Prediction: Implicit bias will hijack this well intentioned documentary

I recently had the chance to view the documentary, Resilience: The biology of stress and the science of hopeby Jamie Redford and Karen Pritzker.  The film aims to explain research findings on how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can produce toxic stress that can have long term effects on health and well being.

It is understandable that early childhood experts and advocates (who have been working for years to get public policies to keep pace with developmental science) would be excited about this film. In fact, many of my clients have spoken to me about their plans to host screenings of this film in their communities. I’m telling them not to. Here’s why.

In short, my concern is that the film provides endless opportunity for implicit biases about race and poverty to be reinforced, and offers no specific, actionable policy-based solutions (of which there are many). I actually don’t fault the filmmakers for this – I attribute it to the widespread misuse of traditional storytelling techniques in communications about social problems. What are traditional storytelling techniques? Those that focus on characters, both victims and heroes, to the exclusion of contexts. In the case of Resilience, the victims of toxic stress are almost entirely poor children and families of color, and the heroes (with a few notable exceptions) are white teachers, principals, therapists and scientists.

If I had a dime for every time a client said to me, “But we have to tell the story of the people we serve – to make their voices heard!” And if they had a dime for every time I responded with, “But you must understand the entrenched racism in our culture, as well as the default tendencies toward personal attribution of responsibility, and what challenges that creates for your communications!”

The biggest mistake the film made was in not connecting the dots between historic, systemic, institutional, policy-driven inequities and the current circumstances of those portrayed. Instead, the film started the conversation with the question, “Why are children in THESE neighborhoods doing ok, but children in THESE OTHER neighborhoods, not?”  Sorry – but unless you truly tell the story of how those neighborhoods got to be, then you leave audiences to believe the problems were created by the people who live there. And we know that’s not the case. Policies and institutions have contributed to and promoted disparity. If we want to solve these serious problems, we need to focus the lens on those policies and institutional practices, not on their victims. We need better stories about us, about what we have done and failed to do, culturally and politically.

So, instead of community screenings of this documentary, I would recommend community book groups that discuss Richard Rothstein’s, The Color of Law. And sharing far and wide the terrific Fresh Air episode with Rothstein.



The best explanation of persuasive communications, right here:

Got 23 minutes? To understand the most important concepts in persuasive communications? Of course you do! Then watch this.

“Facts don’t change opinions unless they first speak to people’s sentiments, their sense of identity,  and self interest.”

New, Interactive, Online Data System on Child Well-Being

If we want to assess how well children are doing, and identify solutions to challenges in child well-being, we need a better understanding of the physical, social, economic and cultural environments in which children live and grow.

Efforts to track child well being in New Hampshire have been challenged by the lack of a single, accessible repository of data that would allow policymakers and citizens to understand how New Hampshire children are doing.

My client, Spark NH, contracted with me to collate and analyze indicators of child and family well-being in New Hampshire, and create an online platform for anyone to explore the data. With the fabulous graphic design and web building skills of Holly Valero at Hollyworks, I created this system: Visualizing Child Well-Being in New Hampshire

We see this tool as providing a one-stop shop to practitioners, policymakers and all those interested in a better understanding of the contexts that both promote the healthy development of New Hampshire’s next generation.

This is not an online data warehouse, but an interactive platform built with a cutting edge data visualization product called Tableau. Tableau not only allows us to tell the story of child well-being in New Hampshire in a visually interesting way, but also provides users with interactive tools that allows them to explore the data more fully. The charts and graphs can be sorted, downloaded as images or PDF files, and shared via e-mail or on the web with a single click. The raw data can also be downloaded directly either as a text file or as a Tableau workbook for others who also use Tableau.