COLUMN: Is it time for something completely different to help our urban neighborhoods?

New social lab could be the start of real change

CINCINNATI -- Like so many of us, Matthew Nichols wants to make the community a better place for his children.

The difference with Nichols is that he's putting his time and energy where his mouth is.

He and I were among about 30 people who spent two days last month trying to come up with a completely new strategy to address problems of poverty, violence and hopelessness in some of our urban neighborhoods. 

By the end, the group decided to start something called a "social laboratory." It probably won't be called that for long because the workshop designers thought it sounded a bit wonky.

But I kind of like the term.

Laboratories speak to innovation, experimentation and promise. And for this bold idea to work, we'll need plenty of all three. 

Participants discussed root causes of problems.

That brings me back to Matthew Nichols.

I liked him the minute I shook his hand. He has an easy smile and a positive attitude. He exudes strength and determination.

Nichols is 28. He lives in Delhi Township with his wife, their 5-year-old son and 7-year-old nephew. Nichols works as a barber in a shop near University of Cincinnati's campus. His wife works for the Cincinnati Police Department.

During the two-day workshop, I was struck by how often Nichols talked about the importance of fathers and families. Being a good dad means a lot to him. When I talked with him a week after the workshop ended, he said he's in this for his kids.

"I feel like every piece of groundwork that's being laid within my foundation right now is to benefit them," he said. "And I don't feel like society is going to give them any handouts. I do anything I can do."

One of the problems in our communities, as Nichols sees it, is that too many kids don't have parents who can give it their all the way he can.

That's where the social laboratory comes in: What can we do differently to help those kids and their families? Everyone who took part in that workshop believes we have to do something. After all, stronger families and kids will make our region stronger as a whole.

'Representing my conscience'

If you're wondering at this point what a social laboratory is, here's how it was explained:

A social lab in this example is a place -- a physical place, not a website or online message board -- where participants can experiment with initiatives or solutions to help transform neighborhoods. The goal would be to come up with ideas that would address the root causes of the trouble that communities experience rather than treating their symptoms.

In a social lab, prototypes would be developed, tried and then assessed. Things that aren't working could be tweaked or abandoned. Things that are working could be expanded or replicated in other neighborhoods.

Designers and facilitators of the workshop.

Greater Cincinnati already has hundreds of programs and initiatives that are working to address the problems that plague too many of our urban neighborhoods and the families who live there.

But the workshop organizers argued that many of those programs are addressing symptoms -- not the root causes of the problem.

Here's how Nichols put it during a discussion at the workshop: "Nobody's reaching out and trying to understand somebody else's walk in life and why they're going through what they're going through. We can easily put that Band-Aid on there and say that everything is going to heal. But until we understand the core of that person, you'll never understand how to fix that issue."

The core is what it's all about.

Dr. Victor Garcia describes it as "systemic change." Garcia was one of the designers of the two-day workshop.

He's also a pediatric trauma surgeon at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. For the past several years, he has been trying to address the root causes of inner-city gun violence through a group he formed called CoreChange.

RELATED: Gunshot death focuses doctor on child poverty

Garcia was one of the first people to talk during the first day of the workshop. He explained to the group who he was and why he was there.

"I am not representing Children's Hospital," he said. "I am representing my conscience."

He explained how -- as a trauma surgeon at Children's -- he operated on children who get shot, babies who are born prematurely, children who are injured riding bikes without a helmet or getting hit by cars or riding in cars without proper restraints.

"In all of those examples, children of color died disproportionately," he said. "It is my view that these deaths are not necessary."

Garcia explained that he is frustrated.

"Despite the Civil Rights movement, a child born today is no better off than a black baby born in 1936," he said. "Things have to change."

Let’s get started

Change is difficult. Change that that truly alters the trajectory of a community or the families who live there is even more difficult.

That's why Garcia and a handful of other local doctors, academics and community leaders -- including Peter Block, an author and expert on community building -- decided to try an entirely new approach.

The designers tried to make sure that the 30 people involved were a diverse group with lots of different experiences and perspectives.

Adam Kahane and Ian Prinsloo of Reos Partners came to town to facilitate the workshop at Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses Community Center in the West End.

Kahane was here in May and spoke at a Child Poverty Collaborative event about how difficult it is to attack complex problems such as poverty.

The big challenge, Kahane warned at the workshop, will be the collaboration necessary to make a social lab work.

That is, no doubt, true. We all come from different backgrounds and will have different ideas about what will work and what won't and even what problems should be at the top of the list to address.

But the workshop felt like a good start.

Liam Ream creates visualizations during the workshop.

One lady who participated told Garcia something on the second day of the workshop, he said.

"She said she was glad to be back because the energy in the room reminded her of the 1960s," he said.

By the end of the seven or so hours that we all spent together over two days, our group of 30 didn't have concrete answers. But we had a path to follow and everyone committed to doing what he or she could do to keep moving forward.

Nichols left the workshop feeling unsure.

"There's a lot of voices in the community that say that they want to create and effect change in the environment and the ecosystem," he said. "But change happens when you put your feet to the ground, and you're out in the community. People need to know they can trust you and count on you."

There are plenty of next steps, to be sure. We all agreed to meet again and continue to build the social lab concept.

I left the group feeling eager. As a reporter, I have always steered clear of "making news." I want to tell stories that matter. I don't want to be part of them.

But this feels like it could be the start of something important in our community. So I made a commitment, too. I committed to stay involved and share the story of the lab's work as accurately as I can for our audience at WCPO.

I'm not sure how long that work will take, but Greater Cincinnati is my home. I'm confident we can do better by all our neighbors, and I'm eager to get started.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

Print this article Back to Top