Date Archives

March 2018

Measuring Success in Social Movements

On Saturday, I joined the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who joined with the student-led demonstration entitled March for Our Lives. This powerful action was inspired by the bravery of students emerging from the most recent tragic school shooting in the U.S.– at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While the purpose of this march was focused on reducing gun violence, the focus of this article is to explore the concept of “success” in relation to these social movements.

There is no doubt that we have once again entered into an era in which social movements are beginning to rise. Spurred by the election of Donald J. Trump and the prevalence of social media tools to organize activities, more people have engaged in protest movements over the past. We have seen the rise of the Women’s March, the March for Sciences and dozens of marches and vigils after challenges like the Charlottesville white supremacist rally or the Administration’s actions regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) changes. These build on the longer standing movements like Black Lives Matter.

So, we have seen increased activity and increased media attention toward these movements. On its face, this is a positive increase in engagement in a populace that has been chronically disengaged, but there are two questions that we must consider: 1) Will they create any change that resembles what is desired? and 2) Will this be a sustainable force of just a moment in time?

bWill these social movements create any change that resembles what they desire?b

This is an extremely difficult question to answer for a number of reasons. Social changes take time and often cannot be traced to a single action or activity. Often the change that is sought it effusive and wrapped in complexities that may or may not be fully grasped by the protesters. Herein lies one of the most fundamental issues: Sometimes the goal of the protest is not exactly clear. Large marches like the Women’s March form from a coalition of a number of groups– each with slightly different agendas. While this ersity of perspectives is a strength, it can also threaten to cloud the core message and activities around the event.

So, for those who are looking to organize or participate in a social movement, I’d offer a simple framework to think about, one which we have used countless times in evaluating programs and interventions. This is based on the principles of Results-Based Accountability, which I find to be a very helpful tool in organizing collective thinking and measurement around activities. Read more about RBAa href=”https:clearimpact.comresults-based-accountability” herea.

1. Ask yourselves, “What is the result that we want to see in the world?”

This is an area where most of these movements get it right. It’s somewhat easy to imagine a world with less gun violence, equal rights for women or no shooting of unarmed black men. When worded right, these statements provide a galvanizing and clarifying starting place for any movement. At best, this call to action forms the common agenda that brings ergent participants to the table. Take, for example, the stated mission from March for Our Lives
blockquote
Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school. We cannot allow one more teacher to make a choice to jump in front of an assault rifle to save the lives of students. We cannot allow one more family to wait for a call or text that never comes. Our children and teachers are dying. We must make it our top priority to save these lives.blockquote
This statement could not be clearer. It galvinizes support around something that almost everyone can agree on. Even better, the organizers went further to identify specific actions they hoped to achieve including the establishment of background checks and banning of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. These are clear intermediate measures that can inspire action.

2. Identify indicators that tell the story

While data are not always possible, it is essential to have an understanding of what the baseline is. “Women are paid on average less than men” There were a href=”https:www.massshootingtracker.orgdata”427 mass shootingsa in the U.S. last year up from 339 in 2013. These trends give us a picture of where we currently stand and, importantly, where we are headed. Are the numbers increasing? Is there progress, but it is moving slowly?

3. Once we have the indicators, we have to ask ourselves a simple question: What will work to “turn the curve” on these indicators?

This language is really essential because we are not always able to ameliorate a problem completely. We won’t always see statistically significant drops or increases in a short term, but we can sometimes slow the growth rate, change the trend. That is significant progress. The “what works” question spurs us to draw on other movements from the past. How were they successful? Where did they fall short? Here is where we define the action that will be taken, noting that this is an iterative and evolving process.

Identifying what will work is part of developing a theory of change for the movement that clearly defines what we expect to happen as a result of our activities. Is our theory of change by having a bunch of folks show up at a place and time will create that change? Is it the hope that it will create media attention that changes public opinion? Or are there specific actions that we hope to inspire– e.g. to have all participants call their congressperson

4. Finally, we need to talk about performance. If we know what we want to do, how do we set in place the measures that will show that we were successful? Again, using the RBA format, we can ask ourselves three basic questions

How much did we do?

