Friday, July 27, 2012

Problem-solving: a skill we desperately need

I've had the good fortune to live and work with people who have devoted themselves to solving problems. They are really the unsung heroes of our communities. They are the ones who fix the things that are broken in our systems or carve out new paths to bypass the old, dysfunctional ones. These people work in a variety of fields. I'm not just talking about those who work in healthcare, law, social work, or pastoral care. I'm talking about people in almost any field out there. Heck, I could even be talking about you.

I've come to realize over time that people in general spend a lot of time and energy making much ado over nothing. We invest so much capital in symbolic battles against those whom we perceive as our enemies, and we do this in big ways and small ways. People who spend much of their free time gossiping about and undermining personal enemies do it. So do political parties and other large entities that thrive on creating controversy and provoking outrage. And these actions come at a cost. What they add up to, at the end of the day, are symbolic victories, but the real foundational problems remain in our communities.

You want some examples? Look at the state of contemporary American politics. More specifically, look at the kinds of legislation that American conservatives have been pushing for all over the nation in the past few years. I'm talking about those laws that focus on issues that conservatives consider to be key to the nation's moral fabric: abortion, contraception, gay marriage and civil unions.

If you happen to be conservative, you may consider these nationwide legislative victories to be a great accomplishment for your side. But there's one thing you should be worried about vis-à-vis this kind of legislation: It's the fact that the legislators making it happen are doing it as part of a cynical calculation. The idea is this: By achieving these symbolic legislative victories, they signal to the people who voted for them that they have done what they were put in office to do. They subsequently win the loyalty of their constituents, but they have absolutely no incentive to work on legislation that actually solves the biggest problems facing their communities (e.g. unemployment, the failing health care system, malnutrition).

Today, American communities battling poverty, health crises, and other long-term problems are not actually dealing with these problems. Not in terms of policy, anyway. The problems are not even on the agenda. And the not-so-funny thing is this: When problems are ignored, they do not vanish. In fact, they have this knack of growing bigger and bigger. An apt illustration of this is Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the U.S., where conservative legislative efforts have been focused on making the one abortion clinic in the state next to impossible to operate. In the meantime, the average Mississippian is struggling to make it from day to day, living in the margins.

If you're on the ground in these communities, the situation is very frightening. To use a Kenyanism, things are elephant (there's a huge catastrophe impending). You watch as the existing problems are compounded; perhaps you even know what is broken in the system and how to fix it. But you also know that any proposals you make for policy changes will come to nought. Only if your proposal stands to make somebody somewhere a fat load of cash will it see the light of day.

In Kenya, I see pretty much the same kind of inertia about solving problems. The symbolic battles fought in the media are often flimsily disguised battles about ethnic supremacy. Occasionally, they're about religious supremacy and morality. Many Kenyan politicians and religious leaders alike are highly vocal about these kinds of issues. They know that they are effective in rallying support, and 'consolidating the base.' And they are successful: For some reason, people gain tremendous satisfaction from boisterously supporting or opposing some cause or another, and don't seem to mind that their shouts and rallies do nothing to ease their lives. When all is said and done, the old problems persist in the community: poverty, chronic health issues, food insecurity, environmental degradation, and others.

The people I consider heroes in this anti-pragmatic climate are the ones who live in our communities, recognize our problems, and put in the hard work necessary to solve them in their own small way. If they have private capital, they use it to put their ideas into practice. If they don't, they reach out to others in the community with similar interests and they leverage their resources to craft solutions. When they face obstacles due to political obstructionism, corruption, etc, they don't give up. They simply look for a way to bypass them. Their main aim is to solve the identified problem, not to get fame for it, and not to profit materially from it. So they labor on quietly, achieving little victories and making a big difference in the lives of some.

Their victories do not lie in reaching large numbers of people. Even if only a few people's lives are improved, the problem-solvers' achievements remain meaningful. They form a template that the rest of us can borrow from. We can learn from them: We can learn about the techniques they used and adopt their attitiudes. Hopefully, by adopting their active approach to life, we can solve some of our larger problems.

