Bill Galston is one helluva debater. In the fall of 2002, well before the invasion of Iraq, I faced Bill–a University of Maryland professor and a former colleague of mine in the Clinton administration–in a public debate, and he kicked my rhetorical ass. He did it by holding up a copy of my book, The Threatening Storm, and saying to the audience, “If we were going to get Ken Pollack’s war, I could be persuaded to support it. But we are not going to get Ken Pollack’s war; we are going to get George Bush’s war, and that is a war I will not support.” Bill’s words haunted me throughout the run-up to the invasion. Several months ago, I sent him a note conceding that he had been right.
Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine has a fairly compelling cover story about the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) and its founder, Geoffrey Canada. I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Magazine as an evaluator of social programs. Evaluation is a tricky business, and the Magazine is too focused on personal profiles and anecdotes to be a reliable source. However, it is a good guide to what is currently influential. Marian Wright Edelman and William Julius Wilson are quoted in praise of HCZ, which tells us that important people are watching the program.
Mr. Canada hopes to make a huge difference in the lives of 6,500 Harlem kids for about $4,200 per child per year. If that can be done, then we have no excuse for not doing the same for all poor Americans.
HCZ asserts that 100% of the students in its pre-K classes test as ready for school at the end of the program, compared to a rate of 84% for all American kids. One might suspect that HCZ students are relatively well off to start with, since their guardians have placed them in a voluntary program. In that case, the 100% readiness rate might be a function of the population rather than the program. However, the Times story emphasizes that HCZ works relentlessly to sign up the most disadvantaged children in Harlem. If that’s true (and if the “Bracken Scales of Conceptual Development” are a good measure of readiness for school), then a 100% pass rate is impressive indeed.
HCZ also organizes classes for mothers, afterschool and tutoring programs in public k-12 schools, employment placement services, nutrition services, neighborhood beautification efforts, an asthma clinic, and family crisis counseling. It has recently launched a charter school. In one way or another, its services reach 88% of the kids in Central Harlem.
I can’t quite figure out what’s most significant about the enterprise as a whole: that one institution is providing services to most children in a large urban district; that the institution is a nonprofit with corporate donors, rather than a municipal agency; that its services span health, education, and other fields; that there’s a deliberate effort to reach the worst-off within the ghetto; that the nonprofit has a corporate-style business plan and collects a lot of data; or that Geoffrey Canada is a skilled, committed, and effective individual. We can’t clone Mr. Canada, nor is there enough corporate philanthropy to fund private non-profits on this scale in every city. I hope, therefore, that HCZ is successful because of factors that could be borrowed by local governments.
A reliable friend gave me a professionally printed document entitled “The Law of Home Rule of the City of Baghdad: Enacted by the Baghdad City Council on Behalf of the Citizens of the City of Baghdad” (Draft, June 2, 2004. Adopted: ______ 2004). I cannot find this document with a Google search, but it looks genuine, and it’s interesting on several levels.
I’m not a big fan of elaborate facilitation techniques, but I’ve had two good recent experiences with a method called “chalk talk.” Here’s how it works. You write a few significant and relevant words on a large expanse of paper or a blackboard. You distribute markers or pieces of chalk to everyone in a group. You tell them that there are only two rules: 1) No talking. 2) It’s over when it’s over.
There is then a brief period of embarrassed silence until someone writes a word or phrase (or possibly draws a picture). Others join in. They pose questions silently and draw lines connecting other people’s ideas. Everyone concentrates intensely, the board fills up, and then the pace slows. Finally, you say, “It’s over.”
This is an efficient way to get lots of comments “on the record.” It would take hours for people to say the same things in a standard conversation. The method encourages everyone to pay attention to everyone else’s thoughts. It can empower shy people to participate from the beginning. And it’s a good way to think about connections and disagreements.
This page shows the results of a “chalk talk” exercise from last week, at which social activists from eight countries silently discussed “participation” and “deliberation.” (To see the whole thing, scroll right and down.) I’m not sure that the image makes much sense unless you were there, but it’s a good conversation-starter and a great resource for anyone who wants to summarize a meeting (in a more linear style) afterwards.
Yesterday was our last class at the high school for this academic year. We brought along some maps (based on data that the students had collected) that showed aspects of the community that may affect young residents’ health. In particular, the maps show that kids who walk are clustered in certain areas; thus some neighborhoods may be built in ways that are friendly to pedestrians. That would be an important finding, because we know that walking reduces obesity, and obesity is a big health problem. Our students are alert to possible causes of error (the small sample, selection bias, hidden causes, etc). We would have to do a lot more research before we could draw any rigorous conclusions.
Today I took an excellent intermediate-level class on GIS software and became increasingly excited about what we can do with the class when we resume next fall. We’ll certainly ask them to collect more data about their fellow students’ behavior and locals assets such as stores and parks.
It’s exciting to address an issue (obesity) that’s usually seen in strictly pyschological terms–as a matter of body-image and will-power–and to look instead for geographical causes. Active citizens can potentially change the local landscape and zoning laws, whereas body-image and eating habits are very hard to change. Meanwhile, GIS software is making it possible for kids who don’t have very advanced skills to understand their environment in tremendously powerful ways.