Root Causes: Keep Asking “Why?”

It’s organizational transformation week on Classroom to Capitol! I can’t think of a better way to start the new year than sharing some of my thinking about how to help nonprofit social service organizations fully integrate social change activities into their work with the community of readers here.

I’ve been working with several nonprofit organizations and individual leaders to assess their organizations’ capacities for transformative social change, in pursuit of their visions of social justice, relying heavily on the work of the rock stars at Building Movement Project (if you haven’t already downloaded their free Process Guide, please make that a 2012 resolution!). The Guide approaches social change work from a foundation of quality social services and helps nonprofit organizations engage in cycles of learning and strategy development and action and reflection, as they walk a continuum from status quo-reinforcing to truly revolutionary power-building.

This process begins (and ends–it’s a cycle!) with exploration of the root causes implicated in the social problems that our social programs are designed to address. Too often, our organizations’ activities are aimed at the symptoms of those problems, rather than the structural realities that perpetuate them, despite all of our best intentions. It’s not that we don’t care about the root causes, or even always that those examinations are too controversial for us to contemplate (although that can be a factor).

Instead, I think that one of our greatest obstacles to uncovering the root causes that demand our attention is that we…

don’t think enough like 3-year-olds.

Because, really, have you ever met an adult with the same “why, why, why?” stamina as a preschooler?

I didn’t think so.

The connection was made clear when I was reading The Little Engine That Could to my 3-year-old son.

Twenty-seven times in one day.

Every single time, he asked me (on the same exact page), “Why the black engines no help?”

And it occurred to me, maybe on time 18 (slow, I know), that what he really wants to know is WHY someone (or, in this case, something) would ignore the pleas of another in need. He can’t understand that, and, of course, none of us should be able to. And he wasn’t satisfied with any answer I gave, because they all fell short of really explaining “why”.

And that commitment to “why?” needs to underscore our organizational evolutions towards social justice orientations, too.

WHY do racial health disparities persist? WHY are people of color more likely to be uninsured? WHY are unemployment and underemployment rates higher for some demographics? WHY are educational attainment levels different for different populations? WHY are health outcomes tied to income and other social determinants? WHY? WHY? WHY?

It often takes peeling away many layers to see the linkages between social problems and to uncover the root social inequities that, tragically, are relatively few and achingly predictable.

How many “whys” do you have in you?

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