Combating Swampy Thoughts and the Man in the Hole

Susan Nall Bales is the Founder and President of the Frameworks Institute [@FrameWorksInst] – a team of social scientists who have developed an award winning process they have trademarked Strategic Frame Analysis that develops communication strategies through a rigorous examination based in cognitive and social science. At the Open Places Initiative convening in San Juan, Puerto Rico last week, Ms. Bales presented the theory of their practice along with case studies that have given advocates for social change powerful metaphors to reshape the debate around some of the most challenging and entrenched issues facing historically marginalized populations.FrameWorks Institute

The Frameworks Institute pushes the organizations that it works with to be conscious of The Swamp: the culturally engrained values and assumptions that all messages will ultimately be filtered through, regardless of their intent. One of these deeply engrained notions in the U.S., that of the “Triumphant Individual” (also known as the bootstraps mentality: assuming that everyone has an equal chance to make it if only they work hard enough), can be incredibly detrimental to social change by placing the focus on the individual rather than socially constructed conditions that have a powerful impact on the opportunities and outcomes that groups and individuals have access to.

Bales points out Kurt Vonnegut’s explanation of the story of the Man in the Hole exemplifies this kind of story that we all know so well. And while the story of an individual overcoming adversary may be a fantastic hook to tug on heart strings, it may not be the most effective way to gain new understanding and new support for real change. The accidental message or subconscious message may be, in fact, if this person did it so should / could everyone else and it’s their own laziness/ lack of focus/ poor decisions/ etc. that are holding them back.

The Frameworks Institute challenges organizations not to tell Man in the Hole stories but instead to tell The Way the World Works works stories that can place individual challenges within a much broader context that make the case for real structural change.

Susan Bales’s powerful presentation challenged some commonly accepted approaches to communication strategies within the field of social justice and also gave all the Open Places Sites the opportunity to test these approaches against their existing issue-focused work. Combined with additional strategies and tools that were presented throughout the Open Places conference, participants walked away with a host of considerations and approaches that can hopefully combined to build the movement that they seek.

In addition to the Frameworks Institute site, the organization also hosts an online Frameworks Academy to help organizations rethink their current storytelling and push their audiences to think fundamentally differently about the social challenges they seek to address.

Touring San Juan with Espacios Abiertos

The Espacios Abiertos team put together an unforgettable tour of communities throughout San Juan for the Open Places Initiative last week. Lucilla Fuller Marvel (EA Community Outreach Liaison) and Deepak Lamba-Nieves (EA Research Director) led a bus tour from the Peninsula La Isleta de San Juan through Old San Juan, Santurce, Hato Rey and Rio Piedras.

Old San Juan reduced

No blog post can come close to capturing the honest and authentic tapestry woven by our tour guides packed with community initiative, architectural style and history, perceptions and misperceptions of economic development, the uncertainty now cast by normalized relations with Cuba, the influence of federal housing policy and the politics of local land regulation on the shape of the city and its neighborhoods and placemaking as a key to bringing together divided communities. (Whew!) I’d like to also give a Make Communities hat-tip to Maria Jimenez Colon (Director of Escuela De Derecho at Universidad de Puerto Rico) who I was lucky enough to sit next to on the tour and who was both incredibly knowledgeable and patient with the slew of question I threw at her throughout our afternoon. Her insights added additional color to an already rich and eye-opening trip around San Juan. All in all, it was enough to make this urban policy wonk’s head spin and heart swoon.

Beyond the resorts along the shore in Condado, San Juan is a beautiful place – both the natural and built environments – that is marked by deep divisions between the haves and have nots. The garrisons at the north end of Old San Juan are a stunning foreground for endless ocean views. These fortifications are on either side of La Perla, a historically squatter and low-income neighborhood facing displacement pressure because of the ocean front land it occupies. A traditional promenade leading into Old San Juan is undergoing a major renovation, but is also facing the prospect of new commercial buildings that threaten unspoiled public views. On the southern end of Old San Juan, cruise ship berths welcome tourists on a regular basis but this, too, is problematic because of the minimal economic impact these stopovers have, as lodging and meals are all taken aboard the ship. Despite misperceptions to the contrary only about 10% of Puerto Rico’s economy is in the tourism sector.

Cruise Shippers

Across the island, deep and persistent economic challenges have lead to a relatively swift population drop, and San Juan is not immune. Our tour guides put the city’s population loss in the tens of thousands throughout the last few years. At the same time, a recent history of overbuilt high-end housing persists. Condo towers in the central business district, Hato Rey, and on the edge of Peninsula La Isleta de San Juan typify the problem. In some cases, financiers have stepped in to take over stalled projects and brought down prices to cut their losses – but have not cut them far enough to be accessible to the vast majority of Puerto Ricans.

Community Garden

However, in the neighborhoods, stories of incredible community initiatives take center stage. In Proyecto ENLACE Cano Martin Pena a participatory planning process and pioneering Community Land Trust are mitigating environmental hazards, bringing new stability and enhancing community connectedness. In a story that should be close to the heart of Buffalo’s near west-siders, we had the opportunity to meet leaders of these efforts and see and the results of hear the story a local matriarch who literally dug-in to plant a garden on an illegal dumping ground on the neighborhood’s main street, creating a sense of community pride and halting the flow of garbage in short order.

Plaza Mercado

Other highlights of the tour included the murals in El Gandul of the Santurce neighborhood, the stately Ave Ponce De Leon and the revival of La Placita market, a revitalized early 20th century market that has become a mingling point at the intersection of traditionally divided upper-income and working class communities.

