Close knowledge makes a difference

There was another part from The Ghost Map that made me think about social work, and about you all, which means that it ends up here.

So, yes, just a little more cholera.

See, the doctor who ended up tracing the spread of the disease, and documenting the outbreak in a way that gave needed credibility to germ theory and ultimately brought down the idea of ‘miasma’ (smell=disease), was from the neighborhood.

He lived near Broad Street, where the pump contaminated with cholera was located, and that intimate knowledge was essential to helping him untangle the truth.

At the time, remember, most people thought that, since smell brought disease, dirty houses (read: poor people) would have the most illness, because they would smell bad. There were many low-income households in and around the area infected with cholera, and, so, most of the ‘outside experts’ were quick to conclude that it was their poverty, and the smells associated with it, that were quite literally killing them.

But John Snow knew better.

He knew of wealthier households living next to poorer ones, where both fell ill. He knew of very poor households that nonetheless maintained immaculately clean homes. He knew that most of the stereotypes were flawed. He knew that people were dying–real people, with grieving families–because he knew many of those afflicted.

This knowledge meant that he couldn’t fall back on the prevailing wisdom or the platitudes about poverty and disease. He could see facts more clearly, and his inquiry had an urgency stemming from his investment in the community and its suffering people.

And that, I believe, has lessons for social work advocates, too.

I believe that we can work effectively across communities, and that skills and relationships and real empathy are just as important as ‘matching’ membership on specific criteria.

But I also believe that it might be easier to miss things, nuances that really matter, if we see a community more as monolithic, which we’re more likely to do if we’re not embedded in it. I believe that too much distance can render us less effective, less committed, and, ultimately, less likely to succeed.

That’s one of the reasons that social workers make great organizers, and great advocates–we’re on the ground and we know how these issues work and we tend to notice details. We know and care about our work, and that matters for how we engage with it.

In history and still today, being close to the truth makes it more likely we find it.

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