Efficacy. Translating #BaltimoreUprising into a Movement towards Social Justice

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I'm a girl who was born and raised in New Hampshire, a state that, at the time, had a black population of less than 1% (it's at 1.6% now). I now live in a South Jersey town that is 1.5% African American.  My town has a median household income of $70,000/year.  Our town is literally 3 miles away from Camden, NJ, with a 76% African American population.  With a median household income of $18,000 (earning it the badge of America’s poorest city).  

My husband spends his days prosecuting violent crime in our neighboring city of Camden.  Sometimes it’s a drug deal gone wrong.  Sometimes a rival drug set feels wronged by another drug set.   Often it has gang-related elements.  Usually within the gangs themselves – arguing over status within the system they’ve created for themselves.  Sometimes these “negotiations” turn into shoot-outs - sometimes in the middle of the day.  With people around... moms and kids.  It's like the Wild West. 

We spend hours debating the causes of this vast racial/economic divide and how to fix it.  But it’s so fucking complicated.  

So, yes, my husband is in law enforcement.  Not the kind with a gun or a baton.  The kind in a suit with a briefcase.  And he spends lots of time with the families of the victims.  Sometimes, the families have little interest in talking with law enforcement (to put it mildly).  But, not all.  Many of these parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents work so goddamned hard to keep these kids on a good path, but the options are simply not there.  The individual benefits of engaging in criminal activity in these neighborhoods vastly outweighs the costs for many of these young men.    

My husband and I inhabit two very different worlds.  I am a professor who spends her day with idealistic, engaged young people who are ready to change the world.  Young people from all different backgrounds who come to the University of Delaware, major in Communication or Political Science (the two subjects I teach) and are preparing to embark on some great path.   I have students who are the first in their families to go to college.  These students often come to the university without the same solid academic background from which their more affluent classmates have had the luxury of benefiting.  But they work hard and are in it to win it.  

I’m also a social scientist who explores the various factors (individual, environmental, political, social, and psychological) that increase the likelihood that a person might engage in a particular action.  I study these factors with an eye towards behavior change or prevention.  The goal in social science is partly to explain behaviors and partly to predict behaviors.  We do this – when we’re doing it right – in an effort to develop interventions.  Interventions are usually communication-based messages that might help change or shape these factors in a way that will maximize functional behavioral outcomes - like, getting people to vote, stopping people from smoking, getting people to get an HIV test, reducing anti-social behaviors (like bullying, for example). 

On the other hand, Husband deals with the action itself.  Homicide, for example.  Regardless of the factors that come beforehand, in the eyes of the law, certain behaviors are treated pretty much the same.  As you can imagine, our perspectives are quite different, but both of us benefit greatly from the exchange.  

What he is reminded of, when talking to me, is that, yes, every person has free will.  Every person can choose a specific course of action in a given moment.  But, to deny the impact of the obstacles and factors that poor, inner city youth have to overcome just to SURVIVE from one day to the next, imposes a myopic, decontextualized moral judgment onto an infinitely complex social problem.   

What I am reminded of, when talking to him, is that, if we explain people’s behaviors ONLY in terms of the social, racial, political or economic factors that brought them to that act (homicide, shooting, drug-dealing), then we  are  basically saying that an individual is no more than an automaton who has no free will.  If that is the case, then what is the policy solution?  Lock up everyone who has a particular set of background factors because “chances are” they will engage in certain criminal acts?  Of course not.  

The key is in identifying those factors, those efficacy factors, that can lead people to – in spite of all the obstacles working against them– make the functional choice in a given moment.   

What are those efficacy factors?  Efficacy is our sense of empowerment and confidence in our ability to take certain actions.  It’s the feeling that “I can DO this,  even if it’s hard.”  Is efficacy an immutable factor that only exist within us? Either we have efficacy or we don’t? No. Sure, some people just seem “grittier” than others, but efficacy is something that has shown itself to be quite malleable.  Through education, information, face-to-face, and media-based messages, efficacy goes up – and behavior follows.  This is true in the realm of health behaviors, political behaviors, and even stopping certain addictive behaviors. 

So, when I watched this short video today, from Brave New Films, I felt this groundswell, this eye-opening movement, as a sort of organic efficacy intervention.  

Maybe some of the overwhelming power of those negative systemic factors that trap young urban youth can be muted through increases in efficacy.  

And perhaps efficacy comes from something as simple as… finally feeling heard.  

We hear you.