My favorite story from Switch is about the mothers in Vietnam, and how an anti-hunger campaign there, rather than beginning with an exhaustive study about all of the factors that perpetuate the problem of child malnutrition, instead started with a search for where things were going well.
And then set out to replicate those bright spots.
Over and over and over again.
This idea aligns with how I teach social policy from the strengths perspective, taking the stance that policy approaches that build from the good things that are happening, even in the midst of social problems, will be ultimately much more successful.
It’s how I parent, too, consciously trying to spend way more time talking with my kids about what they’re doing well than about what needs to change. Because it’s really true, at least with my 3-year-old twins, that focusing on the problems mainly get you more problems.
Strengths-based social workers spend a lot of our time defending ourselves. Because, no, focusing on strengths does not mean that we ignore the problems. Or that we’re all Pollyannas. Or that we pretend that things will take care of themselves. Strengths-based social policy isn’t unrealistic.
To the contrary: it’s what works.
Because it begins from what’s working.
There are a variety of reasons why focusing on these bright spots–again, even in the context of real challenge (think: child starvation)–works, all of which will be familiar to strengths-based direct practitioners, too:
- Beginning with a nod to what’s already going well is like starting halfway there, and that breeds hope which, in turn, gives us momentum for greater changes
- Sometimes we can’t fully understand a problem, but we can zero in on the places where, even inexplicably, things are going well, to try to mirror that
- In the policy context, we can bring more people to our cause by rallying them around a possibility than guilting them into caring about our disasters
- Strengths-based policy development builds on a different process, not just a unique product; if we’re going to solve this problem by following the leads of those who have already partially solved it, then we are by default going to involve those folks more actively in the solution, rather than give them a list of directions to follow. It’s no surprise which works better (another way in which parenting is like social change!).
All of this has me thinking about bright spots, an exercise which, I’ll admit, is a bit foreign to me, as someone who is uncomfortably attuned to the injustices and inhumanities that populate our world.
But there are some, and I think that we’re already learning from them. What about the teenager who makes it out of a poverty-ridden neighborhood, later to credit the mentor or one caring adult who shepherded her? Why can’t we build systems that provide those shepherds for everyone? What about the welfare office that locates in a school, and sees intake rates skyrocket as barriers are erased? Why can’t we take down hurdles everywhere? What about the backpack programs that send nutritious food home with kids from school and significantly reduce food insecurity? Why can’t we make sure that every hungry child has one?
Looking for bright spots, to me, is more than just a reflection of an ideological preference for positivity.
It’s about turning technical problems into political ones.
Finding what works allows us to stop pretending that we don’t know how to solve the problems that face us–or at least how to begin to solve them–and requires that we focus, instead, on overcoming our resistance to solving them.
Which means that we need to look for other bright spots, then: the places where movements of people have, as only movements of people can, summoned the political will to light bright spots all over the place.