It Doesn’t Take A Rocket Scientist…

Carol A. Hand

“Just tell me what to do!” These were dreaded words for me to hear in my roles as a teacher or supervisor. It signaled an internalized belief that only an expert in power could dictate the terms of their life, their work, and their studies. The question implied that the speaker had either been successfully colonized or domesticated, at least superficially, or they were unwilling to take risks to chart their own course – an absence of vision and passion that was deadly. They were willing to wait for someone else, someone smarter, someone with higher “status,” to tell them what to do.


Photo Credit: Drawing that looks very little like the original internet image

It’s never been easy for me to follow orders, so I am very cautious about giving them. Whether it was in a classroom or a work situation, I have always preferred to explore options through dialogue with the people who were most directly affected by issues and those who had to implement tasks, solutions and innovations. I have often wondered why so many people unquestioningly follow leaders and are unable or unwilling to simply decide for themselves. This inability to recognize one’s own ability to transform at least some parts of one’s environment perpetuates the status quo. We wait for those in power to do what is more effectively done on a local level through face-to-face engagement. Why can’t we decide how to address homelessness or hunger in our own communities? Or end racism and discrimination? Improve schools that don’t teach students what they really need to know? Change hospitals or prisons that don’t help heal people? Or improve social services that don’t even provide effective band aids let alone cures?

Too often, we willingly accept the pronouncements from above that social problems are not due to structural inequalities, they’re due to poor decision making, bad personal choices, deviant people, or deficient cultures.

The generic process of Blaming the Victim is applied to almost every American problem. The miserable health care of the poor is explained away on the grounds that the victim has poor motivation and lacks health information…. The “multi problem poor,” it is claimed, suffer the psychological effects of impoverishment, the “culture of poverty,” and the deviant value system of the lower classes; consequently, though unwittingly, they cause their own troubles. (William Ryan, pp. 5-6)

I remember serving on a technical review panel to uncover the causes of alarmingly high infant mortality rates for Native Americans in Wisconsin. As the only Native American on the review panel, the only one without a medical background, I read the medical records from a different perspective. Where others quickly detected patterns of poor health decisions and potentially criminal behavior, I saw consequences of the legacy of poverty and colonial oppression. The solutions to address deviance and criminality are to increase surveillance and enforce compliance with professional or legal dictates. As the boundary spanner on the panel, my role was to translate another paradigm. My staff and I developed alternatives – programs that worked to reweave connections to support families and create services that community members found welcoming and culturally appropriate. We needed to convince nonbelievers on the panel that this was really a more effective approach. We needed to convince tribal communities that it was possible to be partners in creating new health service paradigms. And we needed to find funders.

Instead of relying solely on medical records to find underlying causes, we asked tribal staff and community members “What has changed as a result of colonialism?” We listened, observed, and reflected on what we learned and designed a series of projects to respond. If colonialism has disrupted traditional community bonds, diets, governments, spirituality, education, where do we begin? How can we help families so their infants can survive their first year of life?

Our challenge was to walk in two worlds – to reweave traditional community informal supports and re-envision the role of health providers. Our goal was not to change individuals but to work in partnership with each community to rebuild networks of support for families. We created a network of nurses and paraprofessionals with the “dream catcher” as the symbol of our work together. Like the strands of the dream catcher, we would work together to screen out the harmful influences in the lives of children and families and only allow the good influences to come through. With maternal child health nurses, family advocates, and community mentors, we built a network across nine geographically dispersed Algonquin nations, drawing from traditional cultures to create ceremonies that brought people together to share and honor their work.

dream catcher

Photo Credit: Dream Catcher

Our critics were not convinced that this was the best approach. The federal funders for the project wanted to require all of the infant-mortality reduction projects located in poor communities across the country to force participating families and infants to “comply” with medical appointments scheduled in clinics at times that were convenient for healthcare providers. As the federal staff noted at the national meeting in Washington DC, “Those people need to learn how to be more responsible for their own health.” I looked around the room and noticed that the directors and evaluators of the other 35 projects in the room did not appear to be ethnically representative of the communities they were hired to serve. I watched as the majority nodded their approval of this new requirement. I nudged my evaluator, a nationally-renowned child welfare researcher, and whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry if I embarrass you, but I can’t let this pass unopposed.” I stood up and responded. “I’m not sure about the other project directors, but the families I work with are my people. The goal of our project is to help infants survive. We don’t care how families and infants access the services and supports they need, we only care that they do. Let me tell you a story that explains our approach.”

I proceeded to tell the story of a tribal family advocate on her first day of work. She went to a scheduled home visit to check on a newborn. When she pulled into the driveway, the house was quiet. All the curtains were drawn and it looked deserted. Knowing the community, she got out of her car and walked toward the front door. Suddenly, she heard a loud whisper, “Carrie, Carrie, come to the back door. Hurry!” Carrie hurried to the back and walked in. “Duck”, said the mother. “We’re hiding. The health department is coming.” Carrie laughed and replied, “I am the health department.” It makes a difference when communities are able to hire staff that community members trust, people who are welcomed into the homes of community members. As I ended my story, hands went up around the room. All of the project directors had changed their minds. This requirement would have to go.

