Monday, July 28, 2008

What Have You Done Today?

By Caitlin Watt, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Viewing the world from a systems perspective can be a daunting task indeed. Systems thinking demands that one see the world holistically. (footnote #1) Cause and effect, in a linear sense, are abandoned in favor of events as a product of indirect and delayed effects as well as the nature and structures of systems. In this sense, creating solutions to problems like racial injustice or economic inequality is to confront a staggering task of not only looking for the multiple, cumulative, and possibly hidden factors on which injustice and inequality depend, but also confronting and imagining the possible consequences any one solution will have. For obvious reasons, the systems approach can leave a person paralyzed by the sheer vastness of social complexity or running for the fabled “simpler times.”

But complexity does not mean intractability. Interconnectedness, while certainly fostering complexity, also inheres simple beauty. Because we are all connected – whether by place, status, or simply by the way one action far from us can affect all of us – because we are all part of the system, our simple actions can have far reaching consequences. Small changes can produce large results. A drop in the pond becomes a ripple that pushes water down a hill and into a stream that, with time, can become a river that creates a canyon. The foreclosed home a few blocks away reduces the property value in our home, which affects property taxes, school funds, and ultimately, the educational futures of neighborhood children. We are not islands; we are all connected. As the system changes and adapts, so do we change and adapt.

As we live and make choices, we need to be aware of this interconnectedness. We cannot afford to pretend that we are solely responsible for our position in life, and others are responsible for theirs. Our positions, made possible by the positions of others before us and contemporary to us, are given importance and meaning because of others. Law professor Robert A. Williams, Jr. tells a story from his youth, when Lumbee elders asked him, "what have you done for your people today?" (footnote #2) He explains that this question is meant to convey that all he does, achieves, and learns should be for the purpose of helping the community. He is essentially asked to use his interconnectedness to create a societal evolution, where his gain is the gain of his people and the gain of his people is the gain of all people. As interconnected beings in this large and complex system we call a city, a country, or a world, we too need to ask what we have done for all people today.

#1. For information on systems thinking, the following references are suggested: Robert Jervis, Complexity and the Analysis of Political and Social Life, Political Science Quarterly, Volume 112, No 4, 1997-1998; Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural System, 1991; Rebecca Blank, Tracing the Economic Impact of Cumulative Discrimination, American Economic Association, December 2004.
#2. Robert A. Williams, Vampires Anonymous and Critical Race Practice, 95 Mich. L. Rev. 741 (1997).

1 comment:

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