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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.

One Man’s Trash

This year I celebrated Earth Day by joining one of  a number of events around the world for the environmentally-conscious people. My family, team members and I walked the streets of town, exploring hidden and ignored areas along train tracks and harvesting the left over cigarette butts that decorate our sidewalks. In the end, we felt rather accomplished–  filling more than twenty bags and rescuing a couple of abandoned tires. Sadly,  so much more remained to be done. In fact, we could have probably made every day earth day–literally– and still found garbage to fill our bags.

While much has been written about the environmental impact of litter– the damage it does to animals and soil — and probably to us humans more than we imagine (I’m pretty freaked out about microplastics at the moment), I want to weigh in on what neighborhood garbage tells us about the neighborhood itself and the relationships in the community.

It turns out that the presence of visible trash is something that has been studied by neighborhood researchers in a variety of ways. Some researchers have described litter under the construct “neighborhood disorder”– with trash visibility being a key component of “physical disorder”– along with other indicators being grafiti, abandoned cars and vacant lots. Quinn and Colleagues even mapped this level of disorder in NYC to show how neighborhoods differ from one another. Physical disorder is indeed a remarkable and tangible indicator that may help us describe and measure neighborhood-level differences that could correlate with socioeconomic indicators and community investment, but what impact does physical disorder have on neighborhood residents?

Neighborhood disorder is associated with:

While more research needs to be done, it appears that there does indeed exist the hypothesized relationship between neighborhood physical disorder (again of which visible trash is one component) and other adverse outcomes. It is important to note that these studies are correlational in nature. No one has conducted, to my knowledge, a randomized control trial in which one neighborhood is littered and/or another cleaned up. Such a study would be unethical and impractical. The implication here is not that visible trash causes child obesity or erodes neighborhood trust, but that the two are significantly related. It cannot be stated which leads to the other, nor can we take this all out of context– and inter-neighborhood variation is certainly a factor — as may be culture, setting and historical elements.

A related concept to neighborhood disorder is “neighborhood neglect”.  A Google search for the word “neglect” turns up a verb and a noun. The verb is “to fail to care for properly” and respectively the noun is the “state or fact of being uncared for”. Outside of this context, the word neglect is most often used in reference to children. We have a clear picture of what it looks like for a child to be neglected– having inadequate food, clothing, affection, stimulation– and we know the profound impacts that a lack of these investments can have on a child in the near and short term. These effects can have debilitating consequences that accumulate over the years and lead to tremendous so many challenges and deficits as the child grows.

How might this concept of neglect apply to neighborhoods? It is rather paternalistic/maternalistic to think of our neighborhoods as children dependent on care from some larger body, but in some sense this is true. Each neighborhood is nested within multiple municipal, county, state and national contexts each with varying degrees of jurisdictional responsibility and control. We can find countless examples of how governing bodies in a city or town have diverted resources away from neighborhoods for any number of political reasons. Too many places have focused on the tax break for the new industry while ignoring the deteriorating infrastructure on the other side of the tracks. And, of course, there are more active forms of abuse– dumping of toxic chemicals, building highways that sub-divide neighborhoods, cutting of public transportation — that have more direct effects on the lives of those in the community. It is important to note that care or neglect processes are grounded in history — with the current state of places often the accumulation of decades (or more) of an attitude and practice by those in power– an attitude that becomes part of the community ethos and is grounded in the worst of racism and discrimination– the kind that can become internalized and replicated by those who suffer from the conditions and the effect thereof. There is clearly a need for neighbors in these contexts– with their advocates — to challenge long-standing norms, policies and budgetary decisions that disadvantage their communities in favor of others.

Beyond challenging the powers that be, there is so much that neighbors can do each day to move their settings from disorder to health. Neighborhoods are made up of residents with a degree of agency that cannot be understated. People have the ability, despite neglect from those in power, to come together, to take pride in the place they call home, to build the bonds of neighborliness and to –yes– pick up some trash. In future posts, I want to draw attention to efforts like these in various neighborhoods, but for now I want to share with you one amazing idea.

In Philadelphia, the East Kensington Neighbors Association came up with a creative way to address litter in their neighborhood. Calling it Kensington Cans, they worked with local artists to decorate trash cans, turning them into a piece of art that enhances the neighborhood and, hopefully, draws attention.

I think this is a remarkable example of what neighbors can do by coming together. It didn’t require millions of dollars

Visible trash in neighborhoods is a big issue and one that isn’t going away easily. It is often grounded in decades of neglect and abuse by those in power. These larger issues should not be ignored. At that same time, change can begin at a grassroots level when neighbors band together to create small wins that lead to big things– one abandoned tire at a time.

What are you doing to reduce physical disorder in your neighborhood? Add your comments, ideas and questions below!

No Wrong Door

The instructions were a little vague. It was clear that I needed to turn in the signed form at Town Hall, and so I entered the maze of corridors and staircases in an attempt to find the office that I needed.  From the second to the fourth and back to the first floor, I ran into a number of people who said, “No, this isn’t the right place. You have to go to this office” Finally, through the washing machine of being passed from place to place, I turned in the form at the correct office– or at least I think I did.

Similarly, I recent attempted to schedule a simple doctor’s appointment. I called the number and was asked to select from a long list of prompts. Unfortunately, by the way, the first prompts were  — if you’re a doctor, press “1”, if you’re a pharmacist, press “2” — a clear message that I was not the most important customer that might be calling this linle. Finally, after listening to all the options, identifying myself as a patient, avoiding the impulse to push too early (No! I don’t want to refill my medication)– you hopefully get to the right person to conduct the transaction that you want. But, god forbid you make a mistake and get the “That’s not my department, let me forward you to”– and you’re left to explain the reason for your call all over again to a new person who may or may not be able to help you.

