Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Post No. 78: An Example of a Private Citizen Taking Responsibility for Her Community

Copyright 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

As most of our regular readers are aware, in late December of last year, in our Post No. 71, we spoke of the responsibility which all of us have as citizens to improve our communities.

We noted that we can not blindly sit by and leave everything to our elected officials. We further noted that there are many things that we can do on an individual level to advance the long-term positive interests of society.

In our Post No. 72, we challenged our citizen readers to develop, pragmatic, society-oriented, collaborative New Year resolutions for 2009, which they intended to pursue. We received numerous exciting suggestions and we intend to publish a Top Ten list of those resolutions before the end of January.

However, we recently became aware of an effort by an individual in Greensboro, North Carolina, which reflects the attitude and spirit which we hope others will emulate during the coming year. As our new President has often said, all of us will need to pitch in, and all of us will need to sacrifice.

Voulynne Small is the daughter of a minister, and an instructor at a local community college in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina. While on land, she teaches adults, seeking their GEDs, English and Math. In recent years, she has bounced between her community college instructor duties and serving as an instructor on U.S. Naval aircraft carriers in foreign waters, teaching psychology, math, and English to service personnel while out at sea.

Most of us would choose to permanently teach the courses on board the carrier, and travel to exotic lands around the world. However, Ms. Small has made a personal sacrifice, and chosen to form a non-profit known as B.E.S.T.

B.E.S.T. stands for Brothers Excelling with Self-Sufficiency to Thrive. Ms. Small, an African-American, believes that young, African-Americans males have been negatively impacted by many things in our society. Instead of simply complaining and waiting for government and politicians to address her many concerns, she decided late last year to "take charge" and do something about the plight of male African-American youth in her community.

B.E.S.T intends to accomplish several goals, the most important of which are: (a) the enhancement of intellectual development, (b) the instillation of a sense of positive self-esteem and responsibility; (c) the development of respect for others, through strong family and community relationships, including volunteerism; and (d) stimulating the development of a solid, stable economic foundation. All of this is done in an environment which recognizes the importance of a strong, cultural, relational, and spiritual foundation.

B.E.S.T. is about the provision of solution-oriented tools to actually attack problems, and not simply complain about them. Instead of simply dropping these young men on the door step of some local governmental agency, B.E.S.T. takes responsibility for getting things done, and not blaming past history or other institutions for the condition in which these young men, and their surrounding communities, find themselves.

We applaud B.E.S.T. and Ms. Small for their efforts. We can only hope that the rest of our readers presenting New Year resolutions will come forward with vehicles with the same substance and potential impact on society as B.E.S.T.

Further information regarding B.E.S.T. can be acquired by visiting the B.E.S.T. site.

Copyright 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense


  1. Sounds like a great program. What might be done to change the environment these young men and women grow up in? And how did it get so bad?

  2. Great activity! I was unaware that teaching programs were offered aboard the fleet. I am impressed that somebody recognized the need and offered a solution.

  3. It's a complex set of factors Douglas. However, we suspect that they are the same factors affecting poor people of all races all around the world. The simplest answer, in our opinion, is lack of decent paying jobs and poor education. It is a cycle of poverty and then it becomes institutionalized.

    At least if you have a mill or a plant in town paying something slightly above minimum wage, folks potentially have some stability in their lives. Eliminate or ship the jobs overseas, and you have problems.

    In the fall of last year, I had the opportunity to work on a couple of projects in the southeastern portion of North Carolina, and the northeastern portion of South Carolina. That strip is apparently referred to as the "Corridor of Shame.) (By the way, the problems were by no means limited to black folks.)

    There were thousand and thousands of people living in former mill towns in a semi-rural environment with nothing to do. They haven't had anything to do for almost 30 year now. Just wide areas of no economic activity. You have to see it to believe it.

    In the inner city, the problems manifest themselves differently; however, jobs and education pretty much sum it up.