This is a domain in which most social movements excel. We count up how many people attended, how many social media shares, number of articles generated, etc. These are all good measures and indicate our chances for success. You can’t after all have much of a social movement with three people. But, it is important to remember that this is not the end game. We must also ask:

How well did we do it?

Was the movement well-organized? Did people have a positive experience? Did it garner the attention that you wanted it to? These are questions that we must ask because they teach us about how the process went and help us learn for the future. We finally have to ask the most important question

Is anyone better off?

This question should logically relate directly to one of the indicators of success identified in step 2 above. If it does not, we need to go back to t he drawing board and adjust our intervention. Let’s say, for example, that our goal is to inspire folks to reach out to their elected representatives in Washington DC– believing that this will help drive legislation on gun control. Great! So, our “better off” measure in this event would be the number of people and the percent of attendees who took that action. The percent is the most important thing because it tells us how efficient our intervention was. If 1,000 people show up and 1 does the desired action– then we weren’t very effective in how we communicated and inspired work– something to learn from and go back to the drawing board. But, if 1,000 people show up and 900 did it, that’s great— our goal then may be to try to replicate this with 10,000 people.

There you have it. Note that this process is designed to evolve over time. It isn’t set it and forget it. At each opportunity, movement leadership should look at the performance data and revise the answers to the question about “what works?” This should be shared widely, not only within the movement, but with others. We need to learn from each others successes and, more importantly, our failures– and understanding the process elements is essential. So, I encourage movement leaders to disseminate their results and deep descriptions of their process. Be transparent and ready to share your lessons with others as we all work to build a better world.

There you have it. Four simple steps to help evaluate the success of social movements.

Questions? Other ideas? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Geographic Social Networks and Surviving the Storm

It began with the zip and flash of the computer powering off. A Nor’easter (or Bomb Cyclone) was making its way up the East Coast and powerful winds were knocking down power lines and poles across the region. What we hoped would be a brief outage turned into multiple hours and as the sun set an entire neighborhood was left in the dark.
And that’s when the magic happened. A network of neighbors began texting one another, checking in to see what assistance might be needed. In the hours that followed, these neighbor-friends found themselves in basements bailing water, troubleshooting downed generators and shoveling driveways not their own.
This community of geographically-situated people (my neighborhood) had the capacity to adapt to a challenging stressor like a power outage based, in part, on the network of social relationships that had been built over time.
Unfortunately, there are many neighborhoods in which this capacity does not exist.

Becoming Impotent

 Since Robert Putnam popularized the term “social capital” with his broad examination of declines in American civic life, we have continued to see societal changes that inhibit the capacity of geographic social connectedness. These barriers include suburban backyards, long commutes driving alone and the ubiquitous smart phone (Putnam blamed the rise of television for much of the decline in social capital over the years– now, we have these televisions in our pockets!). A ton of research has been done to demonstrate this trend, so I’ll just highlight three quick data points here.
  • According to the 2018 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, 30% of Americans commute more than 30 minutes alone each way to work, with 236 US counties in which this is more than 50% of the population
  • In the 2016 General Social Survey, 32% of people reported that they would never spend a social evening with their neighbors.
  • In the Less in Common survey, data show that only 30% of people today say that “most people can be trusted” compared to about 50% in 1970

While this may make us sad from a sense of loss of social connectedness, it has profound impacts on our ability to thrive as a people.

