The Gravity of Normal

This post is reprinted from The Lab Report, the City of Asheville’s internal data program newsletter.

I manage the data and analytics program for the City of Asheville, but the truth is that I don’t care at all about data or analytics, or even about performance. What I care about is change. The chance to create positive change is what keeps me showing up every day. Perhaps that’s true of you as well.

Protests in Asheville

Change is front and center in our community right now. The reason for that is awful, but it is good that we are looking at our problems and talking about how to address them. There is plenty of anger, but I also sense some hope that we can make progress, that the turmoil of the moment might help make that progress possible.

The last thing I want to do is say anything to erode that hope. But if we are to really succeed in changing things, we need to understand what we are up against.

I heard a story the other day about an interaction in the courthouse. Yellow dots had been placed throughout the courtroom to indicate where people could safely sit and still socially distance. A lawyer at the defense table noticed a yellow dot on a bench just two feet behind her – clearly a violation of the 6-foot standard. She pointed it out to someone nearby, not someone in authority, just another person working in the courtroom that day. The response: “Well, I guess they have to put them somewhere.”

That response has haunted me ever since. It haunts me because it represents the mechanism of the system’s inexorable drive to revert to normal. It wasn’t a declaration that we shouldn’t care about safety, or a refusal to question why people must pointlessly show up each day when nothing can happen with their cases. It was just a normal person’s automatic thought. An automatic thought that carried a powerful set of assumptions about what normal means.

We don’t have to put them somewhere. We can rethink the system. We can question our assumptions and inquire what is really important. We can, but we don’t. We fall prey to the need to just get things back to normal.

“Normal” is the gravity that ceaselessly works against any change to the system, and it works powerfully throughout the system because it works through all of us. The problem is what “normal” actually stands for here. It stands for a system designed to keep people of color at the margins and to create benefits for white people at their expense. It stands for white supremacy [1]. And that system depends, not on the people we think of as white supremacists, but on all of us.

Take policing, since that’s the topic of the day. We all look forward to seeing what Chief Zack and APD will do to transform their culture and regain public trust. Our city, elected officials and the Chief himself have all acknowledged the need for change. Personally I am cheering for my colleagues there.

But their efforts are doomed if they have to do this on their own. Policing operates within a system. It is the same system that leads to our abysmal results in contracting with businesses owned by people of color. It is the same system that leads to our lack of diversity in hiring, and to the inequities in how we engage with our community. Those are ours to change. And if we are to do it, we must understand that the biggest barrier to change is not the resistance of those who disagree.

The biggest barrier is us. We are the system and we will be the gravity that pulls things back [2]. And the way we will do that is through offhand, automatic thoughts and deeds. We just need to get this position filled now. We just need to get this done. We just need to put those stickers somewhere and move on.

So what does any of this have to do with the data program?

My plan for this newsletter was to do an introduction to Google Data Studio. That’s important and I’ll have it out to you soon. But the events in our community and across the country and the world make it important to remember that metrics and charts are irrelevant if they’re not in service to the right questions.

So you can expect to hear as much in this newsletter and in our trainings about asking the right questions as you will about data. Emma Olson [of Culture of Results at the NC Center for Health and Wellness] reminded us in our training last week that questions are the heart of the results-based accountability framework. Questions keep us focused on outcomes, which is important. But questions serve another purpose as well. They help us disrupt the inevitable pull toward the normal that will destroy not just our particular project or program, but everything we’re working toward as a city.

-Eric Jackson

[1] I get that this language may feel inflammatory. If you feel that it is, please reach out. I would be happy to talk about why I use it, why I am convinced that it’s important to use it.

[2] Thanks to Kimberlee Archie for the words she long had in her signature: “The system is working as designed; we are the system; we must deconstruct and transform the system to work for all.” Those words have kept me thinking constantly about the roles we play in creating or resisting change.

Photo Credit: Asheville Citizen-Times, Asheville’s 7th day, biggest protest: ‘This is a lifelong commitment’.