  4. What a great program, brilliant in addressing long standing problems. Ms Small is a better person than I am.

  5. Studies of crime back in te Depression era do not back that up, I'm afraid. It may be that times are different, that the disparity is more noticeable. But I am not sure that is it either. Certainly a percentage of any demographic that finds itself in poverty with little hope of escape will become less civil (using your definition here). Yes, that will happen. But we have a culture that rewards thuggery as a lifestyle. Rap music and artists are defining an alternative success to millions. the film industry glorifies the "anti-hero" and the lawbreaker. The mainstream culture does not push back because of various pressures it feels. Perhaps I am wrong, maybe I have become my father (who often opined that Rock and Roll signaled the end of civilization). I think we are undergoing a breakdown as a society. I think we have lost sight of a cohesive ideal. It has become hip to be anti-establishment. Way beyond what it was for my teens. In the 50s, it was teenage rebellion followed by responsible adulthood. In the 60s, the rebellion continued into adulthood. I think we are paying the price for the success of the counter culture of the 60s. That rebellion scapegoated traditional America for the evils of the world. Our materialism, our obsession with massing fortunes and luxuries, an alleged imperialism. But instead of turning away from that, it seems that the only thing that was rejected was the moral structure that moderated it.

  6. Thanks Dan, Jonathan, and Keith for your positive comments. Ms. Small certainly has her work cut out for her, but she's up for the task, and has assembled a team of educators and business people to assist her.

  7. Douglas, thanks for your comment as always. In your comment, you indicated that "studies of CRIME [emphasis added] back in the Depression era do not back THAT [emphasis added] up...."

    By "that" I assume that you are referring to the lack of decent paying jobs and poor education as two of the major contributing factors to community malaise and poverty.

    First of all, I doubt that the daily life existence of young black males (or females for that matter) need necessarily be made synonymous with the word "crime." Furthermore, I looked all through our comment and failed to find the word "crime" contained anywhere therein.

    However, since you have chosen it, I will work with the word "crime." Poverty, in and of itself, in the abstract, does not necessarily translate into crime. However, the longer and longer poverty exists in a geographic region, the more likely people are to find "alternative," less socially accepted, at least by those at the higher levels of the spectrum, means to survive.

    At the beginning, it might be 20 people living one home, as I recently witnessed when I tried to assist some immigrants with a computer issue. (It manifests itself as "corruption" in government.)

    If one examines the history of Afghanistan, for example, you will see that as poverty conditions persisted for generations, crime began to increase. The beauty (as some would call it) of the Taliband's arrival and the imposition of harsh religious law and sanctions, is that it achieved order. As one observer so succinctly put it, "Who cares about women's [human] rights if you have finally achieved order."

    Although I have not reviewed the studies recently, it is my understanding that folks can live in poverty for an extended period of time as long as there is real oppression, or a sense that things will get better. With respect to new immigrants to this country, the first generation is generally composed of law-abiding citizens. The second generation is generally the same, and advance more socially and economically. There is generally further advancement in the third generation. It is with the fourth generation that we generally begin to see the structural collapse and the onset of crime. As time moves on, and the poverty becomes institutionalized, crime becomes the "economy" of the economically depressed areas. (In Afghanistan, is growing poppy bulbs for the production of heroin a crime or merely an economic enterprise?) There is widespread disillusionment and malaise. If your grandparents and your parents did not amount to anything, you probably will not either. Just plain probability and statistics, along with common sense.

    Finally, the classic work on revolution and citizen dissatisfaction is Craine Brinton's "Anatomy of a Revolution." In it, he claims that revolution, or revolt, comes during periods of "rising expectations" which are not fulfilled.

    People need to feel that there is at least a realistic potential for things to get better.
    If they don't, they will not bother to try, unless they are highly, internally motivated. Most of us aren't.

    In my sessions, I frequently suggest that virtually everything in the universe dealing with human conduct can be analyzed from a perspective of "sufficient motivation." When you analyze why someone or some group does not do something that seems obvious to you, you can generally find that they, for whatever reason, are not "sufficiently motivated."

    Motivation is formed by a number of factors, not just the ones which we, as individuals, find important or relevant.

