Early this year, I attended a presentation at the Urban Institute. One of the speakers was Deborah Shore, founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, here in DC. Shore used an interesting phrase – “going upstream” – that has stayed with me for months now.
So what did she mean, and is this a new concept?
Shore was referring to her organization’s long years of increasingly comprehensive work with homeless youth in DC. She said that however well they addressed the needs of youth after they became homeless, it really was essential to go upstream to address issues that affect youth before they become homeless. She discussed ways in which Sasha Bruce Youthwork is tackling issues of family, community, and society that cause young people to leave their homes to begin with.
A little “googling” shows that while the Internet may not be hopping with the going upstream metaphor, it has been used repeatedly by public health professionals.
It seems that both medical sociologist Irving Zola and pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky told versions of the same parable. In the story, more and more drowning people – in some variations, it is babies – are found flowing down a river. Bystanders are desperately fishing them out and resuscitating them. Until, someone breaks away – even though it seems like they are still needed in the crisis area – and runs upstream to find out why people are falling into the river to begin with!
It’s easy to see why this parable has been used repeatedly in the world of public health, but as Shore’s remarks make clear, the concept of going upstream is highly applicable in other fields, as well. In homelessness, education, criminal justice, and beyond, it seems like there is always one more person to pull out of the river, and it is very hard to make ourselves break away to address the whys.
It’s also true that asking and addressing the upstream questions is complicated – while pulling people out of the river, however tiring, is simpler. Upstream lie the questions we may not want to face about bias and privilege and structural racism in our society. Upstream lie the most complex interactions between institutions and families and individuals. Upstream lie our disagreements about accountability and responsibility.
In the nonprofit world, we take comfort in being “the good sector.” As long as we’re working at the river at all, when so many others are not, why shouldn’t we just feel satisfied with our efforts? Indeed, we should be proud of what our sector has achieved. But when the bodies keep coming down the river, we may encounter burnout or backlash. And Shore’s simple words, like the earlier parable, remind us that we’re capable of more.
We’re capable of increasingly complex, nuanced, and comprehensive work.
We’re capable of combining direct service work with advocacy for broader social change – an approach that Crutchfield and Grant, in Forces for Good, tell us is one of the key practices of high-impact nonprofits.
In short, we’re capable of change.
What’s upstream for your organization this year?