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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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#MyGivingStory

This year we invite you to take a few minutes to reflect on what you love about the Polis Institute. Maybe it’s our foundational resources and trainings, like Dignity Serves or Asset-Based Community Development. Maybe our Growth Leadership program helped you dream again about what you’d like to see improved in your neighborhood. Perhaps it’s the monthly COOP meeting that inspires you or reminds you that people care about and are invested in our city’s well-being. Or maybe one of our initiatives shifted the way you view and value other people and how you do the work that you do. Whatever the impact you feel POLIS has made in your life, we encourage you to share your story on #MyGivingStory this holiday.

From #MyGivingStory:
#MyGivingStory is a nationwide campaign and social media storytelling contest that will foster a public discussion about the reasons people give. Working in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook, “everyday givers” reflect upon why they give to a certain nonprofit organization and then share these personal stories on social media. (The winners’ featured nonprofit organizations will receive $2,500-10,000 grants.)

If you feel like you don’t have a lot to give this year, remember there are many ways to give back to the people and organizations that have shaped you – lend your voice and experience this year by filling out this short form. We’ll be glad to hear the impact we’ve had in folks lives over the years.

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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.