Bienvenido a Oaxaca?05 Jul 2011
About 30 minutes after writing my last post, I got mugged. On the side of a busy road, in broad daylight. Ciertamente, soy un gringo! I was using my phone outside the Instituto Cultural for a few minutes, and a dude ran up to me, flicking a switchblade out of his pocket. Dame , dame el teléfono! — Give me the phone! Obviously, I did. I’m mostly glad that he didn’t take my wallet or stab me – plenty to be grateful for.
A good friend of mine got me the book Whatever It Takes for my recent birthday. It’s about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization he created that takes a fundamentally different approach to fighting poverty than any other I’ve ever heard of. The book is a) incredibly well-written, b) dealing with subjects that are both fascinating and vital, and c) the only book I brought on this trip, so I’ve now read it cover-to-cover 3 times.
HCZ was created out of a frustration with the way that existing social service organizations intrinsically single out subgroups within poor populations to receive aid. This is especially true (and especially problematic) in education.
For example, I grew up attending two wonderful charter schools. I wouldn’t trade the education I received at them for anything, but it’s a huge privilege to have attended. Despite the fact that charter schools are open to anyone, it takes a certain kind of parent to investigate alternatives to a district school, to enter the charter school lottery, and to commit to the extra work that attending a charter school often entails (transportation, etc.). At their best, charter schools are laboratories for new ideas in education, prioritizing community outreach and underserved populations, but at their worst, they reinforce existing class and race divisions. Dedicated administrators, like those at the schools I attended, have their work cut out for them in trying to avoid the latter.
This dynamic is present in lots of organizations, and Geoffrey Canada wanted to change it. HCZ is comprised of a series of programs (parenting help, preschool, elementary, middle, and high school, and more), designed to provide a seamless “conveyor belt” of social improvement programs for children from before they’re even born to the time they graduate high school, and beyond. It’s based on the substantial research showing that the earlier you intervene in an underserved and underskilled child’s life, the easier it is to get them back on track. Canada wanted to change the lives not just of a few kids who he happened to reach, but of the entire population of Harlem, in a rigorous and scalable fashion. HCZ gets far closer to that goal than any other organization I’ve ever heard of, and is likely to be the only way to make any kind of serious headway on urban poverty.
So once the initial shock of being on the wrong end of a knife died down (and after realizing that my mugger probably needs the phone more than I do), I got to thinking about the sort of society that creates people like him. Obviously, being poor doesn’t excuse turning to crime — but lecturing about the moral failings of the poor doesn’t do much for society either. In Mexico, as in Harlem, there are probably specific interventions, especially in the lives of children, that could drastically transform the way society treats its poor, and drastically increase their upward mobility. Effectively, HCZ is a systems thinking approach to poverty, and it marks a much more realistic way of looking at the problem, one that we upper-middle class white Americans should try to internalize. Given the amount of resources we have available to deal with poverty, we should be doing a much better job of thinking about how to allocate them effectively.