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The Value of Play

It’s the summer of 1966 at the University of Texas: A typical college campus day with young adults strolling across the courtyard, chatting about the latest hot topics, loosely clutching textbooks in the heat, and perhaps fewer students than normal due to it being a summer session. Claire Wilson James and John Fox are names you might not know, but they are two of the survivors of a mass shooting by a lone wolf that left 16 dead and several wounded on campus that day. There are a myriad of articles related to this tragic moment in American History and even a documentary called “Tower” that details it from a unique perspective.

After the shooting, psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown was charged to examine the mental state of the shooter. What he found consistently both in the shooter, and in 26 other convicted murderers in the Texas State Penitentiary was a severe lack of free play during their childhood. It led Dr. Brown to carry out extensive research on the long-term effects of play on people. After examining 6000 subjects trying to quantify the effects of play throughout childhood, Dr. Brown found that those who experienced more play had similar characteristics as adults: light-heartedness, empathy, optimism, hopefulness, and adaptability. As he put it all these traits “seemed to be a by-product of their playful time together.” Dr. Stuart Brown went on to found the National Institute for Play which now specializes in ongoing research related to this topic.

The Polis Institute works to infuse strategies like this into the distressed neighborhoods we serve. One example is our weekly Diverse Word gathering at Lake Lorna Doone Park in Orlando where we create opportunities for play through poetry and games. At this weekly event, I recently experienced a twofold revelation as it relates to the game of chess.

I heard from a volunteer about an OCPS Title One middle school team that had ranked highly in a chess tournament. This led to me research the effects of playing chess on academic achievement, and the outcomes I came across were astounding: chess exercises both sides of the brain, increases creativity, memory, problem-solving skills, reading, concentration, and the list goes on. I began to teach myself how to play with the hope of becoming a cheerleader of sorts for chess and thus change the world! If only it were that easy, right? But I do feel like I’m on to something.

The second part of this revelation was that chess is played every day at Lake Lorna Doone Park. I know because I have seen it with my own eyes, and have been crushed by opponents in this game of intense logic and strategy. It then dawned on me that the game of chess just might be the greatest common denominator across existing social structures where we work in 32805.

The Polis Institute utilizes both our own research and experience, combined with leading studies, actionable solutions, and best practices to seek the welfare of the city. While there are no silver bullets to solving complex social issues and championing human dignity, playing a game of chess with our neighbors can increase our community’s social, emotional, and intellectual resources.

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Curb Cutting: How Solving Problems for One Group Helps us All

The Polis Institute is a non-profit organization that aims to remove the barriers that prevent experiencing long, healthy, fruitful and dignified lives. Many of these barriers stem from concentrated poverty, but there are additional barriers, both physical and metaphoric, that manifest in a variety of ways. We at POLIS use and develop research around the best practical ways to engage with people living in areas of high distress, and help design long-term solutions for the well-being of their community.

Approaching global systemic issues very locally, over a long range of time, is not a popular model in our fast-paced, instant gratification society. But taking time to get to know people, and deeply considering their expressed desires and visions of what could be, can be effective on a grander scale than imagined.

Conventionally, city sidewalks and city streets met at the right angle of a curb. No harm in that, right? You just step on and off. However, for Edward Roberts, confined to a wheelchair and iron lung after contracting polio, that six inch curb was a major hurdle. As a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, he became a disability rights activist, and led a movement to create curb cuts, or ramps, to allow sidewalk access to people with wheelchairs. Curb cuts had existed since the 1940s when they were created to assist disabled WWII vets, but were not in common use or well known until Roberts and his classmates worked to design solutions for a local, small, underserved group of people with limited mobility.

With decades of effort, and the benefit of national attention to the accomplishments of this growing movement, the 1990 ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was passed, mandating curb cuts everywhere – removing barriers to wheelchair access to city sidewalks and the cities themselves.