In his 1838 volume, “Democracy in America”, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the necessity of civic associations in American life. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small”. He goes on to contrast the democracy of America with the “aristocratic” societies of Europe at the time.
“In aristocratic societies men have no need to unite to act because they are kept very much together. Each wealthy and powerful citizen in them forms as it were the head of a permanent and obligatory association that is composed of all those he holds in dependence to him, whom he makes cooperate in the execution of his designs. In democratic peoples, on the contrary, all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence (emphasis mine) if they do not learn to aid each other freely.”
These geographic social connections it turns out are essential tools for a potent and effective response to daily functioning and a critical resource when things go wrong.
Based on a study that found that 46% of people expected to rely on people in their neighborhoods within 72 hours of a disaster (while that is a significant number, it does indicate that more than half of individuals would not expect to rely on their neighbors–indeed one-third of them don’t even know their neighbors), the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) build a “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” approach to improve emergency response by enhancing geographic social relationships. In developing the National Preparedness Goal,
the Department of Homeland Security defined social connectedness as the “capacity of the community to engage and employ formal and informal social networks to build the overall resilience of the community”. The simple goal is to create “a secure and resilient nation with the capabilities required across the whole community to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk”
It’s all about how resilient we are– not just as individuals, but as a community.

Community Resilience and the Power of Weak Ties

The RAND Corporation has defined this community resilience as “a measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations”. In a systematic literature review, Patel and colleagues identified three type of definitions of community resilience. Some definitions emphasize process e.g. Norris et al.’s definition  as a “process linking a set of networked adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation in constituent populations after a disturbance”. Other definitions focus more of a set of attributes or abilities in a community (e.g. social support network structures) or an outcome focus resorting to the absence of adverse adaptation– in other words, nothing went too horribly.
Despite which viewpoint is taken from a definitional perspective, the emphasis here is on the creation of capacity. RAND identified three different types: 1) absorption capacity (How big of a stressor can the community resist and maintain the same level of function?), 2) adaptive capacity (How adept is the system at adapting to stressors while still functioning?) and 3) restorative capacity (How quickly can the system get back to normal after a shock?). While there are a number of attributes that contribute to the creation of this capacity (certainly socioeconomic factors play a tremendous role for example), the quality of geographic social networks is key in determining how much we can take and keep going, or how quickly we can rebound.
So, knowing your neighbors may be an attribute that promotes community resilience, but what is special about those relationships? To answer this, I’ll briefly return to social capital theory in which much has been discussed about strong versus weak ties. Strong ties are closely associated with bonding social capital. They involve shared experiences, mutual affiliation and identification and what most of us would describe as friendship. While it is certainly nice to have those type of relationships in a neighborhood where you might attend dinner parties together or go on outings, that may not be feasible or desirable for everyone. After all, strong ties take time, investment and emotional capacity–and we only have so much of that to spread around.
But, it is the second type of tie — the weak tie– that may hold the most promise. Weak ties are associated with bridging social capital. We aren’t best buddies, but we have access to that person or group as a resource when needed. Weak ties take little time and energy to maintain, but can be especially effective in connecting to another set of resources. Imagine that you have a weak tie with your neighbor on one side of your property who has a connection into a good plumber. By having this tie, you now have access to a network that you may not have had without it. And neighborhoods are great places to form weak ties.

Tools to Build Your Community Resilience

So, how do you get started? You can (and probably should) march down your block and introduce yourself (maybe with cookies!). Beyond that, there are so many ideas and opportunities. Watch this space on a regular basis for ideas, stories and research on how to promote community well-being and resilience.
Here a couple awesome tools that you can use to get you started:
1. Digest and share a toolkit. 
RAND has released a really cool “Learn and Tell Toolkit” where you can get more information about community resilience and some scripts to follow to communicate this with others.
Similarly, the Los Angeles County Community Disaster Resilience Project (LACCDR), produced a Resilience Builder that gives information that is easy to put into action.
2. Sign up for Nextdoor.
In the age of social media, Nextdoor is a geographic-based tool to help neighbors connect around local issues with a mission to “provide a trusted platform where neighbors work together to build stronger, safer, happier communities, all over the world” Think of it as your Facebook without all your family and friends from around the world and focused on local action. It can be used to find recommendations for services, share information or, as we’re discussing here, help people navigate challenging situations from a string of robberies to a hurricane. As of mid-2017, Nextdoor is in 145,000 U.S. neighborhoods . Find out how you can join your neighborhood or start it at www.nextdoor.com.

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.