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:
- Exploring TU
- Step 1: set a universal goal
- Step 2: assess general performance
- Step 3: identify groups
- Step 4: understand the structures
- Step 5: develop strategies
Here we are! The last step of the primer. Let’s have one more summary of my progress.
I wrote my goal statement in Step 1:
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.
For Step 2 I assessed the problem. 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.
I started to group people in Step 3. 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.
I needed to better understand my groups in Step 4. I had to do some deep learning and engagement with two potential groups out of many. My groups were people who are LGBTQ+ and people who don’t know how to cook.
In Step 5, I develop strategies that will help my groups achieve the goals in Step 1.
a strategy for every group
If this were a real exercise, we could have dozens of groups (or more!) involved. We would work hand in hand with these groups to create a targeted strategy that would work for each of them. In an ideal world, the ideas for these strategies would come from the groups themselves. What happens next is what Targeted Universalism is all about. “Targeted universalism is the ensemble of targeted strategies across all groups.” Our Targeted Universalism plan is the sum of all the plans we make. It’s in that comprehensive approach that we may start to see how complicated this can be.
An issue in my exercise has always been that TU needs real people, a real community, to take part. For the last few steps, I have been using hypotheticals that are based on my own experiences. This won’t be comprehensive, but I’m going to come up with a few example strategies for both groups.
people who are LGBTQ+
One issue I noted during step 4 is the discrimination that many LGBTQ+ people face when accessing food. We could remedy that by staffing our food sites with people from this community. LGBTQ+ participants would need to do more than just welcome or greet guests. They would be a vital part of shaping how we offer services, what we offer, and how to do outreach. For non-LGBTQ+ workers, we could also educate and exchange information about the needs of this particular group.
We could expand our hours of access so that people who work one or more jobs can still access food. Some people in this group may work nontraditional hours. For these people, we could explore home delivery or low-contact pickup options. These approaches could keep food safe without requiring 24 hour staffing. If I was in this focus group, I might say, “What about something like an automat, but for a pre-selected bag of groceries?” (“How did you hyperlink what you said aloud??” someone would ask). Or, we could partner with another organization that is already staffed 24 hours a day. When our goal is to meet everyone’s needs, we have not only the freedom but the demand to get creative.
people who don’t know how to cook
What I love about this step is the ability to imagine a whole myriad of solutions to our problems! First of all, we could stock ready-to-eat items like salads, tacos, hand pies, etc. for people who can’t cook. Like in the last set of ideas, strategies that we design for one group may actually benefit a lot of groups. Ready-to-eat items will benefit people who don’t know how to cook. But they will also benefit people who don’t have a house or access to a kitchen. They could also benefit people who are too tired to cook or people who work long hours.
Having worked in a food bank for a while, I know that there are plenty of recipes to share. People love to make recipes for the food that we are able to get. What if instead we brought in food that people wanted to eat? Or, what if we organized our recipes by how complicated they are to make? What if we had community members teach others how to cook their favorite foods? Lots of people pay for pre-packed box of already-portioned food to make a hot meal. Those businesses often force people to pack those boxes for very low wages. What if instead, people took turns packing and delivering boxes for everyone who lived nearby? The more you get to know the groups who need help, the easier it is to help them find solutions. Communities can come together more often to solve problems together. They can rely less on grant money or the benevolence of charity.
moving the needle
This step of the primer identifies the “one size fits all” mentality as the biggest barrier to our progress. This truth is intrinsic for me because I live in a country that does not meet everyone’s needs. We already meet some people’s needs some of the time. Targeted universalism invites us to do that, but for all people.
So many social programs after Reagan encourage us to “move the needle” when it comes to service. Moving the needle means going after easy targets, people who are near normal and need but a small nudge. This means that the people who are not “easy targets” are always forgotten. And the people we did help received the bare minimum. Targeted universalism tells us that’s not enough. It’s not enough for someone who performs at 68% to get to 70%. A moving the needle mentality encourages us to do the least we can for people who will still have needs.
As the primer notes, people who have the greatest needs will need the greatest support. For example, we are not trying to help people with debt payments or lower their interest rate. We are trying to eliminate the debt, for everyone.
People live and lead complicated lives. So many people live at the mercy of systems that are “good enough.” These are systems that were not designed for us but that we must navigate. Our lives depend on our ability to do this. This is the critical appeal of targeted universalism. We work together, learn from each other, so that we can meet everyone’s needs.
Targeted universalism is ultimately about individuals. We plan for groups that, if needed, we can subdivide all the way down to a group of one. It’s simply not enough to serve 80% of the population and call it good. The 20% remaining will never earn the political capital they need to have their needs met. What happens if part of that 20% advocates for only their slice of the pie? Chances are they may leave the minority to claim their status among the majority. We saw this among the LGBTQIA+ population after the accomplishment of marriage equity. Cis and white men and women fled the struggle that trans and nonbinary members of our family still face. As always, this has the greatest impact on black and brown members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“reflect, practice, do” and the need for multiple doses
This was a really satisfying series (for me) (to write). It drove home for me a great reason for why we must abandon “the one right way” to solving problems. No matter how well we do in our Targeted Universalism process, we will leave people behind. Even if we do everything right. We can come up with dozens of policy proposals and still miss entire groups of people. We will miss sets of circumstances that we didn’t see before. Because of this, TU is less about your process than it is about developing a process. We need a process that allows us to review and reevaluate how effective our programs are.
This happens in business all the time. In the Lean Six Sigma school of thought, they call it the PSDA Cycle. Plan, Do, Study, Act. I am working with my colleagues in an antiracism coalition to help operationalize what we know is true. We know that we must learn about and from others. We make sense of what we learn through our practice. And then we make something out of what we’ve tried. Then, we learn again. Practice again. Do again. We proposed a framework of reflect, practice, do.
As my very good colleagues said this past weekend: when you stop questioning, you stop growing. Targeted universalism is not about finding the one true solution. Instead, it’s a framework for investing your energy back into community. Understanding the problem before you try to go it alone. Set goals that everyone can agree on. Plot a course to meet it. And then do it again.
Who did we miss? Where can we find them? What do you need? We’ll help you build it.
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