Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Crisis of Aspiration: Why so many community efforts seemingly fall short

A couple nights ago, I attended a program sponsored by the County Health Department that dealt with the subject of Health Disparities. The program consisted of a film (“Are inequalities making us Sick?”) and a group discussion. The film (which is excellent) described at great length and detail how social factors and influences directly affect public health. The group discussion thereafter was reminiscent of the hundreds if not thousands of ‘community’ conversations that take place in cities across the country.

“We need to focus on Economic Development”. “We need to focus on Education”. “We need to focus on Discrimination”. “We need to stop doing so much talking and start acting”. “We need to figure out how to get the folks who need to hear this information in the room”.

Thankfully, the conversation was short… if we had talked for another hour or so, we almost certainly would have gotten to, “We need to get everybody’s name and number”. “We need to schedule a date for us all to come back together”. “We need to see what type of funding is available”. etc…

One thing that I reflected on after the meeting was that, in this meeting as in countless others, we had a room filled with informed and well-meaning people, deeply concerned about the status of our community and who were willing to sacrifice their time to try and make a difference. And this dynamic is replicated in cities and counties all across the country… So with the hearts and hands of so many who are willing to work towards a better future, why do we continue to lag behind in most social indicators? Whether were talking about infant mortality, low birthweight babies, life expectancy, net worth, home ownership, educational attainment, graduation rates, college attendance, entrepreneurship and business ownership… How could the efforts of so many concerned citizens seemingly fall short?

...I have a theory...

I offer this theory for critique and discussion because I am genuinely interested in finding or designing a more effective method of Social Change. I want to see us eliminate the achievement gap; I want to see us graduate all of our youth; I want to see us transform the anger and frustration within our community into a positive force that propels us towards our highest potential. But I believe that getting there will require fresh eyes, and new approaches. To wit, I offer these ideas for your consideration.

My theory revolves around the ideas of choice, aspiration, behaviors, and consequence. My theory asserts that we seem to fall short in our efforts because typically our efforts address outcomes rather than causes. We fight to modify the effects without challenging the choices. Certainly we talk often enough about choices in community work, but I would posit that we should look further ‘upstream’. Let me give you a few examples…

So often, when we discuss the changes we’d like to see in our community, we focus on behaviors. “If we could just get the boys out of the gangs and into something positive.” “If we could just get these kids focused on their education.” “If we could just keep these babies from having babies.” “if we could just get rid of the Thug/Gangster/Goon mentality.” “If we could just get the parents more involved.” Etc… Even Bill Cosby’s lauded diatribe was almost entirely behavior based. In his speech to an NAACP function he said, “We are not parenting. Ladies and gentlemen, listen to these people, they are showing you what’s wrong. People putting their clothes on backwards. –isn’t that a sign of something going on wrong? Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack…and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body. What part of Africa did this come from?”

Implicit in this approach is the belief that behavior is a choice that can simply be modified. It is true, if youth are exhibiting anti-social or negative behaviors, then they will likely experience negative social outcomes. So on this basis, we design programs, talks, and approaches to encourage and nurture better and more productive behaviors. Again, the premise is that better ‘behaviors’ will create better ‘outcomes’. Youth camps, youth programs, sports leagues, biddy-basketball, after-school programs, competitive activities… are all designed to get children involved with “doing” something positive. And while these programs have had a wonderful influence on a great number of children across the country, still I would suggest that our communities ‘return on investment’ has been meager. We still lag in the social indicators I’d mentioned previously, and in the case of the Academic Achievement gap, there are ominous signs that perhaps we are moving backwards. Now why is that?

Consider this: When I was a teen, I aspired to be a famous rapper. That was my vision and my dream… I spent time visualizing myself on stage, with albums, and video’s, and I sought a path to realize my goals. You wouldn’t catch me hanging around kids that weren’t into hip-hop. You wouldn’t catch me without a radio or without my beatbox Craig (cause in back in the 80’s every good rapper had a guy who would beatbox for him when needed). My decisions, my choices were based on the idea of attaining my goals. At that time, seemingly all famous rappers were from New York, so me and my friends learned to speak with fake New York accents. We wore fake gold, spoke with constructed accents, wore Addidas sneakers, Kangols and Gazzals… We hung out in certain places, went to certain parties, dressed a certain way etc etc… but was our behavior the choice? I would argue that the Goal/the Aspiration was the choice, and the behavior was the outcome.

Now during this time, I drank and smoked and participated in my fair share of negative social behaviors, but I didn’t perceive them as such. They weren’t negative to me because none of these things were detrimental to my goal. Things that most of society would view as negative or even anti-social, I enjoyed freely, because for me and the path I’d chosen, these issues were simply inconsequential. A brush with the law would not prohibit me from hip-hop fame; in a perverse sense it could actually enhance my street cred. Addictions to weed and cheap wine were not negative in my eyes, I saw weed and alcohol as beneficial in that they relaxed my inhibitions when I was onstage or performing.. Conversely, my education was NOT important to me. In my mind, academic success and failure were equally inconsequential. Neither was a requisite – neither was a concern. These behaviors were more than a series of individual choices; taken as a whole, they represent a template, one that I willingly adopted when I chose my goal.

Understanding this, I realized that when we see someone who seems to make chronically bad choices or who routinely exhibits anti-social behaviors, what is most likely is that we are seeing someone who has a far different aspiration or life goal that we simply can’t relate to. We project our aspiration and self-image onto that person, and in that context we see the resulting behaviors as destructive. But viewed through a radically altered lens, the same behaviors could actually seem neutral or even positive. The positive or negative value that we ascribe to a behavior is relative and it is determined by that behavior’s relationship to our aspiration. Behaviors that advance us towards our aspirational self image - we view as positive, those that threaten the attainment of our aspirational self-image - we view as negative.

Now, if standing before you was a 15 year old boy whose goal was to be the baddest Crip on 9th street, what do you think his behavioral template would look like? What behaviors would he find acceptable? How do you think he might feel about carrying a weapon? Spending a few months in the Juvenile detention Facility? Fighting? Being suspended or expelled?

Conversely, if a 15 year old child had a goal to become a Senator or President, consider how radically different their behavioral template might be? Would he/she drink alcohol? How might they view fighting? Suspensions or expulsions? Volunteer work? Educational attainment?

I believe that the crisis facing our community is a crisis of aspiration. Our goals and our aspirations are the Choice – behavior is the first level of outcome – consequence is the second level of outcome. When we attempt to mitigate consequences by challenging behavior, we ignore the aspirational goal that is the driver of both. It is akin to ignoring the inputs but hoping for a different output. Anti-social behavior is the symptom, not the disease. The disease is the lack of vision and the absence of a positive aspirational self-image. We’ve got help our children dream again. We’ve got to challenge the pimp, ho, and thug images they’re consuming through television, videos, and music. We’ve got to work with our children to build their aspirations to something worthy of their potential. We've got to focus our efforts on defeating the low expectations and negative self-images that imprison our youth in lives of mediocrity when they are capable of excellence. After school programs and summer jobs are vitally important, but they are no substitute for a dream. Dr. King gave us his dream, now it’s our turn to ‘pay it forward’.

What do you think? What are the other pieces of this puzzle?

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