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.

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
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.