16 December 2018

Community Advisors To Fill Gaps With A Human Touch

Analogous Positions

I think that there is a gap in the structure of our government, which historically may have been filled through institutions of civil society and extended family which no longer function the way that they once did. This would provide a human touch to fill a gap between rather formal and bureaucratic governmental and business organizations and individual residents of a community.

This would be filled by a corps of people employed by either local government or non-governmental organizations, whom I have tentatively called "Community Advisors", although I think a better name could be invented for the position. This title echoes the position of a "Community Advisor" in the residence halls of many colleges, such as Colby College, where my daughter is a student, have a part-time paid position in their dorms called. People in these positions are there primarily as a source of support and resources to students, the Japanese might associate their role with the informal one of a senpai, rather than primarily as an enforcer of rules in the mold of the dorm position common in my day of a "Resident Assistant", or, in the English boarding school tradition, a "Prefect."

I image a similar kind of position in the larger general community. 

If we think of a 911 call as the counterpart to emergency room care, a call to a community advisor is a counterpart to urgent care

In common with emergency medical technicians and firefighters, Community Advisors, aren't law enforcement officials who punish, who can often raise tensions rather than defuse them and rather than solving problems before they get out of hand. They wouldn't be security and wouldn't be armed with deadly weapons. They wouldn't nap shoplifters. They wouldn't investigate crimes. They wouldn't issue tickets. They might, however, step in like any other publicly minded citizen might to avert an emergency or stop a violent crime or fight in progress, if they had a way to do so without using deadly weapons.

I imagine them following somewhat in the tradition of the more positive memories of "ward heelers" of 19th century political machines, serving as an interface between a complicated world and people who may need a little help now and then for which they will happily trade their political loyalty. 

They would be more community leaders, a like a neighborhood pastor or priest or community organizer, as a full time person doing what can be done with their available resources, and less like a psychologist or doctor operating on a transactional isolated service basis. More of a do gooder neighbor, less of a paper pusher bureaucrat. More like a meddling grandparent or uncle, less like a parole or probation officer. They would try to solve small community problems. They would be similar to social workers, but less bureaucratic, less threatening, and with an overlapping but different kind of training that would not take a four year college or master's degree.

They would be more like stereotypical Boy Scouts doing a good deed daily. They would be trained do gooders.  hey might fill roles sometimes filled by mendicant priests or Buddhist monks.  They might do the sort of things small town cops and firefighters of the "good old days" like Andy Griffith would have helped people handle, or a neighborhood police box officer in Japan. They might do the work of the lowest level full time neighborhood government official in Communist China who acts as sort of a primary care physician to dealing with all of a person's government needs in a complex bureaucracy. There would be some similarities to a hotel concierge.

Some of what they do might be things that in earlier days were done by church committees or by social organizations like the Kiwanis Club, or the Elks, or the Optimists or the Rotary Club, which are moribund or non-existent in many communities due to changes in our society documented by Robert Putnam in his famous book "Bowling Alone."

This would not be a partisan political position, although it might entail some non-partisan advocacy for a neighborhood or community or individual.

How They Would Do Their Job, And What Training Would They Have?

Their tools would be instruments of non-coercive power: money, knowing how the system works, connections, experience, street smarts, common sense, credibility and persuasiveness. They would follow through with people who they knew before an incident and would stay in touch with after something happened, rather than simply responding to an incident in a vacuum. 

They would be largely autonomous and independent in serving their territory, rather than being part of a large hierarchical bureaucracy. There would have to be some level of supervision and training, but overall, it would be a very "flat" institution in terms of an organizational chart, with staffing overwhelmingly at the grass roots level, rather than the management level. Even supporting organizations providing resources and training would not be organized vey hierarchically, and instead would be more or less independent institutions similar to independent schools and colleges, that community advisors could turn to as needed or desired and that prospective community advisors could seek out.

This would be a "middle skilled position". Not someone as highly trained as a medical doctor or lawyer or minister or engineer or professor, or even a registered nurse or high school teacher or police officer. 

But, this would be someone who has more training than a mere high school graduate with no further training.  In multi-lingual neighborhoods they would often be bilingual. The position might be comparable in terms of educational requirements, compensation and responsibility to a licensed practical nurse or emergency medical technician or Army medic, to a paralegal, to parking enforcement officer, to school nurse, to an assistant librarian (as opposed to someone with a master's of library science), to a manager at a retail store, or to a private security guard.

They would get around with transportation more humble that a police squad car, and would be more engaged with people in the neighborhood. A mini-van might be more their style.

They would have a small discretionary budget to assist them in carrying out their duties.

They wouldn't be medical professionals by any means, but would have basic first aid training, would have CPR and AED and Narcan and Epipen training. They would be taught about Plan B emergency contraception and the health circumstances that home remedies and over the counter drugs can be used to address. They would be taught how to help people figure out if they need to call a doctor and make an appointment, get on the phone with a nurse, go to an urgent care center, head to an ER, or call 911.

