Crises without crisis

I worked a crisis hotline for almost two years in graduate school, and then I started a Spanish-language hotline to serve the St. Louis metropolitan area. Working a crisis hotline, for those who have never had the experience, is kind of what I imagine being a police officer would be like: lots of relative boredom, interspersed with moments of sheer adrenaline.

What I observed during those years was reiterated as I read The Age of the Unthinkable; my fellow crisis workers and I, virtually without exception, rose to the occasion in moments of crisis. I remember being virtually asleep, leafing through bridal magazines (I was actually late for my own engagement because I was on a crisis call, and I answered one Spanish hotline call locked in a dressing room in my wedding dress during a fitting), when the phone would ring, my training would kick in, and I would respond effectively and compassionately (I think!) to the individual in need.

Ramo recognizes this human capacity to meet a crisis, and argues that what we need, then, in order to solve our world’s greatest challenges, is to do the work of crisis even in the absence of crisis. I thought about this some even during those lulls between calls: if someone had responded with the same urgency to this individual’s need before, would a crisis that necessitated a middle of the night call ever have developed? But reading The Age of the Unthinkable, I thought about this idea more in the context of public policy, for, often, by the time that we recognize a policy crisis and switch into gear to respond, many of our options are curtailed, and significant suffering is already inevitable.

What would it look like if we made policy as though we were in a crisis, before there was one? If our elected officials and agency bureaucrats and, indeed, social justice advocates, were always scanning the horizon, looking for issues that need to be addressed before they blew up in our faces, rather than waiting for the proverbial phone to ring? And how would the process be different, if we had the luxury of longer-term planning and could choose the best alternative, instead of the only one left at that late date? Perhaps most importantly, how can we create a climate of “crisis” in the absence of one–using data, organizing, highlighting the impact on individuals, building relationships with elected officials, articulating the potential for positive change–to break out of reactive policymaking and unleash the potential for extraordinary achievement that comes in those moments of clarity and purpose that accompany a crisis?

I’d love to hear examples: have you, as an advocate or a policymaker, participated in public policymaking that had urgency in absence of crisis? What about current and former crisis social workers–what can you share from your crisis experiences, or your study of social work in crises, that offer insights into policymaking in advance of true emergencies? How can we create the climate that would bring people’s energies and talents to bear, and towards what ends should we be focused? What do you see on that horizon?

Brrring…Brrring…Brrring…it’s for us.

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