The Commonplace #14

This summer, we solicited essay submissions related to the theme of crisis and possibility.  The responses were varied and far-flung, with intergenerational submissions from four continents.  The first essay submission we published, was from a New Jersey high school student, Tamia Bradham.  It was hard-hitting, visceral, and personal.  Her essay was also beautifully crafted and topical – offering a personal reflection on the movement for racial justice in America.  Our second published submission this week from Matthew Walker is quite different in tone and focus, but also very relevant.  Matthew is an educator, social scientist, and policy analyst.  He considers the nature of crisis itself, as well as the importance and role of information and knowledge in a democratic society.

Here at Social Possibility Lab, our work continues to evolve but we have been privileged to learn about and learn from so many voices over the past six months – not only our essayists, but the entrepreneurs and leaders on clean energy and sustainable development in Appalachia, and the varied perspectives from those working for positive change in communities and organizations around the U.S. and the world in our Vantage Points series.  

Here in Virginia, we are also gathering information and resources related to responding to crisis, as we seek to help communities and leaders as they consider and plan for economic recovery and resilience, from current crises that are still on-going, and future crises of unknown natures.  Here are a few resources and ideas that we are finding interesting this week:


Many communities and organizations are shaping new strategies and making swift pivots.  This simple triage tool from Marian Urquilla at the Center for Community Investment may be useful in considering near-term directions, or line of sight, and paths to pursue, abandon, or delay.


Writing for the Harvard Business Review, J. Peter Scoblic considers how to form strategy amidst uncertainty.  He suggests that leaders try to look beyond the “tyranny of the present” and learn to practice what Scoblic terms “strategic foresight.”  Scenario planning is a core tool in this practice but should not be a one-time, stand-alone activity but an ongoing creative exploration, an “institutionalization of imagination.”


Here in 2020, we hear more and more about the importance of considering equity and inclusion when promoting economic and community recovery.  This is a good thing.  But we have long been aware of inequity.  And there are many existing resources to help communities and policy-makers incorporate an equity lens as they craft recovery strategies and policies.  This 2018 guide to equitable development from the National Civic League is but one example. 

The report defines equitable development:  “When quality of life outcomes, such as affordable housing, quality education, living wage employment, healthy environments, and transportation are equitably experienced by the people currently living and working in a neighborhood, as well as for new people moving in. Public and private investments, programs, and policies in neighborhoods meet the needs of residents, including communities of color, and reduce racial disparities, taking into account past history and current conditions.”


We can also learn about strategy and responses from grassroots organizers like Ejeris Dixon and Dove Kent, featured in a podcast episode on Adapting Strategy & Building Power in Crisis by the team at Irresistible.


So much talk of recovery when so much suffering remains.  People losing lives and homes to fires in the Northwest and to hurricanes in the Gulf.  As of this writing, nearly 1,000 Americans are still dying from the Coronavirus every day.  

In The Washington Post, Greg Jaffe recently profiled the low-income, service and tourism sector workers struggling to support themselves and their families in Orlando, Florida.  The article focused on those now living in the area’s declining old tourist motels, places of former glory like The Palm and Paradise, now short-term stay residences.  The decline of the tourism sector, the plight of low-wage workers, and the living conditions of people on the edge all offer a dose of needed specificity, when it comes to our economic challenges.

Similarly, Samantha Shapiro’s recent New York Times article features the over 100,000 New York public school children who lack permanent housing, and are “in the shadows.” She details the difficulty of keeping up with school and learning when you move between schools, lack access to information, and are left out due to technology access.

These writings and other remind us of the enormity and the urgency of working for possibility in real and tangible ways. How do we really advance recovery and equity for all, including for those on the edges and margins?     


In a recent blog post, Austin Kleon re-posted an article from The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman, who was writing about pathways to a more fulfilled life.  Crisis brings questions of meaning and purpose, for individuals as well as organizations.  Either might benefit from a simple decision-making tool that Burkeman offers in the form of a question, Will this enlarge me (or my family, or our organization) or diminish me (or my family or our organization)?   

The simplicity of the question holds its potential power.  Burkeman suggests we are not so good at analyzing what might make us happy or fulfilled but that a question like this elicits a deeper, more intuitive response.  Not that analysis does not have its place, but that sometimes we also need to call forth our deeper awareness.