NYT Article Promotes Neighborhood as the Unit of Change.

No, starfish are not saved one by one.

Oct. 18, 2018

You’ve probably heard the starfish story. There’s a boy on the beach who finds thousands of starfish washed ashore, dying. He picks one up and throws it back into the ocean. A passer-by asks him what’s the point of that. All these thousands of other starfish are still going to die. “Well,” the boy responds, “I saved that one.”

Many of our social programs are based on that theory of social change. We try to save people one at a time. We pick a promising kid in a neighborhood and give her a scholarship. Social programs and philanthropic efforts cream skim in a thousand ways. Or they mentor one at a time, assuming that the individual is the most important unit of social change.

Obviously it’s possible to do good that way. But you’re not really changing the structures and systems that shape lives.

Maybe the pool story is a better metaphor than the starfish story. As a friend of mine puts it, you can’t clean only the part of the pool you’re swimming in.

neighborhoods as the unity of change
Thinking in neighborhood terms means radical transformation in how change is done.Martha Irvine/Associated Press

It could be that the neighborhood, not the individual, is the essential unit of social change. If you’re trying to improve lives, maybe you have to think about changing many elements of a single neighborhood, in a systematic way, at a steady pace.

One of the signature facts of the internet age is that distance is not dead. Place matters as much as ever, and much more than we ever knew.

Read More https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/18/opinion/neighborhood-social-infrastructure-community.html

Some research supporting the concept 

Low-income children who moved at birth from the low upward-mobility area of Seattle’s Central District to the high upward-mobility area of Shoreline earned, at age 35, $9,000 a year more than those who had made this move in their 20s.

Shoreline is 10 miles from the Central District.

In a classic study, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg showed just how important neighborhood is in determining who survives in a crisis. Klinenberg compared deaths in two Chicago neighborhoods during a heat wave in 1995. More than six times as many people died in North Lawndale as in South Lawndale, even though the two places are demographically comparable.

The fact is that human behavior happens in contagious, networked ways. Suicide, obesity and decreasing social mobility spread as contagions…

David Brooks, NYT 10.19.18

Thinking in neighborhood terms requires a radical realignment in how you see power structures. Does the neighborhood control its own networks of care, or are there service providers coming down from above? Do the local norms of interaction need to be changed? For example, do people feel it’s normal to knock on a neighbor’s door and visit, or would that be considered a dangerous invasion of privacy? Are there forums where the neighborhood can tell its collective story?


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David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and the forthcoming book “The Committed Life: When You Give Yourself Away.”

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