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Client Success Story

Town of Reading Community Conversations Part 2: Blind Spots and X-ray Vision

November 9, 2011 by Deborah Gilburg

The Town of Reading recently hosted the 2nd of 3 community meetings planned in response to a public outcry against substance abuse and violence after recent, drug related murders of two young men, former graduates of Reading High. Angry, afraid and critical of police and school administration, residents wanted answers and action.

Town leadership, however, employed a strategy for addressing community concerns that departed from more traditional approaches – rather than hold a public meeting where people come to demand “solutions” from local officials and experts, leaders decided to slow down and take the time to help the community explore together the nature of substance abuse and violence in Reading, before addressing what is being/can be done.  

The first meeting was a World Café-style community conversation that I blogged about several weeks ago. The participants talked together about the impacts of substance abuse on our community, and explored what some root causes might be. The conversations and “harvest” (output) began to illuminate the depth and complexity of the issue and the wide variety of perspectives, concerns and dilemmas that exist—this is not a challenge with a silver bullet solution. 


A few weeks ago, the Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse (RCASA), a grant-funded organization that works on this issue with the community and our youth, hosted the 2nd meeting. The purpose of this event was to increase our understanding of this problem with data from the source—our youth. Information included: highlights from the latest Reading High Youth Risk Behavior Survey; personal stories from a local mother and daughter who have been battling the daughter’s 8-year heroine addiction that started in high school; and lastly, a presentation by the RCASA “Youth Crew” of a series of projects they were undertaking in response to what they have been learning, asking for adult volunteers to help with specific components. With over 150 people in attendance, the event was engaging, eye opening, and moving.

Eye opening—yes, we need our eyes opened. I noted after the World Café conversation how naïve our community is about this pervasive, equal opportunity issue. And yet people came to that meeting with such strong and widely divergent convictions about what they thought the problem was and the solution should be. This behavior is not limited to my town – this is what we do as humans when we are trying to make sense of complex issues. We tend to block out what we don’t want to know, or can’t quite wrap our heads around, or that which fails to comport with our own personal experience or sense of the world. This can be both a survival tool, when simplification keeps us from becoming overwhelmed, and a survival roadblock, when simplification keeps us from seeing the whole. And this response can create Blind Spots.

We were confronted with some of our blind spots at the RCASA meeting. The heroine addict’s mother, who could have been any of us, saying, “I just didn’t want to believe she was that kind of girl, I wanted to believe our family was the one in our Christmas cards, smiling, happy, whole.” Our small, well-to-do community that wants our children to have the best, yet 30% of Reading High students (an all time high) report feelings of stress and anxiety to such a degree that they experience clinical depression and thoughts of suicide, have attempted suicide, and/or practiced “cutting” and other self-mutilating behaviors. The fact that most Reading teens get their first drugs from our medicine cabinets – our painkillers, our alcohol – and 90% of their use occurs in our homes. Blind spots.

So how do we to illuminate blind spots in our world? How do we really start to see the whole issue, challenge, or system? Because if we can’t see it, how can we possibly address, solve, adapt, change…for the better?

These community meetings are providing some clues. We need to include the people with X-ray vision, those who don’t share our perspectives or experiences, our blind spots. These people can be anywhere: the heroine addict’s friend who finally called the mother and told her the truth; the Reading high students and their collective survey responses about their own behavioral health; the RCASA youth crew who are looking for ways to create purpose and meaning in their lives – wanting to be contributors to solving the problems we want to avoid or foist upon others. X-ray vision is critical to helping us — communities, organizations, nations — start to illuminate the blind spots that keep us from understanding the whole of what confronts us.

When we engage stakeholders — those who are impacted by the adaptive challenges ahead — in a strategic, meaningful process of dialog and communication, we make room for those who may have X-ray vision, who can see what others may not. And if we don’t, if we keep thinking our own “expertise” or experience is enough, we will continue to breathe our own exhaust and ultimately fail to understand the totality of the challenge or glimpse the possibilities of a better way.

The last meeting in Reading is the time to start talking about action steps. What is being done, what else can we do? We will both hear from a panel of local leaders and talk amongst ourselves about these questions. Armed with a new collective appreciation of this challenging issue, I am looking forward to what might be next, as we continue to learn together. Stay tuned…