"Chances are that if you’ve been successful in life, somewhere along your path there has been a person who believed in you – someone who shared their knowledge, guided you with a key decision, helped hone your skills, or served as an inspiration for what you could achieve."
We love the notion of the solitary innovator, the heroic, Horatio Alger myth of individual success against the odds. We hold up as examples those strong individuals who have risen not matter what obstacles they've faced and tell ourselves, "if they can do it, anyone can do it."
It's a particularly appealing notion because placing all the burden of success on the shoulders of the individual and abdicates everyone else from responsibility. Homeless people just need to get their moxie together and find homes and work; the unemployed just need to work harder at finding work; kids who fall in to gangs just need to exercise more moral judgment. Under this logic unions, social services and government are impediments to individual success - take away the burdens of social infrastructure and people will get on just fine, thank you very much.
There are a few problems with this logic.
First one's easy; the history of history is a move away from individual survival of the fittest and towards social collaboration. If you look at the embodiment of the political vision of a Rob Ford, Tim Hudak or Stephen Harper - well-armed individuals as masters of their own domain, paying less taxes, unencumbered by the state and focusing on punitive responses to misdeeds over proactive consensus building, you get Northern Afghanistan.
You also get the Taliban, which is essentially a gang - which, in themselves, are an early form of government not much different in their retaliatory approaches than tribal warfare. Eye for an eye, etc. Canada's impoverished communities, oddly enough, face problems with gangs and crime; when mainstream society sticks to its "throw 'em in the deep end and then they'll learn to swim" mentality, someone else will step in and provide a home, a community and a chance for success to youth disenfranchised with the obstacles they face.
It's all well and good for the political right to say these kids, they just need to strengthen their moral fibre and say "no" to crime and corruption, but isn't that a bit like telling politicians attack ads aren't good for democracy? Crime pays and as we clearly see across the board, there are always political folk feel that any ends justify the means and that the right way to handle scandal is to invest in the cover-up, not structural solutions.
Next - we have painfully obvious communication gaps in our society. I can't attend one meeting without witnessing the phone-game effect, with confident silos leaving yawning gaps into which people, whole communities fall. "I didn't know" or "that's not my job" comes as poor comfort when there are so many heart- and wallet-breaking incidents of duplication, gaps and overlaps.
This means that services don't work half as well as they could; it also exemplifies the problems faced by people at the bottom of the economic spectrum. If kids from poor neighbourhoods grow up dealing with police officers but are never exposed to positive mentors like, say, a Rhiannon Traill, they will inevitably view the system as hostile. If nobody ever teaches them the modern equivalent of fishing - how to get a driver's license, how to sell oneself in an interview, financial literacy, etc - are these invididuals somehow supposed to intuit on their own a world to which they have no exposure? Isn't that a bit like saying it's up to Mitt Romney to spend a few nights living homeless to understand the challenges faced by people without addresses?
There are all kinds of cognitive reasons why we resist outreach, mentorship and informed, empathetic communication, but I'll put it to you this way - if we, the "top" portion of the economic spectrum aren't willing to engage and experience the challenges faced by the marginalized, how fair is it for us to expect the reverse?
Fortunately, there's a way forward. History is the story of walls coming down and bridges being build, creating access and opportunity for growing numbers of people, whatever their personal backgrounds and stories. Mentorship, two-way communication, cross-sectoral partnerships and a bit of systems theory are all part of that equation.
Dismantling thousands of years of social evolution and expecting individuals to stand strong individually won't work; empowering individuals to contribute to a collaborative society will.
We don't need politicians who preach, pontificate or defer - we need leaders to lead by example.