Nov 20, 2013

America's Disparity Dust Bowl

In many Cincinnati neighborhoods, and in communities across America, people are suffering. Economic disparities, educational disparities, health disparities, drugs, crime, violence, and the gradual erosion of supportive cultures have left substantial numbers of Americans stuck where they are, unable to make progress in their lives.

This stuck point has the potential to become a starting point. However, existing social service and economic development models have not stopped the pileup of disparities and societal consequences, and have not proven capable of delivering health, peace, and prosperity to disadvantaged populations.

Consequently, America’s “stuck people” find themselves living in a devastated environment of trauma, crisis, and disorder. This is a Disparity Dust Bowl. Research tells us that this affects people in significant ways.

Thinking is affected. Trauma, medical issues, and adverse life events cause people to lose “executive function,” the ability to make plans or take action when there are no clear guidelines.

Feelings are affected. People who experience trauma early in life have difficulty regulating emotions. Poverty, separation, and loss generate shame, fear, sadness, loneliness, and anger. Unfortunately, American culture makes it difficult for people to rebuild the capacity to be vulnerable and trusting. This is a key step in resolving shame, overcoming the negative emotional burden, and achieving the level of emotional regulation essential to success in educational settings and the business world.

Relationships are distorted. Social relationships facilitate every type of learning, in part through the psychological process of modeling, but after generations of life in the Disparity Dust Bowl, there are few positive, capable models to be had. This distortion becomes magnified by insidious cultural forces. Once disparity-distorted thinking infects popular culture, positive people become social outcasts.

Information is missing. Time and technology move forward even if people are stuck in troubled circumstances. Resource disparities limit opportunities to travel and explore the larger world.

Marginalization increases exponentially over time. The inherent human process of labeling, social distancing, and stigma assigns people to disadvantaged or devalued categories, and dishes out unequal results. Teachers drawn from disparity-afflicted cultures share many disadvantages with the people they serve. Public resources are often withheld from low-income institutions. Even brilliant students remain disadvantaged compared to those outside the Disparity Dust Bowl, because they lack access to broader social context.

Today's Disparity Dust Bowl has become a complex system driven by negative thinking. It operates with relentless self-reinforcing logic. Once economic, health, and power disparities combine with the innate human processes of stigma and social distancing, people who experience disparities are labeled not only as less advantaged but inherently deficient.

The deficiency driven system constantly measures and reports the extent of personal deficiency. People come to adopt their labels as their core identities. This process drives cultures to a tipping point. Once enough individual people are labeled as failures, entire populations become blind to their strengths. Without strengths to draw on, people get stuck.

What is needed today are techniques that get people unstuck, methods that promote cognitive function, support emotional regulation, encourage healthy relationships, and motivate people to overcome barriers such as information deficits and marginalization. We need to help people rediscover the innate human problem-solving toolkit, so they can engage the world from a position of strength. And everyone who works to reduce the effects of the Disparity Dust Bowl needs tools that reveal the strengths of the people they serve.

I have spent the greater portion of my career trying to identify methods with sufficient power to address the effects of the Disparity Dust Bowl. Achieving “somewhat less deficiency” is not enough. In order to counter the effects of a deficiency-driven system, we must challenge the logic of the system itself. We must maximize and mobilize innate strengths, and develop capacities from there.

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