An Operating System Gone Wrong

Not too long ago, I found myself paralyzed in the moment.

In light of the everyday tragedies that fill our world, this was really just a blip on the radar — however, in that moment, I was reminded of how dependent most of us have become on technology for our most basic everyday functioning.  

It was after lunch, and I was preparing to print materials for a board meeting late that afternoon and for a presentation the next morning. So naturally, at that exact point in time, my computer’s operating system decided that it was time for an update. Nevermind that I had previously set aside several reminders to update my system, or that I was the one that had chosen to use a PC instead of a Mac. For the next 45 minutes, I could do nothing but sit and wait for my computer to reconfigure itself into something more functional.

All of us operate within systems that we did not design and likely have little control over. Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about all of the operating systems that govern our lives, humming quietly in the background. On my laptop or mobile device, I have a tendency to focus my attention on all of the shiny programs and applications that offer greater efficiency, more robust communication, or inspire new creativity. However, ask any Microsoft executive about Windows Vista and you will hear the haunting tale of an operating system gone wrong, causing Microsoft to fall behind during an important season in mobile and traditional computing. Perhaps we have something to learn about the work of poverty alleviation from our friends in technology. Connections often reveal themselves in unlikely places.

Each year, we spend millions of dollars and countless hours of personal investment on the development of new programs aimed at addressing poverty. There is no doubt that these developments have spurred progress in many areas and have helped to improve quality of life and hope for many. At Think Tank, we encourage the development and cultivation of models of poverty alleviation that focus on restoring people to wholeness. However, in that process, we think it is vital that we get under the hood and look at our operating system driving the work of poverty alleviation in our communities. In other words, it’s not just about what we do to address poverty, it’s about how we do it.  

Change is most effective when those we serve have an equal say and stake in making their communities better.

To that end, we lift up five practices that must become ingrained into how we go about addressing poverty in our communities. These five practices are essential if we are going to attack American poverty at its core.

First of all, we have an opportunity to break out of our compartmentalized way of thinking that, for example, views health only in terms of healthcare or housing only in terms of bricks and mortar. We must recognize the interconnected parts of people and communities and pursue holistic solutions.

Secondly, we must cultivate the discipline of listening first. It’s easy for people, out of a desire to help, to assume what needs are present in their community and give accordingly. Yet, better outcomes happen when we first listen to those we want to help and truly value their experiences, needs, and goals.

Instead of inspiring people to work for their communities, we should care about people working with their communities. Doing with, rather than ‘doing to’ or ‘doing for’, should be our default posture.

Additionally, we believe change is most effective when those we serve have an equal say and stake in making their communities better. That sustained change is dependent upon intentionally promoting leadership from within communities impacted by poverty.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must learn to take an authentically-relational approach to fighting poverty. In an American society that continues to become more diverse, we need more contexts where people can connect meaningfully across difference. We know that relationships facilitate individual and community change, so we must build social capital — especially among, and with, neighborhoods impacted by poverty.

I am reminded time and again that change comes both in spite of us and, by the grace of God, through us. It comes, and the systems will adapt, just as they’ve always done. But, we have a choice in how change is seated within us.

Poverty is already proof of an operating system gone wrong. Will we check our own to fix it?

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by Marlo Fox for Think Tank, Inc. — to learn more about Marlo’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

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