The Bear And The Ladle, Part II

In Profiles & Interviews by Katya Smyth1 Comment

If, in part I, we were urged to adjust our lens for viewing social problems, Katya Smyth continues the disruption here, making the case for thinking across boundaries as we attack those problems and for combining our minds long before we combine our data.

If I am a homeless survivor of domestic violence with mental health issues and a predilection for pain medication, who dropped out of high school to work but haven’t actually worked in 20 years, I will encounter multiple well-meaning actors who each prioritize their solutions as the key for me to unlock a brighter future, whether by acquiring housing, securing safety from violence, gaining mental health stability, attaining sobriety, or obtaining my GED

Forget about it.

Who could possibly manage all of those keys to the future, particularly if each is being presented to me as “the most important key” of all? Collect all the data in the world on me and how I do in each of those programs: even if I am successful in the short term in each of them, and even if they are evidence-based, they probably won’t add up to my success.

Even if they are all coordinated, they may still be connecting the stars to make a bear, while I have a very different way to see the same set of stars – a way that might send us down the road of collecting very different data and paying attention to data differently.

You see, I think the stars form a ladle.  And so, I want you to pay attention to the smaller, fainter stars that make this a great Big Dipper. Not a bear.

Because for the “me” suggested above, perhaps the real key is connection with my kids and taking care of my mom, and having something to do where I can stop feeling like a burden on other people. Of course it would help if I were to stop doing drugs, get a job, take my medications, and deal with my homelessness. I’m all for that; but, I’m telling you about a ladle, and you’re trying to convince me it’s a bear.

There are new harms created when people live their lives striving honestly for one goal while we’re gathering data to measure how we’re doing in getting them to reach a different and competing one.

The point is not to say who is right: I’m not sure there is a lock on truth here. I just don’t think we should automatically assume a bear. In our efforts to support change and transformation in people’s lives, we haven’t even created the space for the conversation about whether it’s a bear, a Big Dipper, or something completely different. Thus, we are potentially creating a dissonance with the experience people actually live. The person left to sustain and resolve that dissonance is usually the survivor of violence, the client, the participant.

This isn’t simply about participant voice in defining or evaluating services. It’s  more basic than that:

It’s about understanding the multiple voices of a constituency not only to design services or programs, but to inform policy.

It means challenging our own assumptions about why people enter services to begin with, or why they leave.

We aren’t talking about the difference between a Grizzly Bear and a Polar Bear here: we’re talking about a large mammal and inanimate kitchen object. The difference matters.

What if the data we collect and crunch are making our analysis of problems more ossified and entrenched, instead of porous and assailable. What if the quest for data is moving us further and further away from doing the good we intend?

We risk creating new damage, inefficiencies, and barriers when those who have the power and privilege of defining the constellations and determining the definitions of success for other people are not even aware of where those constellations are either at odds with or aligned with the definitions of the people who live in them.

There’s awareness of this problem.

In some programs, there is a real effort to ask the fundamental questions. But even in these programs, where does the data about what’s wrong with how we’re framing the problem trickle up to the rest of us? It usually doesn’t.

There are no mechanisms, no incentives to broach the question without a lot of proof, proof that takes time and money to collect, time and money that are hard to come by, especially if you’re a close-to-the-ground organization.

On a macro level, there are bright spots. A federal emphasis on “well-being” for families served by child welfare agencies—recognizing that safety is critical but not the whole story—may better match families’ goals for themselves, allowing state systems to better support and channel people’s aspirations and energy.

In another example, The Full Frame Initiative has recently received funding to work statewide in California to surface how definitions of success converge and diverge among survivors of domestic violence, advocates, service providers, funders, and policy makers.

The decision of what data we collect paints a picture of what it means to be successful for those whose lives play out in “target populations,” “outcome measures,” and “assessment scores.” Paying more attention to this may be the ultimate arbiter of whether we—all of us, collectively—are successful.