The Neighborhood Is the Unit of Change

Articles | October 19 2018
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

By David Brooks

You’ve probably heard the starfish story. There’s a boy on the beach who finds thousands of starfish washed ashore, dying. He picks one up and throws it back into the ocean. A passer-by asks him what’s the point of that. All these thousands of other starfish are still going to die. “Well,” the boy responds, “I saved that one.”

Many of our social programs are based on that theory of social change. We try to save people one at a time. We pick a promising kid in a neighborhood and give her a scholarship. Social programs and philanthropic efforts cream skim in a thousand ways. Or they mentor one at a time, assuming that the individual is the most important unit of social change.

Obviously it’s possible to do good that way. But you’re not really changing the structures and systems that shape lives.
Maybe the pool story is a better metaphor than the starfish story. As a friend of mine puts it, you can’t clean only the part of the pool you’re swimming in.

It could be that the neighborhood, not the individual, is the essential unit of social change. If you’re trying to improve lives, maybe you have to think about changing many elements of a single neighborhood, in a systematic way, at a steady pace. (Read more)