The impetus for a Connect Coalition nearly always begins with concern by a group of citizens over an urgent problem. Some of the common concerns are youth suicide, substance abuse, bullying, poor academic performance, and homelessness. Usually, concerned citizens want to take action and do something to solve the problem or reduce its impact. They want to mobilize, bring attention to it, and attack it. Sometimes, they identify an immediate cause of the problem such as lack of mental health services, access to guns or access to substances, ineffective attention or discipline by educators or parents, and lack of access to services and low cost housing.
The early and passionate recommendations about what needs to be done are focused on eliminating bad behavior or fixing a lack of something. This is deficit focused effort. History shows that it consumes significant energy with little or no systemic change. Sometimes, change wrought by this approach is actually for the worse. If a community rallies around what is wrong, the tendency is to see the “wrong” as someone’s fault or the fault of a group of people. The battle lines are drawn with other people or unmet standards on one side and the passionate warriors on the other.
It may be true that a city council or a school board is failing or performing badly. They may even be corrupt and negligent. There are parents and teachers who may not be doing the job they have as well as they should. There may be resources lacking and there may be too little attention being given to the problem. These realities are neither the cause of the problem or its solution. Undue focus on the problem gives it a bigger role than is useful. It causes the deficit to rise in size and normalcy to a place in which it feels like there is more problem than solution. What we talk about and give our energy to drives our attention, our attitudes and our efforts.
In early 2013 several different groups gathered in response to youth suicide in the community where I lived, Battle Ground, WA. One focused on teaching about signs and symptoms of suicide ideation and bringing awareness. They brought in speakers from University of Washington and state mental health agencies. These provided town hall type meetings, assemblies and workshops. There were over 80 people at the first meeting. Within six months, there were three.
Another group was made up of the typical community leadership; the police chief, mayor, city manager, superintendents, principals, school counselors, a few business owners, and concerned parents. There was a lot of talk that centered on the statistics, the concerns, perspectives on causes, and the “how can we stop this from happening? questions. The group did not meet more than three times. My intention is not at all to criticize these groups. I was at both meetings and I participated in all discussion enthusiastically.
Another group that gathered for the first time during that time frame ended up launching a coalition that is still running today. I had been asked by Lisa Walters, mayor at the time, to reach out to pastors for a meeting. She asked me because I ran a blog called the Battle Ground Buzz and worked at a coffee shop where all the pastors drank coffee and wrote their Sunday messages. I met with her because I was volunteering for the city planning commission. Needless to say, the meeting produced a different outcome than I had expected.
I agreed to make some calls on her behalf. It’s a rare person, especially a pastor, who will say no to a meeting request from the mayor to discuss solutions to youth suicide. There were faith leaders from almost every church in the area, as well as school board and city council members. Almost 80 people in all. I led a collaborative discussion because I found out less than 24 hours before that Lisa was expecting me to lead the meeting. Collaboration is a great way to hide evidence that you don’t know what you’re doing.
I asked the group to break into small groups and discuss what might be the cause of youth suicide in our community. The consensus after about 20 minutes was isolation and lack of felt intrinsic value. These are conditions that are common in our highly individualistic culture so it makes sense that we would pass them on to our kids.
We then went back to our groups to discuss our response strategy. The end result of that discussion was a unanimous commitment to becoming a more relationally connected community that would produce caring adults to invest in the lives of students. Our rationale was that it would be impossible for us to increase belonging for our young people if we were not experiencing it ourselves. People stood and proclaimed to their peers in the room their intention to become better partners and collaborators with each other. In a meeting about suicide, hope for a better future emerged.
This launched Connect BG and the Caring Adult Network. The coalition gathered over 130 different organizational partners and several hundred individual members. It trained caring adults in trauma, resilience and mutually respectful solution oriented relationships with youth. Many programs were started or expanded in youth serving environments. Connect BG eventually became embedded in the community and caused the emergence of a cultural norm of connectedness. The Caring Adult Network has spread through the community and beyond, initiating both formal and informal adult/youth relationships that build resilience. It continues to meet for quarterly breakfasts and has recently enjoyed a full school year with no suicides.
We need to pay attention to what is actually going on and what we can do about it. If we pay attention to the possibilities for health rather than the possibilities for illness, we have a much better chance at success. Hope is greater than despair. If we focus on bringing about that which we hope in, our despair will be reduced and the likelihood of our hope becoming reality skyrockets.
For this reason, the early participants in the coalition need to reorient their focus on growth and what could be. This is best done by seeking out and identifying what IS working. Instead of focusing on why kids are suicidal or struggling with anxiety, depression, and anger problems, look at the actions and environments of students that are thriving. How are they strong, resilient and connected? What is true about them that could be replicated and magnified in the larger population?
There are students and citizens who are thriving. There are stories of health, growth, resilience, and striving. Those are the stories we need to tell because those are the norms we seek. The solutions to our problems are contained within the stories of thriving.
I write in a geeky, sciency, hopefully poetic way about belonging, storytelling, community building, deconstruction and construction,