Monday, March 11, 2019

On power, celebration and the 5:1 ratio [Because math]

Originally published on medium

Science tells us that negative events and information impact our brain more than positive events and information. Partially because, well, survival.

The most recent ratio I can find in a rather quick google search is 5 to 1. It takes five positive experiences to outweigh one negative one.

This 5:1 ratio often comes to the forefront of my mind when civic issues are debated in St. Louis.

It is more than well documented that St. Louis has stark disparities that fall along racial lines (pick a report. Pick any report). The list of local historical events in the distant and the immediate past that have accentuated these stark disparities (another report) is documented as well. It is also fact that our city is majority people of color — mostly black — and that our region has a larger percentage-black population than our nation. So while there are racial disparities across the country, it’s easy to see why they are accentuated in St. Louis (even for similar urban areas, our percentage-black population is outsized in comparison to other racial and ethnic minority populations—said another way, we’re less diverse).

Based on local election outcomes over the past few years, documented protest activity (who is in the streets, who has gotten arrested), and the existence of organizations like We Stories (with over 700 families, mostly white, specifically focused on disrupting racism via children’s literature and family discussion) it is also clear that it isn’t only people who belong to non-white demographic groups who care and act when it comes to issues that are tied to the continuation of said disparities.

I’ve made the assertion before (“Ignore STL’s racial divide at your own peril”) that I believe a majority of people in the city care and act toward disrupting these disparate outcomes. They are either currently directly impacted, generationally impacted and/or are in relationship with someone who is impacted. Or they just see and understand deeply how unsustainable the current realty is. I’m not as confident that that holds true when you add in St. Louis County, but recent election results (Wesley Bell’s and Lisa Clancy’s wins come to mind) indicate some momentum in that direction.

Historical patterns + lived experience = urgent and prioritized push for change by more people than can be ignored. Add in the layer of the 5:1 ratio and you can start to see how we’re stuck.

But there’s another important aspect we seem to be missing lately that is adding to the growing agita: a sense of power differential.

While disparate outcomes are reported as statistics at a population level, they represent the very real challenges, heartache, stress, and disenfranchisement that are part of individual people’s everyday lives. This makes population or region-level actions by organizations and institutions take on a very personal nature. Real or perceived (spoiler alert: real), disparities are perpetuated by The Way Things are Done and can only be shifted by Doing Things Differently.

Historical patterns + lived experience = urgent and prioritized push for organizations and institutions to Do Things Differently.

Organizations and institutions — and individuals when acting on behalf of either — by definition have more power than individuals impacted by or aware of the impact of disparities. Organizations and institutions (and individuals in their roles within them) control resources and the flow of resources, hold authority assigned by the city or state (licensing, permitting, fines and fees, etc), have access to or influence on decision-making that impacts all citizens, access to wide audiences, and so on.

Power immediately puts an organization or institution _on different footing_. Twitter fights, media pieces with quotes or interviews, public beefs, whatever — any time an institutional voice is presented as an evenly weighed comparison or counterpoint to an individual’s voice, it is a presentation void the reality of power and results in a blow to our trust in organizations and institutions.

It is this mashup of the 5:1 ratio, growing awareness, and dismissed power differential that is widening our divide at a time when we desperately need all hands and brains on deck. We stand on a foundation of unacknowledged and unhealed historical patterns of mistrust and hurt between institutions and citizens. So today, when an organization or institution takes action or makes a declaration as though we are starting anew, it lands as gut punch to a growing number of people, leaning into the grooves of the well-worn pattern of distrust.

When this disconnect is ignored, even a positive action can do more damage than good. The point is not “positive” vs. “negative,” the point is whether or not a growing number of people feel seen, heard, and valued (we need 5 of these) rather than dismissed, ignored, and erased (for every one of these).

We have great things happening in St. Louis and anyone who has been in the vicinity of a business class or TED Talk can tell you that a key part of moving forward is “celebrating wins.” _And_ (not “but”), because it takes at least 5 positive things to reset a negative experience, it gets complicated really quickly.

It’s complicated when we celebrate things that only some experience to be true, and in some cases experience the opposite.

It’s complicated when we make national news for really deep-seated and charged stuff and the local response becomes “but look over here at the good stuff.”

It’s even more complicated when the celebration revolves around an institution at odds with the experience of a growing number of individuals.

If you’re reading this and hearing “only be negative,” “never be positive,” or “don’t celebrate the good stuff,” I invite you to take a second read or, better yet, share what is reading that way to you in the comments. I am offering that there is something deeper we all have to grapple with. I don’t assert to be “right” in the traditional sense, I’m offering what I’ve seen play out up close, over and over again. Regardless of who is “right,” we are stuck. I believe we can get unstuck — in fact, I believe we are on our way—but it will be infinitely harder and slower if we can’t start hearing each other on this one. It will also be hard and take time to start hearing each other.

How can we work together to stop the “negative” things from happening and collectively own the work that’s needed to mitigate them when they do happen?

How can we be intentional about making and investing in the space it takes to acknowledge our past harm and heal from it, so that it doesn’t play itself out anew with every announcement, election, or major event?

How do we celebrate without erasing?

When land is found to contain substances we now know to be hazardous, we invest in remediation. When an inspection finds damage to the foundation of a building, we don’t build anyway, we address the foundational issues before buying or building, or we don’t buy or build.

There is no foundation quite like the foundation of St. Louis, MO. It’s our inheritance, regardless of whether we want it to be. And we have a growing number of people telling us that the foundation is not sound for 21st century progress. They care enough to call attention to it, and they want all of us to put in the work of fixing it, because they see the potential of what we all know we’re uniquely capable of building if we do the work to come together.