Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Social capital, collective action and health. . .

People who give up don't do well.

People who feel as if they have no options, no power, no hope for progress, improvement or relief don't enjoy the same level of health and wellness as others who feel like they have more control over their lives.

There is clear, empirically verifiable evidence that having choices and a sense of power over one's circumstances results in better health outcomes. The absence of a sense of personal power and control likely explains, at least in part, the health outcome disparities between white and black Americans of the same socio-economic status in the United States.

Bottom line: community organizing, activism and collective social action are prerequisites for any viable plan for neighborhood and individual advancement. This fact is why charity alone is not only an insufficient response, it is an inappropriate response in any long-term strategy for rediscovering health and hope in depressed communities.

Doing for others typically produces negative results in the lives of those we seek to "help."

Doing with others often results in a growing sense of the value and authenticity of collective efficacy and social control.

Years ago I was involved in a church's outreach to a very poor and neglected area of South Oak Cliff here in Dallas. We partnered with a neighborhood church in this very depressed area to host a giant Vacation Bible School for the children who lived nearby.

One of our volunteers during the week was a retired dentist who had never participated in anything in a neighborhood like this one. As we worked together with the community and as he observed how things actually worked in this poor part of the city, he became incensed to say the least.

"Why, these folks can't even get the city to pick up their trash on a timely and regular basis," he complained to me during one of our preparation trips to the neighborhood. I told him that he was correct in his observation and that we "weren't in North Dallas anymore!"

The facts spurred him on.

He called the City of Dallas, both the Sanitation and Code Enforcement Departments. In just a few hours the trucks were rolling through the community picking up the trash. My friend felt good, and well he should have.

The problem though was that the people who lived there permanently had not felt as if they could affect such changes with a phone call or two. He obviously possessed a power they did not enjoy.

In reflecting on our week, I have often thought that we might have made better use of our time by meeting and talking with neighbors about their sense of social control and how they could organize with us to take on-going, sustained, collective action. The outcomes would have been better and improved health outcomes would have resulted as success was achieved over a longer period of time.

Attempting to "do good" can be dangerous and even harmful affair. I am learning that the best response to people caught in poverty is to apply the "Golden Rule," remembering to treat them like I would want to be treated if I were in the same situation.

Respect, mutual action, listening and organizing to change things out of a commitment to justice is the way to proceed. And, of course, a good dose of common sense is always helpful.


benoverby said...


I wonder if this isn't so much an either/or but a both/and. That is, perhaps before we can "do with" we have to indicate a willingness to "do for." Before we can enjoy the fellowship of "fishing with" the other, we have to sometimes show him/her how to fish. I agree with your conclusion. The goal should be (whenever possible) to move toward "doing with." Thanks for the reminder!


Roland said...

Good post. There is a world of difference between, for example, giving money to someone for lunch and actually taking them to lunch.

I would take issue though with your statement of choices, as if there are some folks that have no choice. I feel that is what makes this country so great...that people have choices. It's whether or not they want to make that step of faith and actually choose. Some are just happy with the status quo.

Larry James said...

Roland, thanks for your post.

I don't think you understood my main point. The fact that I, Larry James, feel as if what I say and do alone and with others has a power to it to make things happen and to change negative factors in my environment--that fact and that fact alone provides me a sense that I have choices, power and some measure of option and control over and in my life. This sense of control and power makes me healthier. There is hard scientific research that backs up this idea.

So, if I live in a very depressed area and if I feel no one responds to my pleas for help or change, if I feel powerless as a person and as a member of a group, my health will suffer and all the charity in the world will not change that.

Your speak of individual choice as if it is the same for everyone across the board. This will lead you to the conclusion that people who are not doing well are responsible for their negative plight.

This is a hard lesson for people of privilege to comprehend. We tend to think that we are responsible for our good fortune because we have chosen well. I am finding that is not really true.

Social forces have great and often grave power over individuals and groups.

So, it is not even a matter of having a meal with someone who is hungry. It is organizing together to discover why hunger is a problem in a nation like this, why it is a problem in the lives of those who are at the table and it is planning collective action to ask the hard questions on a public stage with the reasonable expectation that we can get answers and, more importantly, change.

Larry James said...

benoverby, thanks for your post as well.

Actually, I don't think very often in "both/and" terms. What I am describing here involves a completely different paradigm of evaluation and action.

Too often we hang on to the old views when we do the "both/and" or the "either/or." What we need is a brand new way to view things and act!

Anonymous said...

Larry -

Your ability to see the truth in "doing with"
instead of "doing for"
is the difference between "neighbors" and "clients",
a clear distinction you drew years ago.

I am reminded of conversations I have with folks regarding why domestic violence victims don't just up and leave.

I use the illustration of the circus elephant tethered with a light chain.

As a baby the elephant was unable to break the chain, and was beat every time he tried.

Doesn't take long for the elephant to stop trying. His paradigm is set.

I pray for you as you continue to shift paradigms.


lacisharee said...

I like your thoughts on this topic. It seems that so often we go on missionary trips to "save" those in poverty. On most of those occasions, we are surprised to find ourselves blessed by the very people we sought to save. It is difficult to understand the lifestyles of those impoverished without living among them. My hope is that by impowering the people that need it the most, they can rise above their current problems. With the power in their hands, it is implied that their level of health will increase as well.