I hope that you’ll find this space a resource to aid you in that journey and look forward to interacting with all of you along the way.