The first time I heard about thinking upstream, it was through a little story that we affectionately refer to as our ‘founding myth’. The story goes, you’re standing on the edge of a river, the story goes, and suddenly see a flailing, drowning child.
You dive in to rescue her, only to see another child, and then another, and another. You call others over to help you. As you pull child after child out of the river, someone finally asks, “Who keeps chucking these kids in the river?” and they head upstream to find out.
The river story is commonly used to open up a discussion about prevention and about finding solutions rather than just addressing symptoms. This story helped me understand upstream thinking, and it’s something I come back to often when making the case for evidence-based ideas that get at the root-causes of our social challenges.
To achieve a healthy society for all, we’re going to need forward-thinking solutions, meaning we can’t spend all of our time and resources reacting to the symptoms of problems. Pretty simple, right?
I was thinking about this story while spending time with my 8 month old niece, Emma, this summer. As we splashed around at the local paddling pool, it occurred to me that if I saw Emma flailing helplessly in the South Saskatchewan river, you could bet I’d be among the first people to dive in and save her.
As much as I believe in upstream thinking, I began to consider the real-life implications of our founding myth. What does it mean to take people off the edge of the shore and move upstream? Don’t we need people fishing those kids out of the river?
What does it mean to take people off the edge of the shore and move upstream?
The answer, of course, is “yes we do”, and I’m so grateful for the incredible folks I’ve met in recent months who devote their entire lives to frontline work. They are the doctors and nurses treating the physical symptoms of poverty, the people who run food banks, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters, those providing acute care and mitigating environmental disasters.
These people, these organizations, and these service providers are diving off the edge of the shore in our story–sometimes quite literally saving lives in a social system that fails to provide the conditions for all people to achieve full social, mental, and physical well-being.
Downstream supports are necessary, and play an invaluable role both to the individuals they serve and to society as a whole. But more often than not, it is those on the frontlines who will attest to the limitations of working downstream. And I’m not even talking about limited resources and over-burdened staff – these people, and those they serve, know that to really change the circumstances that lead so many people to end up in the river, we have to change our systems, our approach, our way of thinking.
To really change the circumstances that lead so many people to end up in the river, we have to change our systems, our approach, our way of thinking.
Changing the way we, as a society, think about change is not an easy task, and tomorrow, I'll be posting Part 2 of this blog, and consider a few reasons why shifting our thinking upstream is so damn difficult.
This is not meant to target the people who work every day to address the symptoms of downstream thinking, as they are often supporting, encouraging, and working alongside those seeking upstream change.
Downstream thinking: the tendency we have, as individuals, as donors, and as decision-makers, to focus on one-off, individual lifestyle-based, short-term solutions rather than long-term interventions that address the root-causes of wellbeing.
Rather, I’m talking about the tendency we have, as individuals, as donors, and as decision-makers, to focus on one-off, individual lifestyle-based, short-term solutions rather than long-term interventions that address the root-causes of wellbeing.
Check back later today for Part 2 of this blog, where I’ll be breaking down 3 reasons why upstream thinking is so tough. If you need extra incentive to tune back in, tomorrow’s blog will feature a homeless lottery winner, vials of sweat, and something called the “white Saviour Netflix complex.” Oh my!
Rachel is the Director of Operations for Upstream. She is a photographer, a singer, and an avid Netflix watcher, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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