Tagged ‘infant mortality‘

Listen to the People

Stress and strain, conflict and consternation are nothing new with important community projects that involve a lot of different interests, a ton of money, and little agreement about which problem to solve. This was highlighted by last week’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article looking at the city’s latest effort to reduce infant mortality. In an article entitled, “Program to reduce infant mortality slow to get going,” published as part of the newspaper’s Empty Cradles: Confronting Our Infant Mortality Crisis, reporter Crocker Stephenson tells us two stories. One story is about Tia Love, an African American mom who received intensive home visitation during her pregnancy and after her son was born and who could now well be the ambassador for the program throughout the country.

Contrast that to the tremendous frustration of the second story – the inability of local interests to form an effective and sustainable coalition to manage several million dollars in funding from the Wisconsin Partnership. Of the things we do well in Milwaukee, heaping blame may be at the top of the list. In this case, the blame goes to Patricia McManus, PhD., head of the Black Health Coalition, and an intense, uncompromising, very experienced leader in the African American community. Her complaint, as described in the article, is that the local coalition effort was not being run by the community but by outside interests. She is portrayed as the spoiler, the one responsible for the Wisconsin Partnership’s decision to pull back its substantial investment.

This kind of story is familiar to me – the faltering and weakening of coalition efforts. Usually, these are community initiatives that start with great fanfare and, often, the promise of significant  financial reward once a plan is developed. All the ‘right’ people are called to the table and they’re told to come up with a plan and a consensus. And it’s a bust. Maybe there’s a plan but there’s no consensus. Why is that?

It’s not about a person. It’s about the process. If the process is not genuine, it will fail. Either we can blame the person who keeps pointing out that it’s not a genuine process,who, in this case, I think is probably Dr. McManus, or we can figure out how to make community planning processes genuine.

It’s this simple: The technical expertise cannot lead the planning process; instead it must inform a process led by people with lived experience. In other words,  the consultant or the technical expert must essentially say to the group: How can I help you decide what to do? What information should I gather? Where should I look for answers? How do you want to make decisions?

When the technical experts lead a community planning process, everyone but them is disenfranchised. And this makes the non technical experts, aka the community, very, very angry. They feel patronized, minimized, and marginalized. They rightfully perceive that their lived experienced is viewed as less valuable than the experts’ technical knowledge. It’s conflict from the jump.

There’s an old adage in youth development work and it is, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” In providing technical support to a community planning effort, the ‘expert’ needs to demonstrate that he/she cares by keeping his/her mouth shut and listening. Of all the things a consultant is asked to do, this may be the toughest. Sit down, listen, take a back seat, understand where people who have the lived experience you lack think the process should go, and help them get there.

Everything I talk about on this blog I’ve learned the hard way. That’s why I know whereof I speak. Signing off this fine February day,


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When in Doubt, Blame: Reflections on Milwaukee’s Infant Mortality Problem

This isn’t the first time that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has gone on a star search.  Remember last year’s fawning over Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone?   What was the matter with Milwaukee?  How come we don’t have a Geoffrey Canada?  Why aren’t we having phenomenal success educating low-income, African American kids?  What’s wrong with us?  If the education establishment knew what it was doing, it would replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in Milwaukee.

Now, about a year later, the new subject of adoration is Mario Drummonds, leader of the Northern Manhatten Perinatal Partnership.  Like Mr. Canada, Mr. Drummonds is a charismatic figure whose zeal, commitment and talent organized a blitzkrieg of activities on a single housing project, the 1,500 unit St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem.  (See “Milwaukee infant mortality rate still high, despite years of effort, millions spent,” in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 5/7/11))

Immediately, the conclusion is drawn that if Milwaukee had its act together, our infant mortality rate would plummet.  If Milwaukee would marshal its resources and not have 112 different initiatives working throughout the city (a list which, by the way, seems to include every parenting program, research project, and child development effort in the city in addition to programs specifically addressing infant mortality), then we could beat this problem and get out from under being one of the worse places in the U.S. to be a baby.  In essence, if we could replicate Mario Drummonds’ program in Milwaukee, we’d have it made.

It doesn’t work like that, folks.

Because it’s not about Mario Drummonds’ program.  It’s about Mario Drummonds.  Just like it’s not about the Harlem Children’s Zone.  It’s about Geoffrey Canada. Each of these men is what is called a Monomaniac on a Mission (MOM), a very technical term for the one person who is willing to move heaven and earth to achieve something and can convince other people to leave their cars running in the street to come and help.

There are a million things that are different about the places where Mr. Drummonds and Mr. Canada developed their projects.  History, politics, access to wealth, receptiveness to innovation, diversity, and culture of challenge and confrontation are some of the elements to be considered.  Their programs were shaped by the environment, by opportunities that were presented, and by their own personal ability to convince others to invest substantial resources — millions of dollars — in achieving the desired results.

Rather than blaming the hundred small, shoestring agencies that are trying to help young parents do a better job, maybe we ought to look at what kind of environment Milwaukee provides for budding MOMs.  When one comes along, do we listen or tell him/her to sit down and wait their turn?  Do we get behind big dreams or resent them?  Embrace vision or write it off as tilting at windmills?  Do we recognize community anger and frustration as the growing power of change or run away from it?

Like 99% of things in the world, “it’s complicated.”  Replication of programs from other cities rarely works unless virtually all of the environmental features are the same.  The adult drug court model is an example of a very successful replication process throughout the country.  Programs that have been shaped and developed around a single personality usually fall flat.  It’s not a committee that makes those innovations work, it’s one absolutely electric person at the center.

We’ve got those live wires in Milwaukee.  We really do.  Time to let them loose and see what they can do.

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