Guest Column: Remember actions affect the community

Published 9:51 pm Friday, August 4, 2017

Live United by Ann Austin

I’ve been fascinated with systems lately. I recently finished a book by Donella Meadows titled “Thinking in Systems.” It was wonderfully researched, but also grounded in the reality of how our lives operate. Though there is definitely a science to how systems operate, the ultimate function and success of systems comes from us — whether we are willing to make them work, or adapt as needed.

When I was a little girl, I would observe systems in nature — such as how ants would repair their homes after a rain storm. I would watch them for hours, each collecting a small piece of their little sand hill and finding the right place to return it. At times I tried to help them, but my clumsy fingers usually messed things up. So I learned to watch and revel at their hard work.

Ann Austin

Nature seemed to be perfectly orchestrated — rain watered the plants, plants provided food for animals, animals provided fertilizer for plants, plants released oxygen into the atmosphere and the cycle continued.

Later, entering into the world of adults, I found myself very confused by how messy everything seemed to be. I had a hard time understanding why people purposefully hurt each other or destroyed things. This created a great deal of anxiety — and I had to make a conscious decision at one point whether to run away and insulate myself from the troubles of the world — or work to make things better. I decided to try to fix things.

The first step in this journey was to learn more about how a community operated, which is why I was drawn to work at the Albert Lea Tribune nearly 15 years ago. (I also happen to love to write — thank you again, Tribbies, for allowing me this space on occasion).

My time at the Tribune was eye-opening and humbling. I realized that nothing has a simple explanation or resolution — human beings are far more complex than plants or ants. We have individual motivations for the decisions we make, which often create conflict. Communication is difficult. A poorly used word could completely unravel a conversation and even cause a system to collapse.

We may strive to create perfectly orchestrated systems; however, human beings are inherently flawed. Our motivations are often self-serving and we need immediate gratification. It’s hard to see the big picture — and most people aren’t patient enough to take time to consider all of the variables that impact an issue we are faced with. I often find I am one who lacks patience — but I’m learning.

Working in the social services sector, I have been educated about how each person’s struggle is also a complicated web of barriers to overcome, past trauma — which is often buried, lack of coping mechanisms or skills to navigate life, as well as basic tools such as money, food, a vehicle to get to work, etc.

Trying to address an issue as complicated as poverty involves a convoluted mess of good intentions, restrictive programs, shame and blame, transitory hope and elusive dreams. We often engage in fragmented solutions, which don’t take into account the dynamics each person faces.

There has been a great deal of research into how we must consider all aspects of a person’s life, if we wish for them to be successful overcoming barriers such as poverty, or attaining a goal of completing education.

Blandin identifies eight critical resources for lifelong success including: Financial, emotional resilience, problem-solving skills, spiritual, physical, relationships and role models, and knowing how to get things done. These are very community focused — and if each of us were to consider the resources we have used throughout our lives, we would realize that missing any of them causes barriers for potential success. Many times people give up before they are able to achieve success.

The MPOWR tool our United Way has invested in and will continue to expand considers 16 elements for lifelong success — though we are initially focusing on five: Housing, financial, health, basic needs and transportation.

Our plan is to connect local service providers so they may better help individuals overcome barriers and accomplish goals. The MPOWR system allows service providers and individuals to get on the same page and removes barriers of communication, time, transportation, etc.

This system is like any other — it is only successful if we are willing to make it work and adapt as needed.

At the end of her book, Donella Meadows had one final piece of advice: Don’t erode the goal of goodness. She said we often focus on bad behavior as typical, and people who make bad choices are never able to redeem themselves. This isn’t true.

“It is much easier to talk about hate in public than to talk about love,” she said — but this erodes our morality.

We are capable of so much more — we are capable of great caring. Everything depends on what we choose to invest our time and energy in. We must realize that our actions, the energy we put forth and the intentions we act from inside our hearts will impact the whole. We are community.

Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.