Okay. Rant Over. This is something that we have all experienced from time to time and while some settings have dramatically changed the way they create access, too many are still stuck in the “Press 8 for” world.

Unfortunately, this is more than just a pet peeve and frustration for you and I. For lower-income individuals, tt can be the difference between someone getting the services that they need or not. In working with those who need help, sometimes the biggest barrier is not the availability of help, but the process by which assistance can be accessed. If I need to get signed up for healthcare and food assistance for example, I may have to go to two (or more) different sites, fill out two sets of paperwork (that mostly ask for the same information) and bring verification documents that may be slightly different for each place. No one wants to be passed around like a late-addition prompt on an automated answering service– and nowhere do we have system more like that than in our support services for social and health needs.

This obstacle course to get access to services is challenging for any person, let alone if you are socioeconomically or emotionally distressed. It is complicated even further if you are linguistically or culturally isolated. It’s darn near impossible if you’re working multiple jobs, lack consistent transportation or have any of dozens of other challenges that increase the size of the barriers between you and what you need.

That is why I am so thrilled with a concept that is beginning to grow called “No wrong door” (NWD).  NWD is a person-centered approach that streamlines access to the resources that are available to the person. Originally built as a collaborative enterprise between the Administration for Community Living, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Veterans Health Administration, this government program worked to build better access to those requiring long-term services and support (LTSS). The concept has since expanded to other places that are using technology to unify resources like NY Connects.

The private sector is getting involved in this work as well. Take Single Stop. By providing a unified application form/process, they are streamlining access to a variety of resources, not sending individuals to multiple offices to get the things that they need. According to the Single Stop website, they have already served 1 million households in 9 states with a $20 to $1 return on investment. Other systems are beginning to take this promising approach including central intake systems for needs like housing assistance.

What do these approaches teach us and how can we build upon them?

Be person-centered. Just like my call to the doctor’s office, systems need to be designed for the people they are made to serve. This sounds like it should be obvious, but it is not standard practice. Instead our systems get designed for any number of reasons– to make it easiest for staff, to comply with the requirements of a funding source, or because we’ve always done it this way– If our services are centered on anything other than the person being served, we have missed the boat and will design systems that work for other purposes. Design thinking is a very useful tool here. Built out of the Stanford d school (Recommended Read: Change by Design), this framework grounds our innovation in the experience of the person. The first (and regularly-repeated step — as this is an iterative process) is empathy– developing an understanding for the processes that people face, including the problems and barriers that make accessing a service more difficult.

Over the years, I participated in so many meetings where organizational leaders talk about the experience of people. We hypothesize (though often with an assumption that we know the answer) the reasons why families use the emergency department frequently, why people don’t purchase fruits and vegetables, etc.). Yet despite the best intentions (sometimes), rarely are the actual people consulted. If we want to design person-centered systems, it must begin by actually interacting with the person–becoming a client.

If you ever have a chance to put yourself in the shoes of another, do it– even if it’s simulated. My friends at Pathways to Prosperity (and others out there) lead events called “Poverty Simulations”, where people (often professionals serving a low-income population either directly or indirectly) have the opportunity experience a small, simulated taste of what it is like to navigate the social service system. Participating in one of these events was an incredibly powerful experience because you see so clearly how “wrong doors” are slammed in faces all the time. You can sense the frustration of trying your best, but being thwarted by a system that wasn’t designed for you. If we want to really make an impact, we have to begin with the experience of the person in mind

Cut out the silos. One of the biggest drivers of “wrong door” thinking are what often get described as “silos”. These isolated structures may represent different organizations, different sectors or even programs or initiatives within a sector. Most of our organizations run within a certain framework that was developed based on their traditions, regulatory requirements, or leadership design. Even the best-designed system within a sector, let’s say healthcare– may create a barrier between another– say housing assistance.

Much has been written about collective impact approaches– about getting organizations to identify a common agenda, to bring their own expertise and contribution to the table and to create greater capacity by uniting these efforts. This is absolutely essential for a no wrong door approach. Organizations have to be willing to change the way they interact with the people they serve and the other stakeholders. We can build a better network of resources that work together in a mutually-reinforcing way that support real change. This should include some of the unusual suspects as well– bringing business partners, town planners, etc. to the table– each with something to contribute to designing a better experience.

What about my door?

Finally, I want to write a bit not about organizational capacity or program design, but how this concept of No Wrong Door might apply to our roles as neighbors and community change agents. In one organization I worked in, we often had difficulty with people finding their way through our facility. A great deal of time and energy was spent in thinking about better signage, maps or even technologies to help people navigate through the buildings. But one of the most powerful interventions was much more simple. All of the leaders were encouraged to keep an eye out for a person who may look a little lost and simply do two things:  1) Ask “Can I help you find something?” and 2) after the person indicated where they were going to say “Let me take you there”. The simple, but powerful idea was that no matter who you were– a janitor or an executive– you could stop what you were doing to help the customer get to where they needed to be. This is no wrong door at its best. It doesn’t say– “this isn’t my job”– but says that whoever I happen upon I will take it on as my responsibility to get them where they need to be.

That works in organizations and I think it can work in our day to day interactions. Instead of saying “I don’t know” or putting your head down and minding your own business, can we go the extra mile and help folks get to where they need to go? Can we notice and empathize with the needs of our neighbors and those on the margins of our community? Can we help bridge connections that others may not have access to? Can we take every figurative knock on our door as an opportunity to build the beloved community one moment at a time?

I believe we can. Call it serendipity or karma or god’s will, but I’d challenge you to think that your door (literally or figuratively) is never the wrong one for someone in need.

Please share your ideas, questions, and comments below. Let’s think about how we can make sure there are no wrong doors in our communities.

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.

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.