Once upon a time, in the mid-sized, river community of St. Louis, a teacher noticed a boy acting out in class. When she talked to him, she learned that he was hungry. So she gave him some food. The next day, another teacher noticed the young boy was being teased because of his tattered clothes. So the teacher gave the boy some clothes. The following day, a counselor noticed this same boy causing trouble with a ragtag group of boys. So she invited a young, African American man to the school to mentor the boy and the four other misfits. The two teachers and counselor met to talk about this young boy. They noticed that all was well until this kid went home. When he went home, there was no heat, no food, no lights and no stable adult. But what could they do? Not knowing how to connect all of the resources this boy might need to thrive, they did the best they could. The first teacher gave him a backpack full of food at the end of the week; the second teacher arranged for the boy to receive five outfits; and the counselor took the kid for a job interview at local grocery chain.
To change the trajectory of a generation and of our region, we need a spiritual collision to happen among leaders. Their courage and capacity to usher in change needs to be amplified and activated in the knowledge that they are not alone. Since I became CEO of United Way nearly five years ago, I’ve come to better understand the general attitude toward “systems”, in the context of human services, and how we improve them. Some generally don’t take the time to think about this because there is so much work being done right now to save people facing immediate crisis. There is, also, unfortunately a healthy dose of apathy.
MIT instructor and systems-thinking guru David Peter Stoh said, “One principle of complex systems is they are perfectly designed to produce the results they are achieving. But all too often, these results are contrary to what they really want to achieve”.
I was that young boy whose teachers fed, clothed and guided. I was offered a position as a bagger at Schnucks because of the interview my counselor set up. Through the grace of God, I made it through a system that was not designed for me to succeed. There was a herculean effort to help me achieve my potential. I get it. How can we connect the dots on the systems that underlie the success of our children and families, and how do we mobilize a groundswell of laborers for good? This is why I am so inspired by strategies like Ready by 21 and East Side Aligned, which are attempting to understand the systems around child well-being and align policies, practices and money.
We need to develop more regional capacity in understanding how so many facets of a child or individual’s life connects and where our most effective leverage points are. This will help us win the future and write a different, more compelling narrative about the St. Louis region.