I once read a book called Random Family. It is about a Latino community in Bronx, New York where pretty much everybody in the community either processed drugs, dealt drugs, took drugs, was living with persons who took drugs, and/or knew somebody who had in some way touched drugs. It was just a part of this community’s daily life.
There were government-funded programs set up to help people get on their feet and hopefully transition out of this dangerous lifestyle but it seemed like nobody ever really escaped the lure of making a good living – or even an above-average living. Many members of the community had done time, were dating somebody who had a rap sheet, or had a family member in prison. Simply a part of life.
From society’s perspective, this is obviously not an ideal situation. I think it is safe to say we all want less drugs on the street, less drug-related violence, and less people populating our prisons. The question is: how do we change this aspect of this culture?
Interestingly, a few years back, I was in Tanzania. In Tanzania, there is a significant population of people who live in what is commonly considered a primitive style: they live in huts strewn together with twigs and mud. They do not use banks or even cash – instead their preferred form of currency is cows. If they need something, they sell a cow. If they have a lot something, they trade it for some cows. Even dowry’s are transacted in cows. (The running rate for a wife is 10 cows, in case you are interested.) No cell phones, indoor plumbing, TV’s or shopping malls. Yet to be clear, this community is not in duress. In fact, it runs quite smoothly and balanced and people seem happy.
Nonetheless, the local government officials view these people as not progressive enough, and even vulnerable, so the officials are taking steps to change the culture.
This is how they are doing it: Each week, the school-aged children of the community are taken to a nearby boarding school for their education. (They get to return home for the weekends.) The boarding school provides the students with mainstream clothing; the kids live in buildings with four walls and a roof and basically are encouraged to absorb the creature comforts of modern day living.
The theory behind this process is that the kids will no longer want to live like their families do and thus the culture is changed -- in just one generation.
Will it work? I think so. Life is undeniably easier with creature comforts – not necessarily better, but definitely easier.
Now, back to the situation in the Bronx. I can’t help but to wonder if the Tanzanian approach to changing a culture would work in this community. Putting aside the ethical and moral issues tied up in the whole concept of messing with a culture, would removing the kids from this drug-infested environment (and then ultimately giving them back, of course) change anything? Would the kids want and know that they could have a different life? Or would they go right back into what they grew up knowing? As I mentioned, there already exists some social support, but that really functions to pick off the outliers – those that somehow manage to go against the tide. That social support does not seem to have the ability to change the direction of the mainstream.
And so I leave you with this cultural conundrum. If anybody has any insight into this issue, I would love to hear it!