Always chase the ripples

Published 7:11 pm Friday, October 27, 2017

An American commander wanted to take out a bridge that local Taliban were using in southern Afghanistan. His military objective was obvious: reduce the capability of the insurgents to attack or infiltrate the villages on the other side of the bridge. Traditionally, military objectives don’t take into account the civilian population. In Afghanistan, however, a different approach was needed. Protect the locals, but also get their buy in to the coalition aim of resisting the Taliban.

Social scientists (yes, even anthropologists were attached to units) counseled the commander against the timing and objective of the attack. The commander wanted to blow the bridge right before harvest time, but the local farmers needed the bridge to get their produce to market. Blowing the bridge might hamper Taliban movement, but it would impact critical travel by local villagers to maintain their social and economic relationships on the other side of the bridge. Moreover, destroying the bridge would increase the villagers’ sense of isolation. The social scientists warned about secondary and tertiary consequences (I call these “ripples”) of blowing up a bridge.

Up to this point in our series of columns, I’ve laid out the need to apply skills, such as perspective-taking and sense-making, to better understand folks and their livelihoods in a community as a necessary first step in building resilient and stronger communities. For the commander, just knowing the battlefield wasn’t enough. He needed to understand the consequences of potential military actions for the local population. That knowledge was the essential piece needed to defeat the Taliban.

Warding off crises in a community requires taking action. If the crisis unfolds over time, instituting projects and activities to alter the course of the crisis means looking for trigger points in the social or physical infrastructure. Whether the problem is opioid abuse, homelessness or poor infrastructure to resist flooding, an approach to action based on research and identifying potential projects to address issues and concerns raised must happen. I say it is important to pay attention to the ripples, certainly to make sure there aren’t unintended consequences of action taken, but even more important, to anticipate the effects of intended action.

Throw a pebble in a glassy pond and watch the movement of ripples slowly spread their way over the water. Now throw another pebble in a different location and watch the two sets of ripples intersect, creating energy of movement. Now throw in three or four pebbles at a time and watch the ripples eventually collide and unleash a maelstrom of energy in the nexus of waves. That roiling water is a motherlode of possibility, creativity and ingenuity. To use this creatively requires a foundational understanding of those affected by the ripples. As a surfer, I want to use this energy. As an anthropologist, I want to chart how best to guide that energy. As health care professionals, environmental engineers or educators, depending on the crisis, we count on change agents to reach across communities to foster as many intended consequences as possible. Chase the ripples. Where they come together forms an accelerant of action, a synergy of motion, where the combined effect is greater than the sum of its parts.

For example, at Pamlico Rose Institute, we threw a stone named Rose Haven, the female re-integration home, in Washington’s glassy pond and the ripples are amazing — preservation of a home previously vacant and failing in the historic district and service to an at-risk veteran population. We threw another stone consisting of research and program development on social resilience for the residents, and its ripples will lead beyond Rose Haven to other veteran programs and perhaps to other populations undergoing recovery and transition here in Washington. We will cast another stone that represents our plan of connecting rehabilitated homes for disabled veterans and their families with historic preservation. We hope the ripples continue to promote a greater sense of a veteran community in Washington, as indicators suggest. And finally, we hope the ripples will be strong enough to carry our models of preservation and reaching at-risk populations outward, to other waters.

It’s the intended consequences of action that grow resilience and make communities stronger. As our discoveries of resilience, community and different perspectives have taken us so far, the skills introduced are important for researchers, funders and especially local decision makers to intimately know the populations and how they are affected by crisis, going beyond the statistics that often are the primary descriptors. Future columns will look at skills needed to orchestrate this symphony of ripples so they create the most synergy.

In the end, be careful of blowing up bridges, and with each stone thrown, always chase the ripples.

Robert Greene Sands is an anthropologist and CEO of the nonprofit Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities located in Washington.