April 23, 2024

Targeted Universalism Step 4: Assess and understand the structures that support or impede each group or community from achieving the universal goal

old growth coast redwoods tower high above us in Muir Woods National Park.
photo caption: old growth coast redwoods tower high above us in Muir Woods National Park. they are all trees, yes, but each one is infinitely unique.

This series documents my experimentation with the use of Targeted Universalism (TU). I used the Othering and Belonging Institute‘s primer on the subject. There are five steps:

I am ready to try out Step 4 of the Targeted Universalism primer.

First, a recap:

In step 1, I wrote my goal statement:

Everyone should have access to food that is free. The food should be nutritious and appropriate to them. The food should be accessible within a 15 minutes walk.

In Step 2, I learned that 23 million people in the u.s. have to travel more than 15 minutes to find a grocery store. Access to appropriate foods depends on the area where you live. And 849K people in Washington state (35.2M nationally) don’t have the food they need to thrive.

In Step 3, I started to group people into categories. I brainstormed a few groups. I also encouraged caution not to make assumptions about those groups. That caution is helpful as we move into Step 4.

In Step 4, we take our list of groups and start to understand what barriers exist for people in those groups. This step requires some deep learning about our groups. What barriers do they face? What supports might they lack? The primer recommends understanding how a group’s environment will influence their outcomes. Whereas the earlier steps were data driven, this one is much more qualitative. It asks us to explore the systems that make up a person’s lived experience.

on group engagements

Reading this step of the primer, I’m reminded of a book I’m reading. As We Have Always Done is by writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. She is Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg and is a member of Alderville First Nation. The chapter I’m reading is on Nishnaabeg Internationalism. My inadequate summary here: the Nishnaabeg engage with all living things as members of different nations. The plants, the animals, other human groups, all represent independent nations. These nations interact in the same general system, but they are all equal to each other. She writes, “The idea of having international relations, relationships that are based on consent, reciprocity, respect, and empathy, is repeated over and over again in Nishnaabeg story.”

This is an approach that is essential in any step where we engage with specific groups. Our aim in Step 4 is to document what we learn through deep investigation of our partners in this work. At this stage in a real process, we would have many groups. We would identify them, learn about them, and document anything that would keep them from our goal.

choosing two groups

The point I risk belaboring is that this process only works when you are aware of the groups you want to target. Many people that serve the public good make assumptions about the groups they want to help. Don’t do this, least of all here! This can lead to pathologizing these groups or othering their needs. I will instead represent my own perspective as a member of two groups I have some experience with.

my groups are:

  • people who are LGBTQ+
  • people who don’t know how to cook

people who are LGBTQ+

Here again, a caveat. As a cis gay man, I won’t be able to speak to all the barriers that might keep a member of my group from our goal. I would look to others in the community to represent their own needs.

People in this group face prejudice from others. This prejudice from people in power can withhold access to services. Only last year did the u.s. supreme court rule that employers could not fire a person for being LGBTQ+. In states with at-will employment, they could fire a gay person by claiming it was for another reason. An LGBTQ+ youth may lack family support that would otherwise provide them with access to food. Some LGBTQ+ youth form found families with other youth. Depending on their circumstance, a group of all minors may not have the same food access as an adult.

people who don’t know how to cook

In the hunger relief world, it’s a common myth that people who are food insecure don’t know how to cook. Some do, and some don’t. When I first moved out of my family’s home, I had mastered one or two meals not of the “just add water” variety. Over the years I’ve learned to cook a lot of things! It’s something I enjoy doing now. But to get there, I had several advantages that others may not. I was only cooking for myself. I had the time I needed to learn. I had enough money to afford some ingredients. I had access to a kitchen with cookware, measuring cups, working appliances, regular power and water, no food allergies.

Each of these could be another person’s barrier to learning how to cook. Another barrier for this group might be fear or intimidation about cooking. They might not know how to cook the food that is available to them. They may receive recipes but be unable to read, or unable to read English. A person in this group might be an excellent cook — but only in the country or culture they came from. They might not know how to make a can of beef chili taste good.

conclusion: seeking to understand

I hope as you read about a person in each group you started to brainstorm possible solutions. We’ll be doing that in depth in Step 5. Using myself as an example required my knowledge and past experience. It’s tempting to use our own past lived experience to imagine barriers for each groups, but it’s not ideal. Lived experience in the past tense may misrepresent present-day needs in a harmful way.

Some of the barriers I imagined might no longer be an issue with these groups. It’s possible that they’ve already found other solutions to get around these challenges. For instance, a person who is unable to read might say, “I call my friend and they text me links to cooking videos. I watch those and get ideas.” This could be a practice that’s verified with others and added into the final strategy.

I also realized that imagining these groups had led me to imagine even more groups. As you build a comprehensive strategy, create ways to include new groups into your plans. This may feel like scope creep, but the goal is always to engage with 100% of the total population. Many groups will have solutions that overlap, or need only minor adjustments to work for them. Step 5 will help us develop those strategies.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space