    One final note on crime. There are many works which suggest that we are living in the safest era ever, and that there was far more crime PER CAPITA, previously in our roughly 13,000 year existence on this earth. In Dubner's "Freakonomics," he notes that murders in the modern era are far less than those which occurred at other times in human history. He also suggests that crime may have decreased significantly in recent times due to Roe v. Wade and the availability of contraception and abortion, since poor, unwed mothers are far more likely children who pursue a life of crime. (Just statistically.)

    Our view continues to be that if you have something rewarding for people to do, namely work, and a decent eduction is provided so that they feel as though they have some value to society, you will reduce lots of societal problems on the front end.

    As some Tom Daschle, of whom I am not generally a fan because of his consistent whining about society instead of doing something like Ms. Small here, once said after observing this statement on a billboard in his home state, "It is far easier and less expensive to develop a child, than to incarcerate, and deal with the negative ramifications of the acts of, a wayward adult."

  8. I chose the word crime because there are few, if any studies, on how people cope in poverty. It is a means by which societal deterioration is measured. It may be invalid. There should be a better set of standards. We could also look at HS graduation rates vs first grade entries, the movement out of poverty during boom times, and so on. These studies have all been done and are fairly inconclusive. It is an old saw that poverty causes crime. I think that is true only indirectly. Poverty is an added pressure on a society which may create opportunity for crime to expand. I am not well read on the immigration studies but it seems to me that the crime and anti-social behavior manifests itself in the first generation citizen. That is, the parents come for a better life; the children find life tougher than they expect and seek shortcuts to a better life or just strike out in other ways. Another factor of poverty has to do with its definition within a society. And how it is viewed within the context of that society.

    We have nothing like the poverty that exists in Afghanistan. That country's troubles cannot be equated to anything in this country. We are talking, in that case, about living conditions that involve daily struggles for survival. Not the daily struggle to have the latest style, or not to be humiliated because you don't have new clothes but are wearing hand me downs (or clothes purchased at a thrift store). People can actually starve to death easily in a third world country. There may be no medical facilities available within a 200 miles.

    So, let us stick with our reality. I absolutely agree with you about motivation. My point was that motivation is being suppressed. Not by reality but by perception. People are being told that they have the cards stacked against them. When you live in a rotten neighborhood, you can easily believe that. Especially when you can turn on a TV and see nice neighborhoods and happy people and you can even travel a relatively few blocks and see a much brighter life.

    Perception easily becomes reality. No amount of education availability will overcome a perception that is pounded into you 18 hours out of your day. When your peers ridicule you for being a geek or a nerd because you study, it eventually wears you down.

    For the record, I disagree with Steven Levitt's conclusions (whom Dubner relies on for his conclusions). I am not alone, there are many who question the study by Levitt.

    Sometimes we too easily accept that which fits our worldview.

    We could debate this at great length, if you wish, there are valid arguments for your point of view. On the other hand, there are also valid arguments for mine. This means that will eventually arrive at an impasse.

    What Ms Small is doing is definitely needed and welcomed but I am afraid, unless there are major shifts in cultural attitudes, it is going to be about as effective as sticking a finger in a dike to prevent a flood. You, as I understand it, are trying to change that cultural perception. You want to infuse a positivity in students in universities but also needs to be done in elementary schools, in middle schools, in society in general. Respect for society is the foundation, a belief that one is part of it is essential.

  9. Would anyone else like to weigh in on the factors contributing to young black males being "at-risk" in such great numbers? If we can possibly do a better job of identifying the contributing factors, and dig deep to ensure that we are not merely talking about the symptoms, then we might be able to craft some better approaches and solutions.

    Let's keep the slavery and racism issues out of this discussion, if you do not mind. It is what it is. As we've said on numerous occasions, problem solvers can't sit around waiting for people to stop being racists or discriminating. Let's just work with what we have and move toward solutions.

  10. Great activity! I was unaware that teaching programs were offered aboard the fleet. I am impressed that somebody recognized the need and offered a solution.


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