There were other stories I could have told about the benefits of working in partnership with communities on the projects that affect them. Staff in one community asked elders to make dream catchers for a small honorarium that helped offset their extremely low incomes. Traditional healers blessed the dream catchers and presented them to each new infant. Staff in another community created a women’s crafting circle. The women gathered together to knit, crochet, and sew gifts for infants. As a group, the circle of women presented their gifts to newborns, each holding the new child to welcome him or her into the community. The staff person explained the significance. “By holding the child, each woman creates a promise that she will always be there to watch over the child.”

If we create opportunities and spaces for communities to reweave connections, I’m convinced anything is possible. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. It takes heart and vision.

Works Cited:

William Ryan (1976). Blaming the Victim (revised, updated edition). New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

19 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Take A Rocket Scientist…

  1. Heart and Vision and the ability to solve problems from “the inside out, rather than the outside in”…to me are the core of getting things done.


  2. Heart and vision…and agency? I’ve been thinking about the greatest illusion power creates…that other people have no power and are unable to do anything to get it back. I’m thinking the key may be listening and deep respect, so that people become aware of their own insights and voices. But I agree, Carol. Like Don Juan says, we need to follow the path that has heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Carol, your bravery to speak out and do what needs done is always an inspiration; your artistic sketching talent is quite nice too.

    The only thing I can add to this, which is of some earlier relevance to your post, is that as a manager what I battle to resolve among those I’m responsible for is a lack of motivation, initiative. I too dislike giving orders, and so I’m often at ends to motivate, when in reality, motivation is difficult to instill when there is little more than a weekly paycheck as reward. I don’t like the sound of what I just said. I would rather like to think everyone should take pride and enthusiasm in their work. But when work is menial and fruits of labors the greater benefit of another, it becomes easy to understand a lack of motivation.


    1. It is challenging to be a supervisor or worker in some contexts, Peter. I love this video I just saw that explains the daunting challenge of feeling motivated to do one’s job well: How can one find meaning in one’s work in many of the jobs available today? McDonald’s? Walmart? Monsanto? Even in universities that operate on a corporate model these days?

      I remember one of the factoids from my decades old “training” as a supervisor – 85% of workers do a competent job – most because they fear failure – only a small percentage are motivated by curiosity and the potential of success. The other 15%? I’m not sure this information is valid, but I have had to figure out how to work with people who were not particularly competent (not always successfully). I was fortunate in some of my jobs because, for short periods of time, I had the freedom to be creative. The majority of staff in the project I described in this post told me they never had a job they loved as much as this one. Yet in my experience, innovation sadly foments the need for insecure people in positions of power to try to use it for their own selfish reasons. Just when we were at the brink of creating a solid exciting national model, I was forced to leave my position for ethical reasons – people in power wanted to pad their salaries at the expense of services for families and force me to hire relatives. Obviously, I wasn’t willing to comply. The foundation of the project was strong enough to maintain the program for another 12 years although it never reached its true transformative potential.

      (And, thank you for your kind words about the funny sketch – I think it looks more like one of my granddaughter’s drawings of me and it did make me laugh 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful examples. Reminded me — a few months ago I was at a program where people talked (in a Chicano context) about how La cultura cura. Activate the assets people carry in their culture. “The old ways root us so we can succeed.” Cultural competence isn’t enough. Programs need to be culturally rooted. People can pull themselves up by their “rootstraps.” Similar ideas are percolating but always, it seems, from the margins. Gotta seep in through every crack in the monolithic power structure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love your insights about the importance of cultural rootedness, Diane, pulling “themselves up by their ‘rootstraps.'” Innovations do come from the margins as you point out, and unfortunately, too often remain there… Seeping through cracks in the power structure is a never-ending challenge and I’m grateful to hear about others who are continually innovating.


  5. Thank you for sharing this. It still astounds me that health agencies consider it appropriate to use the mechanisms which created the very outcomes they are trying to redress: Power over and othering. I have had very similar experiences working with racialized groups in the UK and also faced colonial attitudes:’we know best’ or ‘let’s coerce’which sadly perpetuate inequalities and distrust.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Guilaine. Increasingly I am beginning to realize that the many social institutions we have created suffer from serious goal-displacement (if in fact the goals were ever something other than social control). Health institutions don’t really foster health – at best they offer limited medical treatment (often not even intended to be curative), nor do educational institutions promote genuine learning based on encouraging inquisitiveness and critical thinking. And justice institutions? The list could go on. We’re socialized not to really observe, listen, and think but merely to adopt prevailing assumptions and practice paradigms.

      Trying to change those forces of colonialism and hegemony is daunting, and in the meantime, great harm is done. People suffer. “Experts” have so much to lose by system reforms and transformations, and so much to gain by protecting the status quo … And as you point out, social inequalities are one of the most important contributing factors for poor health. instead of addressing inequality or environmental factors, we blame individuals for poor life style choices as you have so eloquently argued in your work


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