Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mixing Metaphors: A new way to organize around community issues


Invariably when rolling out new community initiatives or when inviting new people to come and join in an ongoing effort, some will remark that a given initiative or effort treats "the symptom and not the disease". In fact, so common is this critique that it has taken on the appearance of common wisdom. After all, it would be foolish to spend all of one's effort or energy on a mere symptom right?

I have two problems with this metaphor.

The first is that on a practical level it functions as a rolling justification for inaction. In a purely theoretical sense, practically ANY initiative can be labelled as a "symptom"  as some previous or more foundational culprit can almost always be identified. Much like the never-ending game of questioning "why" we each played as children, we wield this critique as a defense for inertia, repeatedly questioning "why", asking what caused the phenomena we seek to address...

If we say we'll address the drop-out rate, some will ask, "but why are these young boys dropping out?". And we might answer that many feel an alienation from the school and from academics at large, and some fail to understand or appreciate the importance of education for their lives. And were we then to craft an initiative dealing with connecting children to education, still others would ask, "but why are these children alienated from benefits of education?" And we would answer that; and so the dance would continue until finally we reached an answer that was so theoretical, so philosophical, or so foundational that it was beyond our capacity to solve. Then, we swiftly return to our status quo; handfuls of volunteers attempting to move community wide initiatives without the necessary levels of support; many of our best and brightest thinkers and theoreticians settled home on their couches satisfied that they've avoided a potential waste of their time by identifying the weaknesses in the latest planned effort; meanwhile, leagues of our children continue to fail.

The second problem I have with the metaphor is that it is misaligned with the conditions that we are seeking to address. The metaphor of "symptom and disease" implies that there is a correct order in which our community's problems must be addressed. It further implies that there is limited value in addressing issues outside of their proper sequence. This 'proper sequence' is fluid; a moving target that must identified and re-identified on an initiative by initiative basis prior to any level of engagement. Our acceptance of this idea has led to thousands of hours of meetings, symposiums, and theoretical discourse on the 'nature' of various problems without any corresponding action plans. Simply put, unless and until we can agree on the origins and root of the problems, we don't act. As a consequence, we meet over and over again to discuss the problems when a fraction of that time converted to action could yield positive results. In this sense, I think this metaphor has failed to serve our interests.

I believe it's time for a new paradigm...

I have another more useful metaphor that I believe is better aligned with the challenges facing our community. Instead of linear and sequential "symptom and disease" imagery, consider the imagery of an avalanche or rock slide. In this paradigm, there is still an original cause or 'prime mover', but identifying that prime mover is of less importance than identifying and addressing those issues that will have the most immediate and consequential impact. When a large rock has been displaced and begins to fall down the side of a hill, if it's progression is not halted, it will dislodge additional rocks that will then fall creating their own distinct threats. The new threats are not linked or dependent on the rocks that dislodged them, they are wholly independent, and may not be resolved by focusing on solely on rocks that fell earlier in the sequence. If we then turn to theoretical inquiries as to which falling rock is the prime mover, then the destructive force will continue to metastasize, with each rock dislodging others until it becomes an avalanche, finally outstripping our capacity.

Reconsider my aforementioned example: Let's begin with children's sense of alienation from school. This sense of alienation and lack of 'connectedness', if not addressed directly, will continue to deepen as a unique problem. As it deepens, it will simultaneously spawn and/or contribute to new problems such as the academic achievement gap and the drop out rate. The drop out rate, if not addressed directly, will continue to deepen as a unique problem while simultaneously contributing to rates of criminality and unemployment. Criminality, when not addressed, deepens as a unique problem while simultaneously contributing to declines in the quality of life for community residents and declining property values. High rates of unemployment contribute to poverty rates and increased reliance upon social services. Reliance upon social services, high rates of poverty, criminality, and unemployment recombine to form a new threat as they alter and shift cultural norms. And so on and so forth with each problem contributing to additional problems. And even if the Prime Mover could be identified and eliminated, that alone would not stop the progression of the hundred other rocks now in motion.

Now this is not to suggest that we should not be strategic; to the contrary, we absolutely must... But in the avalanche model, each problem should be evaluated to determine its potential impact on the community, not its sequence. And in the avalanche model, there are no problems that are insignificant or that should be ignored. Each problem merits a response lest it be allowed to deepen and spawn new and more complex problems. The avalanche model abandons the limited 'surgical' approach of the "symptom-disease" metaphor, in favor of a collaborative "all hands on deck" approach to effectively dealing with social ills. It also (IMO) correctly identifies the real cost of apathy and inaction. This new model is my offering to our collective discourse... What do you think?

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Jung/Myers Briggs

INTJ - "Mastermind". Introverted intellectual with a preference for finding certainty. A builder of systems and the applier of theoretical models. 2.1% of total population.
Free Jung Personality Test (similar to Myers-Briggs/MBTI)

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