Lucilla Fuller Marvel on Calle Cerra

Thanks again to our hosts for their insight and local knowledge about this incredible city and its residents!

Triptych Tuesday: Calle Cerra

Today’s three images are from Calle Cerra in El Gandul neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where artists work with community members to create murals, many with political messages, on abandoned or dilapidated building. The neighborhood now hosts the Santurce es Ley festival, which is gaining international prominence. These images were taken on an incredible tour of San Juan given by Espacios Abiertos; more on that herefacade

street view


Happy Family Day!

TO City Hall SkatingAs the U.S. celebrates Presidents Day today, our neighbors to the north celebrate Family Day in the province of Ontario (and Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan).

My wife and I first discovered Family Day quite by accident in 2009. With our six-week-old first child in tow we headed up the QEW on Presidents Day to test our resolve for traveling +1.

We were pretty confused heading past entirely, eerily empty parking lots at shopping malls and big box stores along our route to Toronto (see the Retail Business Holiday Act if you’re looking to get real wonky on your day off).

It turns out, Ontario first celebrated family day in 2008 because “Ontarians work very hard and they deserve more time to spend with the people they love,” and “(e)mployees who get time off may work even harder when they are back on the job“.

Though health and wellness programs are  increasingly seen as a way to impact company’s bottom line in both reduced health care costs and reduced sick days, these broader reaching holistic quality of life considerations aren’t one we often hear on this side of Lake Ontario.

However, the logic and the research generally bear out the notion that happier, healthier employees with a work/life balance are more productive employees. In fact, an article in Forbes highlighted the notion of a psychologically healthy workplace, acknowledging “Employees become much more motivated and productive when they know that their employer cares about their total quality of life, which goes beyond traditional wellness and includes physical, emotional, financial and social health.”

If employers caring about employee’s quality of life leads to happier, more engaged employees, when people know their governments care about their quality of life does this also lead to happier, more engaged citizens?

Something to ponder, no matter what side of the border you’re on today.


Click here for Toronto Area Family Day Activities.

Vote for GObike Buffalo today!

skyride crowd
For the first time ever – thanks to GObike, its sponsors and public sector partners – nearly 1,000 riders line up to ride over the Buffalo SkyWay.


GObike Buffalo is no small point of pride for us here at Make Communities. Both of us were at the actual kitchen table the day that GObike was launched, and it’s been an incredible journey to be involved in the organization ever since.

GObike is now a finalist for Bicycling Magazine’s People’s Choice Advocacy Award, having been nominated by The Alliance for Biking and Walking.

With GObike Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown, the City DPW and NYS DOT coming together to create a bike-friendly city – and to host amazing events like the SkyRide – it’s no wonder that Buffalo is gaining national attention.

The competition is pretty stiff, but so are those Lake Erie winds, and we’ve seen day after day how little actually phases people cycling in Buffalo.

It takes all of 30 seconds to vote (no registration or e-mail is required), and voting closes today.

Happy Friday – and Happy Riding!

A New Way To Plan For Buffalo Niagara


Tonight a broad coalition of regional agencies, local governments, non-profits and individual citizens will be celebrating the culmination of three years of unprecedented outreach, engagement and planning in Buffalo Niagara.

The One Region Forward Community Congress will celebrate a broad based effort to establish a regional plan and implementation network for creating stronger, more opportunity rich neighborhoods within Buffalo Niagara.

Make Communities is pleased to have played a role in this effort, partnering with the University at Buffalo Regional Institute to produce two major pillars of the plan: Complete Communities for a Changing Region: Housing and Neighborhood Strategies to Move One Region Forward and the Fair Housing Equity Assessment: Expanding Opportunity in Buffalo Niagara. Both of the documents will soon be available in their entirety on the One Region Forward website and in the coming days and weeks, this blog will be highlighting major themes of each.

In the meantime, we hope to see you tonight. Stop by the Buffalo & Erie County Central Library (1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY) anytime between 5:30PM – 7:00PM to meet partners involved in the initiative, take home a copy of the plan summary, learn next steps and discover new ways to be involved in your community.

Additional event coverage available here.

It’s not always about Copenhagen, but sometimes it is.


The NYTimes recently ran an article about public interventions to reduce risks for children. Pediatrics Professor Aaron E. Carroll highlights the too common disconnect between program funding for the greatest public health risks and those that may be more sensationalized.

Carroll references a recent Journal of the American Medical Association article that focuses on Denmark’s response to confronting the most common lethal threats to children; with car crashes at the top of the list. Though the article rightfully acknowledges programmatic interventions success in reducing childhood fatalities, it should also be acknowledged that Denmark’s deliberate and ongoing investment in people centered infrastructure is also to credit for a nation-wide decrease in car related deaths of young people – a stunningly successful 85% reduction.

Denmark was not always known as a bastion of livable streets and the bike capital of the world. Beginning as early as the 1960s, an active and committed response to the increasing number of children killed by cars helped create the political will to change the way the country builds its cities and towns: people are prioritized.

But the battle has never been car vs. bike, it was and is fundamentally about creating safe and welcoming environments where kids can be kids; people can be people; and cities can be cities.

The sad fact remains that car crashes kill more than 35,000 people annually in the USA and are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 5 and 25 (killing 8,835 kids in this age group in 2010 alone).

Creating complete streets that don’t prohibit, but tame car traffic not only benefits pedestrians and cyclists, but drivers and non-drivers of all stripes by creating safer, more inviting places and, yes, keeping more kids alive.