These thoughts didn't come to me out of the blue. I've been pondering on them for a long time. Part of my motivation has to do with the work I have done as a volunteer, and my exposure to others who have volunteered in other contexts. Part of my inspiration actually comes from observing those religious and ideological communities that place a high premium on self-sufficiency (sometimes due to a history of persecution). Even in those cases where I disagree with their core teachings, I find that they have valuable attitudes and practices that have helped them to thrive. Some of the groups (broadly-defined) that come to mind include the American nucleus of the Church of Latter Day Saints and the survivalist movement in the United States.

One of my more recent inspirations was Dylan Ratigan, who until recently hosted a show that was part of MSNBC's daily line-up. It seemed to me that he placed a high premium on getting beyond partisan squabbles to discuss real problems and solutions. I don't know how successful a recipe that was for TV. Addressing real issues is hardly ever sensational enough to attract consistently high ratings. But I did take away from his show the urgency of pulling our heads out of the ground and getting to work. In the last installment of his show, he emphasized this philosophy and described his intention to continue working with those who were committed to developing solutions to the problems in their communities. He also wrote briefly about the same in one of his Huffington Post articles.

Another huge inspiration comes from Iran, via Mississippi: A description of a community health project that is intended to reach the rural poor. I've already linked to the relevant article above, but here it is again: These folks are working with very little institutional support, but their ideas are clearly solid. I can't help wishing that they could rally the support of local communities, especially churches, and mobilize the public to raise funds for their endeavors.

Working together to build the community is a learned skill. Some people are fortunate enough to be born in communities where this skill is taught. Others are born in communities where it is underemphasized. For those living in communities of the latter type, learning how to organize to solve practical problems is a godsend.

Reading about these kinds of communities makes me realize just how important effective community organizing is. We tend to think of community organizing as facilitating civic protest. But it can help communities achieve much more than that. Surely, it can help communities develop solutions to their healthcare problems. It can also help them educate families about healthy nutritional practices and sustainable living.

One of the fundamental lessons I have learnt from my experiences and from others is that one's capacity to be an effective problem solver is drastically diminished if he/ she is an outsider to the community. How can one propose practical long-term solutions when he/ she hasn't lived in a community and doesn't know in precise detail what kinds of complications govern the community members' lives? This seems obvious. It also explains why the best solutions for community problems are homegrown solutions. One can't simply translate solutions wholesale from another community. They have to be tried out locally and modified to suit local circumstances. And for them to gain any currency in the community, they have to be seen to work for locals.

This is why I'm increasingly inclined to support the idea of people everywhere being more proactive in crafting solutions for their unique local problems using whatever resources they have at their disposal. Governments may help in some ways, but they can't do everything. In some cases, they don't do anything, not even the bare minimum that we have come to expect from them. As I write these words, I'm thinking about the annual floods and droughts in certain parts of Kenya (for example), and wondering at the fact that, even when these catastrophic events happen predictably, we still get caught unprepared. What can we realistically do in local communities to be better prepared for these kinds of crises?

To answer these kinds of questions, we need to take a close look at the social infrastructure we have. We need to look at the ways in which our communities are structured, see what kinds of social nets we have for people in times of crisis, and determine how to strengthen them. If the social net is the extended family, what can we (as individuals and families) do? If it is a local religious community, then let's work with that: what can we do? I'm interested in seeing religious activists spending less time burning boxes of condoms at rallies and more time building structures to support teen mothers who choose to keep their children, or to help AIDS patients who are stigmatized by their communities.

I'm also interested in seeing so-called tribal organizations investing their energy in mentoring young unemployed men and women and giving them internship opportunities, not indoctrinating them to hate others. How about villages? There's so much we can do, especially those of us whose communities have lost their most productive men and women to diseases such as HIV/ AIDS, TB, cancer etc. There is much more we can do to support the struggling families among us. We come equipped with active minds and bodies, so let's not wait for help from on high.

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I intend to continue blogging about this subject. It strikes me that problem-solving is undermined when one has little or no access to information. So I'm going to make it a point to share any information I come across that has the capacity to inspire and empower others. Feel free to communicate with us if you have any ideas that you'd like to share.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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