Sustained Engagement

I had the privilege of spending time recently with some amazing activists– people who have been engaged in “the fight” — for affordable housing, for environmental protections, for educational reform — for years and for years. I marveled at their stories of the long journey, sometimes with little or no visible progress, from where they began to where they desire to go.

I find myself inspired by that level of engagement in others and want to learn from them. But, what it is that we mean by “engagement” after all? Let’s unpack this by looking at the first definition from the Oxford dictionary:

Engage = to “occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention)”

If we are awake to the world around us, we have a choice to make. With what do we choose to engage? Most of us certainly have no shortage of options. As I write this, I could be attracted to any one of dozens of applications on any of the three electronic devices within my physical reach. My attention could be occupied by the music playing over the speakers or the other people moving in and out of this shared space. My interest could latch onto any of the three dozen tasks in my ‘Next Actions’ folder.

With the exception of mindfulness meditation and sleep, disengagement is really not an option. With a number of engagement options approaching infinity, the nature of our engagement can be fragmented, causing us to chase our tails and burrow down rabbit holes that may keep us from our ultimate goal. Therefore, the more fundamental question is:

What engagements are you sustaining today?

Beyond the momentary fix of your shrinking attention span, sustained engagement is what makes the difference. It is essential in relationships of all kinds. It is the type of long-range thinking that helps one save for retirement despite the bulls and bears of the market. Sustained engagement is a fundamental prerequisite of producing any value from a term paper to scientific discovery.

This is exactly what we can learn from my activist friends. Sustained engagement is vital in our community work as citizens, activists, dreamers, and leaders. Change requires that we get occupied by something and stick with it beyond the ever-shortening news cycle. So, I will ask that question in one final way:

What are you engaged in today that you will still be engaged in a decade from now?

There is no such thing as the “Black Vote”.

Like many of us these days, I find myself frequently digesting media in relation to the current presidential campaign. I am intensely interested in how this period of the American experiment plays out and take seriously my role as a citizen in that process. As I consume the media related to the election lately, I keep hearing a simple phrase repeated:

(Candidate X) doesn’t has (or doesn’t have) the “Black” vote.

This phrase troubles me.

At best, this is an example of loose usage of language to describe data in an overly-simplistic and reductionistic manner. This happens all the time in the popular media as complex nuances of error margins and polling methodology are boiled down into a sound byte, absent the nuance, study limitations, and concern over the data literacy of the audience.

Indeed, the headline is not inaccurate. Analysis of polling data certainly shows trends in the cross-tabulations of the number of individuals who select “black” to indicate their “race” and their support for a particular candidate. However, while factually accurate, these reports often fail to note that the only way in which these cross-tabulations are formed is by forcing individuals to select from a half-dozen socially-constructed categories to describe their race that fail to accurately describe a complicated construct.

I do, of course, support one of the core intentions behind this type of reporting. Clearly, it is vital both morally and practically that all voices be heard in an election, especially when those voices are from groups that have been historically marginalized- and notably when the percentage of those who might self-identify in a category have been low in previous contests. For example, the population identifying as “black” in Iowa is approximately 3% and New Hampshire is 1%. So, pointing out that demographic changes in the electorate are coming in an upcoming state (e.g. 27% of the South Carolina population identifies as black) is highly appropriate.

This troubles me, however, because our inexact use of language preys on poor data literacy to reinforce the notion that there is homogeneity in the ideas and attitudes of a socially-constructed racial group. It feeds our lazy minds and doubles down on our internal heuristics. I believe we can do better in three specific ways.

  • Identify the forced choice that separates the racial groups in a poll. These are not finite, clear-cut delineators between people. They are a socially-constructed and (often) dominant culture accepted set of options that at best oversimplify the complex and evolving concept of self-identification. Reporters should stop saying “Blacks say..” or, “Whites say..” and temper their language to describe those who “identify as” as a particular group. This subtle nuance may help draw attention to the inherent difficulty with these categorical descriptions and soften the reinforcement of harmful, historical characterizations that can be exacerbated by this type of reporting.
  • Describe the variance that exists within groups, not just between them. An over-simplified headline stating that “X wins the Black vote” could mean the candidate received 51% of that vote or 100%. Descriptions should be more accurate and highlight the full range of responses from that group. This reinforces the notion that, while we use categories to simplify data analysis, we recognize (and value) homogeneity and diversity that lives within all groups.
  • Incorporate mixed methodology to capture a deep understanding of what these votes mean. Given the complexity of racial selection, the history of this country, and the massive amount of rationale that one might base their selection upon, we need more qualitative data along with the quantitative to illustrate the complexity and diversity of these decisions. These data should embody the same amount of rigor applied to the collection of the qualitative polls, not just pull random quotes that support a narrative.

