Sunday, January 8, 2012

How I learned to be a pragmatist

I've mentioned before that in my professional life I am the director of a small nonprofit. Our mission is about re-directing youth who are starting to head in the wrong direction. One of the things we do is work with youth (and their families) who have developed delinquency records prior to turning 10 years old.

What we find with those children are that 100% of them live in poverty. About 90% have parents with criminal histories and we see incidents of domestic violence, child abuse/neglect, drug abuse/mental illness in about 80% of the families. Also - about 75% of the children are African American. In other words, we're working right at the intersection of race and poverty...what the Children's Defense Fund calls the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.

This program involves heavy collaboration with our county - Child Protection, District Attorney, Public Health, etc. Most of the actual people involved are well-meaning white liberals in the land of "Minnesota Nice."

But at one point, we realized that these well-meaning people had adopted an attitude of punishing the parents in an attempt to rescue the child. Its a common approach in social services and it smacks of white privilege. Here's why...

As I said, most of the families involved are African American. For very good reasons, they don't trust "the system" to help either themselves or their children. So when the district attorney would contact them and say, "work with this program or we'll prosecute you," it was yet another threat to their family from that system. And they did everything they could to protect themselves from that - including resisting the intervention.

Its true that many of these parents were not providing the kind of home and security that their children needed. But every one of them - without a single exception - love their children and want only the best for them. But you know what...they don't trust us white folks to be much help.

So the cycle of punish and rescue continued and the children suffered.

We eventually figured out what was happening and made some adjustments. Our staff now approach these parents from the standpoint of being there to work FOR them to find ways to help their children succeed. That takes time and most of them don't believe us at first. But we stick with it and eventually form the relationship that's necessary for them to get the support and accountability they need.

So while I certainly won't join folks like Rick Santorum who think poor people should simply be left to suffer on their own, I also can't align myself with (mostly white) liberals who - in the name of helping these children - storm into situations they know nothing about and think they know what's best. Its do-gooderism run amok.

I'm not making an equivalency argument here. I'm just giving you one example (of many I could relay) about how in my experience I've come to see that any ideology that is not grounded in what works for real people facing real challenges can very quickly become part of the problem instead of the solution.


  1. Excellent diary. Thank you. I did social work and counseling for 30 years before I retired. I learned: treat your clients with respect, have empathy for their individual circumstances and cultural needs, and be a 'partner' with your client to help attain THEIR goals not your perception of what those goals ought to be.

    Also, encourage, support and celebrate the small steps rather than crying over not having giant leaps. Ultimate pragamatism, I guess. If you don't learn these lessons pretty quickly, you won't last in the job.

    Thanks again, from Aquagranny911

  2. Thank you so much, Smartypants and Aquagranny. This is such great advice and it underscores the dysfunction of liberal idealism. To them it is more important to stand by an idea of something than do the work of finding out what is effective. It's like researchers and authors who become infected with, "I thought of it, therefore it's true." People come up with an idea on how something ought to work and become infatuated with the idea of it rather than the practical application of it. Pragmatists such as ourselves strive to find out what works and are willing to abandon our ideas in favor of success.

  3. When you deal with kids you got to be pragmatic. I adopted my kids when they were 5 and 7. Pragmatism rules on kids.

    I'm not so sure about other places, tho. I was also a union organizer in MS and NM. Pragmatism leads directly to sell out. For good reasons, too.

    You have to pick your battles, and maybe the solution is to decide before you get into the battle whether its pramatic or sellout.