Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Black Swans" and community

What we are up to here in inner city Dallas is the pursuit of a “Black Swan,” to use the term made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the best-selling book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

Taleb’s study of the strange world of truth and probability takes its title from the world of birds.

Until the discovery of Australia, Europeans were convinced that all swans were white. This Old World belief was based on observation and empirical evidence. All swans were white. . .until black swans were seen on the new continent.

The concern of the book is not bird watching, but to demonstrate the “fragility of our knowledge” drawn both from personal observation and firsthand experience.

The book is a must read, at least in my view.

So, back to our pursuit of “Black Swans.”

Every day we pursue what is usually seen by others as the improbable.

We believe that communities can experience significant breakthroughs that contain the potential to change just about everything. We believe in people and their capacity, no matter if they are trapped in poverty. We believe that inner city youth who grow up in very low-income neighborhoods can go to college. We believe public health outcomes can improve as community connectivity and leadership improves. We believe poor people can make significant contributions to the improvement of life in our communities. We believe that mixed income neighborhoods and development plans are better than economically segregated neighborhoods with their exclusionary approaches.

We believe strongly in all sorts of possibilities that more normal people, living in more routine circumstances would surely consider "long shots."

As a result, we think differently about just about everything around here. From education, to housing, to banking, to work, to spirituality, to what is ultimately most important.

I suppose this explains my affinity to a section of Taleb’s book dealing with community. Here’s part of what he believes about the importance of groups:

We are local animals, interested in our immediate neighborhood—even if people far away consider us total idiots. Those homo sapiens are abstract and remote and we don't care about them because we do not run into them in elevators or make eye contact with them. Our shallowness can sometimes work for us.

It may be a banality that we need others for many things, but we need them far more than we realize, particularly for dignity and respect. Indeed, we have very few historical records of people who have achieved anything extraordinary without such peer validation—but we have the freedom to choose our peers. If we look at the history of ideas, we see schools of thought occasionally forming, producing unusual work unpopular outside the school. . . . A school allows someone with unusual ideas with the remote possibility of a payoff to find company and create a microcosm insulated from others. The members of the group can be ostracized together—which is better than being ostracized alone.

If you engage in a Black Swan—dependent activity, it is better to be part of a group.

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