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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Collective Efficacy: An Abstraction or a Real World Application?

           I hold a soft grudge against Ivy-League graduates; maybe not so much a grudge, but more of an incredibly high expectation. One of my good high school friends had the opportunity to attend a school at the level of above and beyond that many people so highly esteem. And, knowing how diligent of a student he was, I think that my high standard for Ivy grads is somewhat suitable. That being said, I find that some forms of higher education, me not to be excluded, can involuntarily distance a college student from the “real world.” Somehow, in my instance, my food just happens to be magically paid for when in fact there are quite a few sacrifices being made. My parent’s financial and moral support, the kitchen staff that seemingly lives in the back of the cafeteria, the university for overseeing that our tuition goes to the right places so we can we eat better. I say all of this because I, as a university student, like to immerse myself in what the “real world” dubs as the real world. What I mean by that is attending something along the lines of a seminar on youth violence in Philadelphia. I find that being informed on my surrounding community keeps me in touch with reality, which includes my thankfulness for being able to attend college. So to connect my points: acknowledging sacrifices, seeing the opportunity to hear about the “real world” from the real world, I feel like it’s my role to hear what people have to say. And then form my own opinion on it, of course.
               Dr. Felton Earls sees himself as a witness. He says he wants to become an ally, a potential partner with Philadelphia. His soft spoken demeanor suggested he retains experience in his field; he has been to Tanzania. He possesses credible data from his studies and has many awards tagged to his name. He has even created a new term called collective efficacy.
               While in Chicago, Dr. Earls measured the disorganization of 343 neighborhoods in the city limits. Collective efficacy was a scale that he established that used a universal rating system to determine how safe neighborhoods really were. His discoveries from investigating neighborhood responses to illegal activity broke social norms; Hispanic and middle class black neighborhoods apparently ranked very high on his scale. He also drew an interesting, yet not incredibly profound, correlation between death rates and low birth weight. I think it was unbelievable that collective efficacy was such an efficient means to measure this statistic; kudos to Dr. Earl. But I was at a loss when I started to think, “How could what we would already have been inferred without collective efficacy, now presented to us in data, be any more useful and applicable to the unsolved issue?”
               Between 1995 and 1999, Dr. Earls worked in Tanzania during a severe outbreak of HIV/AIDS. While working among two and three thousand population pockets, Dr. Earl found that 10-14 year old age groups worked the most effectively in conveying how to prevent the spread of HIV, educate the community on the biology of the disease, as well as become what he keyed “active citizens.” (Here’s where I got somewhat hung up on his titles and awards.) In essence, yes, as the opening speaker at this seminar, his story gave evidence to what the audience, panel, and community wanted to hear: children are capable of being more than violent, uneducated beings.
But what I personally found misleading was the veiled hope that a biased data collection from a rare pocket of two to three thousand population groups in Tanzania (of all places) was somehow grounds to promote the idea that collective efficacy was to be applied to American cities. Still, I did not see the connection between the data collected in Chicago or Tanzania to the positive results that Dr. Earl sheepishly denied had any relationship to his “work.” In the instance of Chicago, shortly after the data from his collective efficacy came in, the homicide rate dropped. I do not know if I did not catch the relationship between the data and the aftereffects, but I personally do not recall in his retelling how the raw data brought about change. Similarly in the Tanzania example, even when he explained that he was educating the masses, I could not figure out how whatever data he drew from the limited population groups linked to his effectively educating teenagers. I think that the data enabled for him to see where more education on diseases was needed. Certainly. But could he have not looked at the HIV/AIDS count and have said the same thing?
I thought the panel to follow his opening remarks would fill the missing link between the raw data and the resulting application of that knowledge. What I listened to instead was the hardships reality imposes on theoretical concepts. The panel included many prominent figures, much to my Virginian-boy surprise. It was the first time I had ever been to a seminar where the Deputy Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Acting Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia-and others-sat together and spoke plainly and pragmatically about the issue at hand.
What followed inevitably cut and dried the lofty concept of collective efficacy. While each member of the panel agreed with the idea of collecting data, it seemed pointless to use time and resources to establish what they had already known. Youths are in danger. Youths are the future. Youths need to be protected in order to secure a better future. Data was not needed in order to convince any member on the panel to act now. They already were. And in the instance of the Police Department of Philadelphia where community policing has begun, collective efficacy was too late, or rather, it was already applied.
I spoke with a woman I work under that also attended the seminar the next day. When Ms. Jill asked what my impression was, I said it was coordinated and informative. Especially since my hometown experiences violence on a much smaller scale, the seminar brought me up to speed on Philadelphia’s current events and issues. Nevertheless, I told my employer that at the end of the session, something did not sit right inside me. While there was a positive flow of energy, there were no calls to action or any commitment or proposal put forward to initiate action against youth violence. Ms. Jill informed me that while we were in the lecture, four kids were shot and two later died from their wounds.
At that point, my optimistic sentiment took a turn for the worse. I feel like my cynical point of view expressed in this review of the seminar was created as a result of that startling reality. While it was important to acknowledge accomplishments and hear new ideas, the luxury of stopping to study and analyze is just too slow and impractical in this instance.