My point, however is not that a small group won a victory that serves them alone. It is that a much larger and unanticipated group of people also benefitted from the well-designed solution of curb cuts. Anyone pushing a baby stroller or a grocery cart, riding a skateboard or bicycle, can use a curb cut. Curb cuts help call attention to an intersection’s crosswalk which increases pedestrian safety, are easier to shovel clear in the snow, and are more navigable for the very young and old. When people concentrate their efforts in assisting the overlooked, and solving just a single problem, it can open a whole new world of opportunities for all of society. The Polis Institute desires to be an Ed Roberts in the world, who in slowly serving and designing solutions for the one, would benefit the many in cities across the United States and the world.

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Stanley Needs a Job

I know a guy named Stanley who needs a job. He’s in his forties and does not have a great resume or work ethic. He has some health problems. He seems to get hurt on the job a lot and has tried to sue more than one employer. He quit high school in the 10th grade but eventually earned a GED and joined the military. He characterizes his time in the military as the best time in his life. Since then, he has been out of work just as often as he has been employed.

Stanley has tried out some job training programs but none have helped him get or keep a job. “There are just certain types of people we are not equipped to help,” said the director of one such program. I was a little surprised to hear him say that since I knew the program was started some years ago to help people exactly like Stanley. The director went on to explain how his organization had made a conscious decision to focus on people with fewer issues than Stanley seemed to have before adding, “and we have been expanding rapidly ever since.”

I have heard explanations like this before. A non-profit starts out trying to reach the most hurting and marginalized in our midst but as the frustrations of dealing with the harder cases collide with the desire to grow the organization, they raise the bar on who they are willing to help. In some ways, it makes sense. Why spend 90% of your effort to help 50% of your clients achieve 10% of the desired outcomes? Focus on those who are ready and equipped to move forward and you will see the fruit of your hard work pay off more quickly while watching your programs grow and funding increase. Seems like a rational choice.

But what about Stanley?

There is a big difference between helping people get a job and helping a particular person get a job. When you help people get a job, you weed out the Stanleys until you find someone easier to work with. But when you try to help Stanley get a job, everything changes because he continues to matter to you whether he gets a job or not. If Stanley is more to you than a client – if he’s a friend, a family member, or a neighbor – you continue to invite him to social gatherings while he’s looking for work and after he gets fired from another job. You celebrate successes with him and empathize with his frustrations. You share your story with him and listen to his story. You laugh with him and cry with him. If Stanley is just a client, your relationship with him ends when his progress in your program ends.

We all need more friends in our life than we need program directors. We need more neighbors than case workers. And we need more family than we need professional care givers. That doesn’t mean that we never need professionals in our life or that it is somehow wrong to secure their help. What we all need is someone who will love us and encourage us even when we don’t make the best choices. It’s just harder for professionals to continue to be that loving person when we don’t get with the program or make our payments.

Neighborhood focused, place-based work ascribes higher value to neighborly kindness and familial care than professional help because it is more in line with our long-term interests and basic needs. There is certainly room for professionals to help but that help should be temporary and leveraged in ways that clearly support one’s long-term interests. It also means that one should expect limits to what professionals will be willing to endure.

I’ve known Stanley for a few years now. He needs a job. Although his wife is working, they are not quite making it and they may have to move out of the neighborhood they love so much. Their neighbors love them too. He and his wife regularly help their elderly neighbors with shopping and yard work. They participate in community meetings and helped start a community garden and newsletter. If they moved, it would really be a loss for the community.

Stanley also really wants to work. He says he feels better about himself when he’s doing something productive and actively contributing to the family’s finances. He hasn’t done well in the manual labor jobs that he typically gets and thinks if he tries another route things will improve. His self-confidence is really low and he’s not convinced that he can do other, non-labor-intensive jobs but he is willing to try. In sum, he could use professional help to learn some new skills and he might benefit from some professional counseling as well. But Stanley, like all of us, is most in need of unconditional love and support that only family, friends, and neighbors provide.

