Metaphor: how to fix broken socio-economic environments … The Penthouse Construction Metaphor

Over the last 15 years I have identified what I think is a cycle: wonderful people putting their heart and soul into a socially responsible pursuit, but only to see their efforts fail to live up to their mission.

As an example imagine a group of 2-5 individuals with a desire to improve a ‘broken’ neighborhood; and so they decide to start a youth center in the neighborhood, providing all of the typical youth center activities. These 2-5 individuals work tirelessly to raise money and awareness for the youth center. But within several years their project ends up failing.

I have seen this cycle, albeit from afar, in both Atlanta and Chicago, about five times.

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It seems to me that what these various pursuits have had in common is their isolation from the other socio-economic projects that are occurring within their same socio-economic environment.

And this has led to the development of a metaphor that attempts to understand why positive socio-economic pursuits can yet fail to bring a neighborhood to positive health – the Penthouse Construction metaphor, a skyscraper construction metaphor.

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So let’s say that I want live in a penthouse on top of a 100-story skyscraper. Inevitably, in the pursuit of my dream I will discover necessary construction burdens:

  • the structure will need columns,
  • but tall columns will break unless they have decks providing lateral structural support between the columns,
  • decks are needed about every 10-15 vertical feet,
  • no column should be built faster than the other columns – lateral support is necessary even during the construction phase.

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Imagine that I build the skyscraper with columns only: if I have columns that are one thousand feet tall – without any structural connectivity to the other columns via lateral support – the columns will break.

According to the metaphor, columns that exist independently of other columns do not provide meaningful support to the overall structure. Each column is only as meaningful as its integration with the other columns.

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ATTEMPT TO USE THE METAPHOR IN PRACTICE: So if a neighborhood fire department ( an example of a column in its community ) is raising money for its own needs, but yet not rationing that very money with, say, the youth center ( also an example of a column ), then these independent columns which are not laterally supporting each other are not working effectively towards the socio-economic structure of the neighborhood, and it will be unlikely that their socio-economic environment will ever support a penthouse.

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WITHIN A SOCIO-ECONOMIC ENVIRONMENT, WHAT ARE THE COLUMNS?

  • fire department, police force, medical services
  • schools
  • dignity ( people with nicely landscaped yards feel good about themselves )
  • extra-curricular opportunities ( athletic and musical expression apparently feed academic capacity )
  • food resources ( maybe a grocery store, maybe a neighborhood milk cow, maybe backyard vegetable gardens )
  • religious options
  • skill development ( gardeners, butchers, carpenters, doctors need to be taught how to … )
  • people with skills ( plumbers, carpenters, lawyers, accountants, ??? )
  • acquisition power ( I need a loaf of bread, I need my leaky pipes fixed )
  • functioning family infrastuctures
  • ????

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By the way, you do not necessarily need socialism, nor even communism, to ensure lateral connectivity. Indeed, both charity and philanthropy are capitalism-based devices that build lateral connectivity amongst the columns.
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4 responses

  1. Interesting post.

    I’m watching something similar to this happen. Our church is in such a neighborhood as you described. We offer several programs and services that address needs that the community expressed. However, there is little participation from the community. We have repeatedly reached out to other organizations to form partnerships but have had limited success.

    Davo
    davohynds.wordpress.com

  2. Interesting….Do you have a background in community development. There are lots of theories out there. Personally I like the neighbourhood theory. Not forgetting that organisations have development stages and sometimes they grow and develop and evolve but sometimes they fold….Sometimes it is right to move on

    Patricia Ward

  3. Last Sunday, a church elder spoke briefly about his trip to Haiti. The Christian organization he visited there has (1) a church building, (2) a hospital, (3) a school, (4) a micro-business seed organization, and I forgot two or three other things–possibly one related to farming. All were under the same umbrella, all apparently functioning together, all in about the same area, so far as I understand.

    I suppose the need varies with the community. The one thing I would add is a need for whole and functioning families.

    Peter Rubel
    bestaffiliatefamily.com

  4. I’m actually quite glad I ran into this blog entry. I myself will soon embark upon a community project. I had similar ideas but didn’t really see it so clearly as illustrated. Thanks for the post.

    Trevauhn Grant

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