It is a big year for the United States and a great time to get engaged in political discourse. As we do, we should be rational, engaged consumers of the information sent our way and demand that it is presented in a way that moves us forward as a nation.

The Ideal

It was less than ideal. The cold rain came down as I attempted to run through the puddled streets. As the miles ticked by, the heat receded from my fingertips and my lips felt the icy sting from the combination of wet and cold. My fickle brain kept asking: ‘Why are you doing this?’ I saw no one else.

When the weather is 70 and sunny — when the skies are clear — these streets are full of every manner of people. Runners, walkers, strollers and bikes clog the sidewalks and trails. When the “ideal” happens, the masses emerge, while these less than ideal days yield only a few brave souls. 

I wonder how many people spend their lives waiting for the conditions to be perfect before they act. They wait for the clouds to break. They wait till they get more money. They wait till they get married. They wait till they get promoted. They spend most of our lives waiting for some ideal day to come.  
For those of us who find ourselves stuck waiting for some ideal future, here are three realities that we must realize:

1. The ideal is a rare occurrence. Of all the given days of the year, most of them are too cold, too hot, too wet, too cloudy, too windy, too humid, or too something. Very few days are just right in the course of a year or a lifetime. If we were to add up those few ideal days and contrast them with the remainder of those we are given, I believe we would discover that most of our lives — most of our runs, most of our days at work — are indeed less than ideal.

2. As with all things, this too is a matter of perception. The same person who complains that the 60 degree day is “too chilly” in the fall will be complaining that it is “too warm” in the spring. One person’s dead end job is another’s dream job. We are indeed fickle shoppers of the ideal, and the perception from one person to the next is weakly correlated. Therefore, we can conclude that in reality the ideal is an illusion of our perceptive systems, our context, our experience and our mindset. Not to suggest that things like frost bite are not real, but our concept of what is ideal is truly more perception than reality.

3. If we spend all our time waiting for the appearance of the ‘white whale’ of an idyllic situation, we will most likely not be ready for it. If I spend my winter binging Netflix and saying “it’s too cold”, when that gorgeous spring day emerges, I will be fat, out of shape, and therefore, unable to enjoy the opportunity of running without the confines of a hat and gloves. If I wait to be promoted to a desired role, I may find that I failed to learn some of the key lessons that would make me successful in that role. By setting my sights so fully on that future state, I may have failed to learn the lessons of the current one. It is on the less than ideal days — indeed the majority of them — that the building blocks of success are laid.

Today is less than ideal. Get over it. That’s just the way it is.

How will you spend it?

The Physics of Work

“I can’t wait to retire,” he said, “I’m tired of working.”

“I need to establish better work-life balance,” she said.

What is this thing we call “work”, and why does it seem so onerous? It seems that in a world of increased well-being and leisure, work has been defined a a necessary evil, something done primarily for extrinsic rewards for a period of time until we can justify its elimination. Work is described as something distinct from (and therefore balanced against) the fundamental concept of “life”.

Before we condemn work as something that we hope humanity evolves from in some future state, let’s take a look at the term from a scientific perspective.

Enter Physics

I am not a physicist, but I understand that work is the product of two factors: force and displacement

Force is fairly easy to grasp. In fact, when many people talk about “work”, I believe they are really talking about force. We know that we have the capacity to exert force on the world, and we are always embodied with a sense that the amount of force we can create is finite and extinguishable. We get tired. We get distracted. We know that we can only work so hard for so long before our ability to generate force diminishes. Force is purposeful  and effortful. It requires intention. Though we don’t like to think about it, eventually we die and cannot produce any more force.

Displacement is more foreign to colloquial ways of thinking. In simple, scientific terms, displacement is movement in the direction of the force. It is the movement of a soccer ball away from the kick. It is the air rushing from my mouth when I exhale. Displacement is change. It is impact. It is the result or outcome of our efforts — and it happens outside of us, in the world we inhabit.

Herein we see a key point: Work is not just effort, but the marriage of effort and impact — force and displacemnet. Work is not just the exertion of energy, the exhaustion of our bodies — it is progress. We don’t just work to do stuff. We work to accomplish something. This may be why we hate so deeply tasks that we perceive as meaningless. We are built for purpose and have an innate desire to see our finite ability to produce force create displacement in the world around us.  