POLIS began piloting a program called Job Support Services earlier this year to help Stanley and 190 other people in his community who are out of work but looking for a job. The program helps residents apply to one of six employer partners who have agreed to give hiring priority to participants. Employers are willing to do that because we have assembled a team of volunteer residents and supportive partners who will help these applicants become great employees – child care, transportation, and encouragement will be provided.

We have also partnered with larger training and job support programs like the one mentioned at the beginning of this article. They can still focus on specialized services that help people get jobs – resume writing, job interviewing skills, technical skills – while the resident volunteers provide the type of emotional and tactical support that will eventually help Stanley secure and keep a job. POLIS is providing professional design and support services during the pilot phase. When this phase concludes, our support will transition toward a resident-run program that helps ensure that everyone in the community that wants a job, has a job, and that when particular people like Stanley lose jobs or struggle to find work, friends and neighbors will be there to offer encouragement and connections.

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The Most Strategic Philanthropic Investment

The most strategic philanthropic investment in the U.S. goes towards revitalizing the distressed neighborhoods that are the source of most of our social issues. These neighborhoods are also full of people with aspirations and talents. Philanthropist and businessman Tom Cousins said it this way, “America’s greatest untapped resource is the human capital trapped in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.” This is a new model for philanthropy – holistically addressing all of the issues in a single small geography rather than trying to address a single issue across a large geography.

POLIS has set out to make this happen in Central Florida since our baseline research concluded (2006-2009). We didn’t invent the model, we just discovered it. We also found no evidence of any mature effort to implement the model in Central Florida. Today, there are 10 comprehensive efforts to revitalize 33 of our 100 distressed neighborhoods. Each effort is distinctly focused on a particular geography in order to maximize the “holistic capitalization” required (the phrase we coined in our research to describe the approach). And each effort is in a different stage of the process. We help keep these initiatives on track while comparing any gains they produce to our overall “well-being” as measured by Gallup.

This is the POLIS framework for making a city stronger – strategically invest in its most distressed neighborhoods. Our role is that of a guide, facilitator, and evaluator. On behalf of a specific group of investors and for the primary benefit of the residents of these neighborhoods, we directly engage the community, equip community leaders, and evaluate the overall progress of the revitalization effort. We also run a Resident and Community Support Program in order to ensure that residents are armed with their own goals and plans when they engage with other non-profits and social service agencies that can help them achieve their goals.

Our work is important and it takes a lot of time to do this model. Time is money so we need and highly value your charitable contributions since they allow us to continue our march to propel Metro Orlando into the 90th percentile for well-being amongst America’s largest cities by 2030 (we are currently in the 59th percentile). As lofty as our primary goal is, the work boils down to affecting one family and one community at a time. Lend your support to our work today so that we can continue to make our city and our world a better place.

 

 

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Leadership: Unlocking Potential

Former basketball player and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley once said, “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” So true. You could also say the same about a community. While leadership is certainly not the only ingredient in a community becoming better, it is easily the most important. And it is surprisingly undervalued. That may because the type of leadership we often see, particularly in struggling communities, is authoritarian and self-serving – the opposite of what Senator Bradley extolled. And so people grow suspicious of the very idea of leadership and learn to distrust the leaders that they follow – often by default. This persists even when the efforts of these leaders do not result in improvements or the unlocking of potential.

Polis Institute is adding a certification course in Growth Leadership to our training lineup in order to meet the need for more effective, other-focused community leadership. I am very excited about the pilot class that is being facilitated by Dr. Bahiyyah Maroon in Eatonville, Florida. Last night was the second of six classes in the series that will conclude on September 26th. The sense that potential was being unlocked before our eyes was palpable as the group shared positive stories of people living out moral principles – such as integrity, respect, and kindness – that are the foundation of the training. Early next year the program will be available to others who want to apply valuable leadership skills in their communities.

