"I do not give a fig about simplicity on this side of complexity; but I would give my arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity" - Oliver Wendell Holmes
I remember reading this quote years ago and pondering its impact. Justice Holmes wrote this in contemplation of the law. He relished the simple notion of the US legal system, innocent, until proven guilty. Yet in law today, as in Justice Holmes day, is decidedly complex. Many an innocent person, has been convicted of wrongdoing. Indeed, we know today that the "Innocence Project," an effort to use DNA evidence, has freed over 100 previously convicted people in the US who were thought to be guilty.
Justice Holmes knew that even an accusation in many situations, was tantamount to being convicted. He knew how complex the law is, and how difficult it is to get on the simple side of complexity.
With all due respect to Justice Holmes, I believe the same adage can apply in the field of human services. There are hundreds of thousands of people that are not active, engaged, or included in the general community. These people include persons with disabilities, elderly folks, individuals encased in poverty, and people who are experiencing mental health issues. The simple notion for these people is that they would love to be involved, included, or active in community, yet, they are caught in a huge web of complexity. This complexity is tied to their condition, situation, eccentricity, or perceived problem. In essence, they are thought to have a highly complex problem or issue.
As I have pondered this phenomenon in my 40 plus years as an advocate in the disability arena, I can't help not thinking about Justice Holmes admonition. How do we get to the simple notion of community inclusion, when we are confronted with these huge complexities of disability, age, or poverty? And then it hit me. We are caught in a "micro" web of analysis, and this complexity of condition has blinded us to the simple notion of community engagement. Allow me to explain.
The Micro Perspective
All people want simple things. They want to be able to get a job to earn money, they want to do meaningful things with their time, they want to live around people they like, they want to be able to get around and engage in the community, and they want to build relationships.
Yet, when people begin to experience struggles, or demands that can be complex, like the advent of a disability, or challenges brought on by aging, or economic struggles that can occur in the natural rhythms of life, these people get thrown (referred) into a complex web of actions. That is, often these people enter systems, or agencies that are hell bent on helping them, but look at their situation through the lens of their disability or infirmity.
This micro interpretation has good intentions, but much like the complex legal system, it can lose sight of the simple goals, and begin to push the person to change, adjust, or fix their problem so they can fit in to a perceived community norm. As noble as it is, the micro perspective can become a "black hole" that encases the "client" and puts demands on them that can be unrealistic, or impossible.
In my career as an advocate, I bought this paradigm and began to build programs and services that attempted to change or fix people with disabilities so they could fit into the greater community. Yet, at the end of the day, people we supported remained disconnected and socially isolated. In some twisted way, we projected these failures on the "client." We thought that they were just not motivated, or able to do the things they need to be included, or worse, we began to create alternative solutions. We developed group homes, sheltered workshops, special education classes, special recreation and initiated a "dualistic society." In essence, we gave up on the simple notion of community.
A Macro Perspective
Yet, if we can awaken as advocates, and start to think about the other side of the inclusion agenda, we might find more answers to the simple notion of community. That is, if you can not change, fix, or ameliorate a challenging condition, is this the end of the story? I think not. Indeed, there is an entirely new playing field, full of possibilities and opportunities if we just begin to look at the other side of the challenge and take a macro approach.
This perspective suggests that it is not our differences that divide us, but our judgments about these differences. That is, once our judgments expand, then the challenge of inclusion lessens. Think about it. You may have had a particular judgment about something, bore out of ignorance, or misunderstanding. But once you became more closely introduced to a situation, your judgment might have changed. Allow me a story here.
A number of years ago, I had a colleague who was deeply homophobic. He was anti-gay, and always using slurs and degrading references. Worse, he even used the Bible to endorse his views using the Book of Leviticus to justify his judgments. Time marched on, and he came to learn that one of his sons was gay. This was a telling, and taxing experience for him. As adamant as he was with his position, the closeness of family began to chip away at his judgments. With the social influence of his family and friends he began to change his judgments and soon, became an outspoken advocate for the inclusion of all people. Indeed, he even began to re-read the Bible, and for every negative interpretation he found that could relate to homosexuality, he found 10 more references about loving your neighbor, and opening your heart to all people.
Now this story has an interesting relevance to a macro perspective. That is, my friend's initial judgments were that gay folks were the problem. If only these people could wake up and change their orientation, then all would be well. This is the epitome of the micro perspective. Identify and then change the gay individual’s problem.
Yet, in a macro interpretation, the real problem was the judgment of my friend. And in the end, the change was there. Once he became closely connected to what he perceived as the problem, he began to change. There are important lessons for us in this story.
A macro agenda redefines the problem; it begins to re-interpret what normal might be and has its roots in culture change. It is an anthropological perspective, not a clinical or therapeutic one.
Now this notion of culture change or community change is not a "silver bullet" or panacea. It is not some easy quick fix. One just needs to look at macro, community history of any social movement to understand how challenging and tedious it can be.
Still, in the scheme of things, this macro agenda offers so much more possibility to us, than the micro, "change the person" approach.
And so Justice Holmes was right after all. Any thinking human service advocate would do well to look at the opposite side of their community agenda. If we want to help people do meaningful things and get jobs, what are the judgments of the employers; if we want people to be engaged in the community, what are the judgments of the "typical" folks in those communities? This thinking reframes the target. How can we get the "typical" person in the community to change their perspective on disability, or aging, or any other situation that disconnects people?
There is much more that can and should be said about macro change, but it is clear to me now, the first step in this macro agenda, begins with the development of "social capital" or the relationships in a persons life. That is, rather than segregating people into programmatic systems, how can we develop opportunities for disconnected folks to build social capital in the greater community.