Sometimes displacement is difficult to ascertain in the short term, but there are no immovable objects, there is just force over time. As a product, the amount of force that is brought to a problem interacts with the subsequent displacement to produce the total work. This is another argument for the benefits of human collaboration. To create change on wicked problems, we almost always need more force than one individual can generate. 

Drawing from this physics perspective, work does not mean “what I do between 9 and 5”. Work is any and all actions that I bring to the world. It is the investment I make in my relationships, It is the effort I put into maintaining a healthy body. It is time spend volunteering or learning or being a citizen. All of these are work. All require our exertion of force. All create displacement in the environment. 

Work is not distinct from life. In fact, work is an essential component of life. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that you skip your vacation, abandon your retirement plans, or abandon rest and leisure. Rather, I think we should re-think the way we talk about work– expanding our focus beyond the force to the displacement — and beyond these false boundaries. I don’t ever “go” to work. I do work all day, every day, until I am dead.

What force as you using to create displacement in your world today?


When you find yourself near the end of a long line, what do you think?

Do you bemoan your rotten luck and bad timing?

Do you honk your horn, work up a sweat, and curse the gods?

Do you feel lucky that you’ve chosen a popular path, building anticipation of what joy awaits at the destination?

Do you feel like a conformist drawn into the vortex of conformity with the masses?

Do you consider the event a shared experience with other human beings or take every effort to nudge yourself forward and improve your situation not thinking about your fellow line-mates?

The way in which we approach a wait reveals a great deal about our mindset. The story we tell ourselves drives how we feel about the situation– is it an undeserved violation of your human right to proceed unmolested or an opportunity for memorable (or perhaps even cherished) experience?. This mindset determines what we receive — or don’t – from the experience.

The same may be said about anytime we face any obstacle that stands between where we are and where we want to be — or basically anytime we attempt anything at all.

What will you tell yourself?

“It’s not what you have. It’s what you give”

I awoke the other day with a seven mile tempo run on the agenda. For those who aren’t familiar with a tempo run, it is basically a run in which you spend a period of time running at a designated pace that is faster than your normal pace. Tempo runs are essential to training because they teach you to run faster and to maintain that speed for increasingly longer distances.

I tend to dread them.

On this particular day, as my cadence quickened, it became clear that I was not in top form. My legs were sore from the workout of the previous day. My breathing quality was hampered by allergies and poor air quality. My sleep the night before had been too short and disjointed. I “just didn’t have it”. I had no shortage of excuses for why I would most likely fall short of the goal pace for the day.

In running, and in the rest of life, it is not about about what you have on a particular day. Rather it is about the effort that you give. After all, my ultimate goal was not to “win” in that particular training session, but to “win” (e.g. set a personal best) at the marathon I registered for that was still three months away.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot always control the way I feel on a given day, and I certainly cannot control the humidity level or the wind speed. Even though I can push through obstacles, I really can’t control the outcome fully. But, what I can control is what effort I give.

As always, this applies more broadly than to running. In our work and volunteer lives, there are myriad things that can inhibit what you “have” on a particular day. Most of these lie beyond our control. What we can control is the effort given, the attitude chosen, and the next step we take.

This relates to to foundational research by Carol Dweck on fixed and growth mindsets. Her body of work has established key differences between individuals in focusing on what they have (e.g. fixed mindset) as opposed to the effort that they give (e.g. growth mindset). Fixed mindsets are associated with lower rates of success, less risk taking and slower rates of learning while growth mindsets open up many new possibilities. The good news is that Dweck –and others who have expanded her work– have demonstrated that these mindsets are malleable, even with simple reframing of directions and recognition.

Finally, the concept of having and giving relates to the concepts of wealth and generosity as well. Religion and philosophy have long espoused the idea that “it is more blessed to give than to receive”. Authors like Adam Grant, in the sensational book ‘Give and Take’, have demonstrated that, despite what it may look like, a giving approach has greater benefits than one focused on receiving. It’s not what you have, it’s truly what you give.

I’m happy to say that on that particular tempo run, I chose to push myself, when I could (and have before) have chosen to mope, make excuses and give up. I gave all the effort I could, and even though the average pace at the end was not what I had intended, the average effort made it a successful day– one on which I could build toward my ultimate goal.

It doesn’t matter what you have today — how you feel, what unexpected obstacles and opposition you face — it’s what you give — how you choose to spend your time, what choices you make, how you contribute to others around you — that matters.

Stroke Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same is true for communities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Somebody’s Hurting My People

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.