They would be trained on how to interact appropriately with people who have disabilities or mental health conditions. They would probably have some sort of code of ethics and aspirational statement describing their role and the attitude with which it should be carried out.

I'm not exactly sure how they would be organized, but they would be mostly compensated through a salary, and might be affiliated with a local government or neighborhood association.

I would imagine that there might be one such person per several hundred to several thousands residents, so this new position might create several hundred thousand medium skilled jobs that would fulfill a valuable role in making our society and its institutions work more smoothly, and preventing problems and people from falling through the cracks of our society.

They might have volunteer deputies or assistants to aid them in carrying out particular functions, and might sometimes have trainees who would learn the job under the supervision of a mentor before taking on this kind of position themselves without close direct supervision. 

What Would They Do?

Since this is a somewhat unfamiliar and hard to define concept, the best way to explain it is with examples of what a Community Assistant would do, and to illustrate the mindset involved. 

The range of situations they might deal with would be broad. Community advisors might:

* Organize block parties, would try to get to know the people in their neighborhood, and would try to help neighbors get to know each other, for example, introducing themselves to newcomers in a neighborhood and then introducing them to other people in the neighborhood. 

* Help communities with disaster preparation (e.g. both on a routine basis, and in the case of an incoming a disaster such as a hurricane or flood or blizzard or heat wave or wildfire that may provide some warning before it hits). 

* Help lead community responses to disasters and the long recovery afterwards. 

* Summon assistance ranging from making a 911 call, to calling a utility company during an outage or gas leak, or calling a non-emergency police telephone number, when necessary, with a focus on finding the least disruptive assistance or intervention that will address an incident or crisis.
* Help people get cats out of trees.

* Help someone figure out how to deal with a dead pet in an urban neighborhood.

* Provide roadside assistance to drivers and bicyclists.

* Figure out how to deal with out of hand bushes or tree branches blocking sidewalks.

* Help a latchkey kid clean up and put a bandaid on a scratched up knee.

* Transport or find transportation for someone in stable condition to an urgent care facility.

* Call cabs or Ubers or Lyfts for drunks and convince them not to drive. 

* Report potholes and burnt out streetlights and other broken infrastructure. 

* Explain to someone unfamiliar with it how to use the public transit system.

* Give people who are lost directions.

* Help disoriented elderly people find their way home.

* Help facilitate exchanges of children between separated or unmarried parents with court ordered custody arrangements.

* Help facilitate "civil assists" when, for example, a former live in girlfriend needs to retrieve her things from her boyfriend's apartment after a breakup. 

* Help someone who has a sick kid, but can't afford or find a babysitter who can't afford to miss work.

* Provide or locate assistance for someone who broke their leg and can't shovel their walk who doesn't need and can't afford a long term landscaping service. 

* Provide suggestions to someone looking for a job about places to start their search or people to ask. They might know people who need handyman work or odd jobs to raise a little money, even neighborhood kids looking for babysitting or lawn mowing jobs (sometimes connecting these sources of workers with people who need help, sometimes paying them and sometimes having the person who needs the help pay them).

* Help smooth out interactions between neighborhood "crazy people" who aren't dangerous and the neighborhood, for the benefit of both the "crazy person" and other people in the neighborhood.

* Interact with begging vagrants to see if there are resources available to them that they aren't aware of, or acute problems they are suffering from that no one has noticed. 

* Provide constructive suggestions to truants or kids out after curfew to keep them out of trouble.

* Help a youth who might be a runaway or homeless find a place to stay.  

* Intervene to assist a parent in public who is frustrated with a difficult kid and about to snap.  

* Try to help facilitate construction discussions between neighbors over issues like fences or trees or driveway access or barking dogs or regular mail misdeliveries.

* Help people in the neighborhood figure out how to go about contacting the right people to have a problematic intersection's traffic issues addressed.

* Help someone in the neighborhood deal with being lonely or deeply sad or mourning that doesn't necessarily amount to clinical depression, in non-pharmaceutical ways, before their situation can spiral into a genuine mental health crisis.

* Provide suggestions for dealing with consumer disputes.

* Help people decide when they need a lawyer.

* Assist someone figure out which government agency or office they need to go to when they need a driver's license or have an expired car registration or need a large item trash pickup or are having difficulty getting things worked out in the dealings in their personal lives with a government agency.

* Help someone who is poor or unemployed figure out what government programs they are eligible for and how to go about applying for them.

* Identify systemic issues that need to have some sort of institutional response or solution, and take action to bring about that solution. For example, determining that a community really needs a "meals on wheels" program, or a place where kids can safely play sports that isn't on dangerous streets, or system to remind people that street sweeping day is coming up and that they need to move their cars, and then helping to organize people in order to cause that solution to come into being.

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