Tagged ‘violence‘

Fix the Right Problem

When something terrible happens, we want to do something to prevent a recurrence.  A baby dies while sleeping with his mother and local officials and the public at large want to see a strategy presented that will keep such an awful thing from happening again.  The rate of HIV/AIDS increases among young gay African American men and a new program targeted at this group emerges.  This effort to jump in quickly to try to prevent another accident, another death, and more community sorrow is laudable but flawed.  Here’s why.

We can spend a lot of time and money trying to solve the wrong problem.  The diagnostic process is very abbreviated when a group of people want to see action right away.  “I don’t care what we do,” I’ve heard more than once.  We just need to have some action on this. Send the community a message that we’re going to do something about it.  No one wants another study group or task force, they’ll say.  Let’s just get moving!

My experience is that people hardly ever really know what needs to be done.  Faced with a disturbing community event or trend, say an 11-year old waving a gun around on a local playground or the smoking rate among young adults suddenly jumping several percentage points, the leadership, including the content experts, will assume that they know a) the origins of the problem; and b) how to fix it.  More over, they will have a sense of certainty that will push all alternative explanations and ideas into a very small corner. This is a mistake. In order to solve a problem, we need to understand its origins. 

For example, if we respond the the 11-year old with the gun by implementing yet another violence prevention curriculum, will that prevent other kids from bringing weapons to school?  No, it won’t, unless we spend the time figuring out why kids think it’s a good idea to bring a gun to school.  First of all, why is there a gun at home where the child can reach it?  Second, what was this child’s and most children’s thoughts when they bring guns to school?  Are they wanting to impress, joke around, scare somebody?  Are they being bullied?  (This is our very favorite explanation now.)  Are they the bullier?  Is the point of intervention the child?  Or is it the parent?  If we up the violence prevention curriculum and there is still a gun lying on the dresser at home, have we changed this child’s mindset?  I don’t know.

It is very possible to have wonderful programs with great outcomes that have little or no effect on a community problem.  It happens all the time.  It happens because program designers, funders, and implementers are often too sure of themselves and their solutions.  Even an evidence-based approach is no insurance that a program will have an impact on the community even if the program’s participants have positive outcomes.  For example, taking our gun example, after a violence prevention curriculum, 80% of students thought it was a bad idea to bring a gun to school. Is this success?  Community change?  Not if the young person is having this positive thought while gunshots are being heard down the street.

The tricky thing about program design – deciding what to do – is that it requires time, patience, diligence, and courage.  New questions need to be asked of different types of people living in different neighborhoods and having different reasons for what they do and think.  By assuming we know what to do and how to do it, we sacrifice real impact for speed and the illusion of change.  Time to try a different approach.

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We Can Do Better: Community Plan to End Youth Violence

Public hearings are great but they’re just the beginning of solving a problem.  Last week’s ‘speak out’ on youth violence (2/28/12 at MPS Central Office) gave people voice.  That’s terrific but the benefit of that exercise lasts about 30 seconds.  In contrast, a professionally facilitated discussion would have led to a community plan.

Let’s look at this in plainer terms.  School administrators and board members left last week’s meeting with a massive list of complaints and ideas, all of which combined to land them squarely in hedgerow country.  This means that they’re going to be wandering around in the maze while the violence continues and more people get hurt.  They’re going to be in hedgerow country because a list doesn’t lead to a plan.

Discussion leads to a plan. A group that large convened to talk about an issue that important could have generated the foundation of a communitywide plan if the discussion had been professionally facilitated.  A facilitated discussion would welcome and honor everyone’s point of view and then help the group organize their ideas into a plan of action.

A key element of a facilitated discussion is that people talk to each other.  They don’t just testify, they discuss, connect, find common ground, build common cause, and become empowered.  After a facilitated discussion, participants leave feeling connected to a solution that they helped craft.  This is a lot different than spending 2 minutes speaking truth to power as we like to say and then going home to watch SVU reruns. 

This community is ready to be genuinely engaged in a citywide discussion about youth violence.  Think Frontier Airlines Center — that’s how big the discussion should be.  Think a dozen trained faciliators supporting discussions on key elements of youth violence.  Think multiple big screens with PowerPoints created by the discussion groups on the spot.  Think about critiqueing and debating and revising and producing. 

This community — this strange, diverse, struggling, wonderful community – doesn’t need another damn list about youth violence.  WE NEED A COMMUNITY PLAN.


The International Association for Public Participation has members who facilitate broad community discussions all over the world.  Read more here.

See the JSOnline article “Community brainstorms helping at-risk youth” at

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