I want to find ways of empowering communities to provide a nourishing and supportive environment for children. Based on the theory of change, I need to understand the factors that have led to community apathy.
How do we learn? We learn from our interactions with the environment. Those interactions can be direct or indirect. Positive interactions are infectious; they often lead to more positive interactions. As we become more confident; we explore, take risks (sensible) and open ourselves to others. We recognize our worthiness and in so doing we find our voice. Children learn the same way. Early positive interactions lead to healthy strong foundations. A nourishing and supportive environment filled with love and respect increases the chances that children will develop the social, emotional and civic skills to lead productively healthy and happy lives. Unfortunately, many children born into underserved, neglected communities never develop these skills; instead, they develop maladaptive foundations that lead to high risk and self-destructive behaviors.
These underserved, neglected environments are usually toxic on many fronts. Mired in neglect and sparse resources the physical environment is depressing with exposure to chemical and biological toxins that are harmful to developing brains. The social environment is often riddled with exposure to stress, mental illness, violence and severe apathy. This too leads to neurologic problems in the fragile developing brains of children. There are also genetic predispositions that are unleashed in these stressful surroundings. Children learn from their interactions with the environment. They see and feel neglect, violence, abuse and isolation. These underserved isolated environments stack the odds in favor of maladaptive foundations.
Some may say, “so what!” Far too often, that is sometimes the prevailing mentality of those who do not reside or come in contact with this world. Through the media, they view the inhabitants as lazy, violent people living on welfare. They do not understand that these people are stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, hopelessness and helplessness. Who are we as a society if we discard and not help the most vulnerable? Such a question does not resonate well in this economic environment where many are struggling and the media reinforces negative stereotypes. They need to be reminded of the financial cost of doing nothing : the cost of health care, the cost of homelessness, the cost of violence, the cost of incarceration and finally, the cost of contagion because we are connected.
What can we do? The reality is our resources are limited. The political backlash from the “Robin Hood” mentality of the past has polarized this country. Increasing Medicaid and subsidized benefits are not the solutions, they have not worked yet. These programs not only stigmatize but further isolate these communities and their residents, thereby, compounding the feelings of helplessness. These communities like individuals need to feel empowered. They need the joy and sense of accomplishment that accompany small victories of self-determination. Just think about the small victories we each encounter in our lives and the confidence they instilled. These victories are contagious; they make us do more and they motivate those surrounding us to do more. This positive contagion can be achieved within communities. Suddenly, neurons will fire, painting a brighter image of these communities and the individuals within them. They will recognize the power of working together and I believe that will translate into community pride and respect, and eventually that respect will spread to the larger society. Such an environment is a good start for children.