Seeing hidden systems: Part 6 of live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

A family of three stands outside a straw hut covered by a white tarpaulin. They are a man, a woman, and a child. Two solar lanterns hang from the hut.

This is part 6 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

Many of DENCAP’s customers and health-care providers come from Detroit’s African American, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic communities, so Joe wanted his employees to reflect those communities. Many of DENCAP’s customers are also on Medicaid. “Detroit is 80 percent poor. I want employees to understand what my customer base is struggling with.” …A younger Joe might not have seen these possibilities…He just knew he could do better.
Noticing has been a big part of the journey. Joe began paying closer attention to experiences he may have missed or dismissed in the past.

Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be, pp. 92-93

Part of my volunteer work for ShelterBox involves the distribution of ShelterKits and ShelterBox tents. The former is a set of tools that is usually paired with two robust 4-meter x 6-meter tarps. The family can use the tarps to replace walls that have been taken down by floods or earthquakes, or roofs that have been blown off by hurricane winds.

The latter is our signature piece of equipment. It’s a big white igloo tent that can shelter a family in the most urgent times of need.

Along with this kit, we also distribute kitchen kits, water-purification units, blankets, solar lamps.

And education. We teach the families how to use the equipment we’ve given them so that it can best help them through the weeks and months after a disaster. Things like water-purification units come with a prescribed set of directions. Tents should be erected with tight guy lines, so that the fabric doesn’t flap in wind and isn’t as prone to tearing. And we have a worksheet that tells you how to best use your tarp so that it’ll last a long time, until you can get a real roof or wall up.

But when we come back to check on the families as part of our post-deployment monitoring process, we see some modifications to the family’s kit. Sometimes they’re using the tarp in ways we never envisioned. In the Philippines, where I was most recently, some families were using them as covers for production of their coconut harvest, so they could work longer hours without as much heat exposure. “Oh, that’s cool,” we said. “We haven’t seen that before.”

Some families were using them in still other ways: they had draped the tarps loosely over the frames of their homes, leaving the ends flapping free. We approached the families. “You know, right? That you can use the roofing nails we gave you to nail down the tarp? Here, fold it over, like this”–we demonstrated–“so that the edge will be even stronger. And then put the nails right in.”

“And then, for this one here,” we went on, helpfully, “where you have it doubled over? See? There’s a seam here. You pick at this seam, and rrrrip!-—” we mock-tore at the tarp-—”you now have two tarps!” We may have grinned. “See?”

Our interpreters dutifully gave the instructions. The families nodded politely. And then they told us that they had it hanging so because they didn’t want to put nails into the tarp. That they wanted it to remain whole.

That they couldn’t be sure, in the future, if another, bigger storm might come through, when they needed to have true, strong, whole tarps to depend on, rather than a variety of half-tarps with holes in them. Or they needed them for their harvest. Or their family members who weren’t working and who didn’t have a means of building a new room quickly needed them instead.

This is Violeta and her husband Wilmy, with their son Reince. Wilmy was cutting hair for his neighbors when we met them for this photo.

These are all systems that were not readily visible to us. Things we couldn’t see right off the bat. Sometimes, it’s hard to see beyond fulfilling what’s an obvious, immediate need.

We are still duty-bound to repeat the education, just in case someone couldn’t be at one of the training events we put on for the community, but I am always interested to hear what the family has to say about how they’re using the equipment we gave them.

Another book I’m reading, Story Genius, presents some methods that help writers to craft great novels. Author Lisa Cron posits that a novel doesn’t go anywhere without the writer understanding what the character’s underlying beliefs are.

As with any theory about process, Cron’s may not work for everyone’s brain. But it definitely works for mine. When I was penning the nineteenth (or thereabouts) draft of my first novel, my thesis advisor begged me over and over again to look for my character’s north star, just so I knew what she was about. And another trusted friend, writer and professor John Brantingham, urged me to make her act in correlation to this north star. “She is a protagonist. She must protag,” read John’s margin notes to me. Between the two of them, I have the single most common piece of advice I pass on to new writers.

Cron and my thesis advisor are pointing to things that lie in the background of any good story. They may not necessarily be stated outright, but they eventually manifest in the character’s actions, to Brantingham’s point. So that everything makes sense. So the narrative rings true.

Without knowledge of this narrative, the writer can’t convey why we are meeting the character at this point in time. And the reader, consequently, won’t care.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that hidden narratives (or, in Chugh’s parlance, hidden systems) underlie a great many misunderstandings. Someone once said to me that they didn’t understand why homeless people didn’t just go out and get a job like the rest of us. Welp, I said, to get a job you need an address. To get an address you need first and last month’s payment, plus a bank account. To get a bank account you need a social security number.

Years ago, someone told a table full of us about the narrow escape he’d had as an exchange student in 1980s Kenya. He said he had nearly been the subject of human trafficking. His host families were about to sell him on the black market. The guy sitting next to me said that this story showed that Kenyans were so corrupt. He wouldn’t mind, he said, if the whole population just up and disappeared. Of course that’s wrong. But what mattered to him then, at the telling of that story, was how awful he felt that our friend had had this happen to him.

A decade ago, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk about about the danger of the single story. You’ve probably seen it, but it’s worth another 15 minutes. Here:

What I told my friend that day draws from the end of Adichie’s talk: No matter what we think of a population, or a group of people, there is always a story we don’t know. There is always a reason things, and people, are the way they are, and do what they do.

In the case of Kenya, we need to look to the long, ugly history of colonization, and lack of representation, and the imbalance of power before we judge what feels like an innately corrupt system.

In the case of my novels’ heroines, we need to understand that the heroine is coming from someplace when we first meet her. She was not just birthed, the minute we open the book.

In the case of the families we help at ShelterBox, we need to keep our minds open to solutions that we can’t, in our need to address the urgency, quite see yet.

What I think I want to posit is this: Seeing hidden systems means we have to step a little bit outside of what’s easy. We need to work to find another narrative, to dig a little deeper into someone else’s story.

But although it might look like work, it feels like joy. It feels like scratching an itch. It feels like satiating some curiosity. This kind of curiosity is exactly the reason that the two Youtube channels titled “How It’s Made” and “How Its Made” have a combined 800,000 subscribers. And why etymology is fascinating. And why science shows and nature documentaries will aways be interesting.

And why, because it’s almost football season here and I’m about to lose Mr. Gooddirt for two days out of the week, instant replay is even a thing. And why I’m always interested in seeing slo-mo videos of dogs missing treats tossed at them.

We love to see how a thing happens.

If we can apply this innate curiosity to finding out how people are the way they are, and how they’re they’re different, why they’re different, we can alleviate a lot of misunderstanding. And, if we assume hidden systems behind everything we see, maybe we can prevent a lot of hurt.

What’s the last misunderstanding you had debunked for you? Or a time when you were able to provide perspective to someone? Tell me in the comments below.

*ShelterBox has deployed an assessment team to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. Please have a look here to see how we decide to respond: