Friday, August 12, 2011

Building Community and Transforming Our Helping Systems

The time has come for us to rethink and transform the health and human services system in this country. These services cover a vast array of organizations providing a very broad range of services and consume large parts of federal, state and local budgets. The services are often critical for the consumers but the core premises on which the system is based and the system of delivery itself is highly dysfunctional.
The delivery system is characterized by:
1)      A focus on individuals not communities and ignores the environment in which the individual lives
2)      Focuses on the deficits of the individual and the community not their strengths and assets
3)      Services remain targeted at crises and remedial services ignoring how prevention could prevent the problem from occurring in the first place by catching issues upstream
4)      Our systems fail to respond to the diversity of our communities much less address issues of structural oppression, racism etc.
5)      Our helping systems excessively rely on professionals and fail to acknowledge and engage the natural helping systems of families and neighborhoods. Increasingly our helping systems have become detached from the communities they serve.
6)       Our helping system fails to engage those most affected by the issue as equal partners in planning, delivering and evaluating their interventions.
7)      As a system the health and human services in any given community tends to be: competitive rather than collaborative; fragmented so that individuals are treated for distinct problems rather than as whole beings; efforts are duplicated due to lack of information rather than coordinated
8)      Finally the helping system and many of those working in the system have lost their spiritual purpose. They may have chosen their fields with hopes of addressing the common good and now end up counting billable hours.

These system dysfunctions are discussed at greater length in my book The Power of Collaborative Solutions
I have been preaching these dysfunctions and their solutions for decades so it was  a delight to find a fellow traveler and another community psychologist on this campaign in Isaac Prilleltensky , the Dean of  the School of Education at the University of Miami.
Isaac contrasts systems that he describes as SPEC vs DRAIN with SPEC systems standing for systems based on  Strength, Prevention, Empowering and Community. While DRAIN stands for Deficit, Reactive, Arrogant, Individual.
More details on Isaac's system are available at their web site:
Many of us have some stories of individual systems, agencies or interventions that have been able to move from SPEC vs DRAIN (see community stories in my book, or previous issues of my Collaborative Solutions Newsletters ). These stories need more public airing.
However, the urgent questions now facing all of us are how do we transform our dysfunctional helping system to a strength based system that addresses the system shortcomings noted above and moves in new positive directions.
The present fiscal crisis is leading to dramatic cuts of funding to this helping sector but as noted in my last newsletter (Thriving and Surviving in Hard Times) this is not leading to system transformation but rather retrenchment to a more dysfunctional system. We are cutting prevention and keeping remediation, cutting community wide healthy community programs and keeping services for individuals, etc.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on how to convert our dysfunctional helping systems to ones that are focused on communities, prevention, strengths, our community's diversity, build on community helping systems, bring those most affected by the issues to the table as equal partners, operate collaboratively, and engage our spirituality as the compass for social change. What are your ideas for transformation of our nation's health and human service systems?

By Tom Wolff

This post first appeared at:
July 22, 2011:
August 8, 2011:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great post Tom! Just dropping a line to say that I love this blog and all the insights into the field of CP. I'm excited for the process of grad school applications coming up this fall/winter. Does anyone have any suggestions for good resources in finding schools for an passionate applicant with an interest in a career of CP practice?

    Keep up the good work everyone!
    Andrew Nilsen

  3. Andrew,
    Have you looked at the SCRA website? - It lists different types of graduate programs by degree.

    That being said, I'd encourage you to contact both faculty and students at programs you are interested in applying to - find out what they are doing and think about how it fits in with your long term goals/interests. Another tip is to see what the program's graduates are doing 5 and 10 years out.

  4. Hi there! Keep it up! This is a good read. I will be looking forward to visit your page again and for your other posts as well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about practice building. I am glad to stop by your site and know more about practice building.
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