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Asset-Based Surveys vs. Needs-Based Surveys

Door-to-door community surveys are commonplace, especially in low income areas. I recently heard a long-term resident of such a neighborhood say, “We’re like rats in a cage here. People always studying us, trying to fix us.” Universities, non-profits, community groups, government officials – everyone wants to know “What should we do to help people in this community?” A common response to that question is, “Well, let’s first find out what people need.” This often prompts the commissioning of a needs-based survey that catalogs and prioritizes these needs. The results serve as supporting evidence for raising funds and as a baseline against which progress can be measured over time.

Asset-based approaches stem from a desire to know “What do people in the community care about enough to act on themselves?” And, “What resources are already present in the community to make a start.”  These types of surveys yield ideas, reveal trusted groups and leaders, and expose the talents and interests of residents. The survey process is used as a catalyst for conversation and the foundation of community-led initiatives.

The differences between these two approaches, and the types of surveys that result, go far beyond the mere ‘glass half-full/glass half-empty’ perspective. They are actually two different glasses used for two different purposes and having two different primary financial beneficiaries. The purpose of the needs-based ‘glass’ is to provide services to a community while the purpose of the asset-based ‘glass’ is to engage community interests and skills. The needs-based glass is designed to primarily benefit service providers financially while the asset-based glass should primarily benefits residents financially. Both approaches involve needs and assets and both can be viewed from ‘half-full/half-empty’ perspectives. The difference is in who owns the glass – service providers or residents – and what’s in the glass – talents of service providers or talents of residents.

For entities outside of a community that want to help, following an asset-based approach means doing things with the community rather than for the community. It requires emphasizing and utilizing what the community has to offer over what it lacks. And it is is distinguished by the types of initiatives that result – who is involved, what the goals are, who leads, how they are sustained, and who benefits financially. Greater community involvement results in more sustainable initiatives and greater community impact over the long term. If you want to empower a community to chart its own path forward, needs based services will never get you there. It is simply a different ‘glass’ altogether than the asset-based glass.

The table below contrasts some of the key differences between asset and needs-based surveys:

Needs-Based Surveys Asset-Based Surveys
Focus on learning about the needs of a community so that services can be provided for them or goods can be given to them. Focus on learning from a community so that initiatives can be built by the community and with the community.
Pose an extensive list of closed-ended questions to a minimum representative sample of a community. Pose a short list of open-ended questions to as many people in the community as possible.
Yield problems for which a service provider can provide solutions and programs. Yield ideas most likely to directly engage the community in addressing their hopes and concerns.
Constrains community-wide vision of the future. Unlocks community-wide vision of the future.

 

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Community Transformation: Top Down or Bottom Up?

Polis often gets asked, “Does community transformation happen from the top down or the bottom up?” It might be surprising to hear that the answer is “yes.”  It takes both, plus a concerted effort from the middle. This is what makes the Polis model distinct and effective. Bottom-up efforts tend to run into capacity issues while top-down efforts often struggle to sustain community engagement. Both bottom-up and top-down efforts often fail to yield an impact, particularly in chronically distressed neighborhoods. The key is in the middle. Polis focuses on directly connecting the interests of high capacity investors (top-down) with the interests of residents of distressed neighborhoods (bottom up). The result is transformation.

Polis has developed a proven methodology to make it work. It requires listening intently to the residents of a particular distressed neighborhood while simultaneously listening intently to caring people of substantial means who want their ideas, talents, and social connections as well as their charitable dollars to truly make a difference. These are often highly successful business people. Both of these groups have too often been ignored. The business people have been seen almost exclusively as funders for needs based services and poor residents have been seen almost exclusively as clients for needs based services. Polis works directly with both groups, maps assets at all levels, and creates opportunities for them to come together in ways that lead to measurable change.

Working in a small geographic area (less than a square mile) with a dedicated Investor Council of high capacity leaders, residents are recruited, trained, and employed to do the work of community building. In the process, they learn important workplace skills, build helpful community initiatives, and make some money. The initiatives that are built garner additional support as needed but maintain at least 50% involvement from residents at all levels (staff, volunteers, clients). The initiatives are aligned with goals from the Investor Council in order to make measurable improvements in key areas such as wellness, housing, education, and income.

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