Whenever I write about people who are struggling, I hear from readers who say something like: Folks need to stop whining and get a job. It’s all about personal responsibility.

That’s the beginning of a June 13, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, titled “It’s Not Just About Bad Choices.” His provocative lead resonated for me as, I suspect, it will for you too. Here are some highlights of a recent conversation I had with a colleague about this piece and how it relates to the work that many of us in the realm of public/community health are doing.

Q. In the wake of recent events in New York City, Ferguson and Baltimore, we’ve heard lots from and about disenfranchised citizens and communities. What’s interesting about what Nicholas Kristof said here?

A. Kristof’s article personifies a large-scale social problem through the eyes of one individual. Since he doesn’t seem to have a preconceived notion about his subject’s tension between the lack of opportunities available to him and a lack of personal responsibility. So it drew out an interesting paradigm that really communicated that it was neither and both, at the same time.
Q. That’s kind of inconclusive; why is this a valuable insight?

A. I believe we have a responsibility to listen to our community so we can continue to gain insight. Starting even before they are born, the work we do as community builders affects and, to some extent, maybe even shapes lives. We need to build a dialogue with, to listen to and ultimately to learn from the individuals whose lives have become what they are in part because of work we have done. The challenges are deep-seated and perennial but we’d be wise to remember that we have opportunities to alter the course of someone’s trajectory.

Q. The connections between poverty and poor mental and physical health are well documented … and overwhelming. Ideas?

A. Right. It’s not new thinking but we are learning that some of these connections have a variety of causes – for instance, how easy it is to get drugs and alcohol and what a simple solution they provide to how you feel at the moment. Improving economic opportunities in an area gives families choices and some control. They can develop more stable households and plan for the future, which lowers stress. Having gardens and green spaces that offer healthy ways to do things that feel good can help too. That helps families provide their children with opportunities they may not have had.

Q. What feeling were you left with after reading this piece?

A. Seeing the growing awareness of how interlinked so many of these challenges are gives great hope. It also helps to highlight that simply trying to solve a part of the problem or address a slice of the issue has only a limited effect — and maybe even no effect. But when we see examples of communities that have looked at these challenges holistically and have put in place an integrated approach to reversing the effects of intergenerational poverty — and the high rates of illness and persistent lack of educational outcomes that always accompanies it — we begin to see the result. For instance, I am thinking of the Harlem Children’s Zone (link), of Strive Together’s Cradle to Career Network (link), of East Atlanta’s Purpose Built Communities (link). It requires a very organized approach, a long-term commitment and dedication of resources and many, many steps along the way to realizing the vision. They have shown that there is potential to alter what had previously been considered an inevitable march of poverty from one generation to the next. 

And that is what we have begun to see here in Stamford, after almost 20 years of community revitalization around a similar philosophy. Our changes were stimulated by the federal Hope VI grant that we received in the late 1990s. The lives of the children in our community and many of their parents, too, have taken on a brightness and a hopefulness and sense of possibility that is nearly indistinguishable from other segments of our community. And that is certainly telling us that we are doing something right.