Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive that Changes Our World

224 pages, Wiley, 2015

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“Can’t not do” is a catchphrase I’ve heard countless times over the last 17 years from nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, and engaged citizens. It conveys going beyond “can do” and captures the heart of people who have decided, at some point in their lives, that there is a burning social cause they must do something about. The book aims to inspire leaders to personally bridge the gap between “wanting to do” and actually “doing” something. It poses seven seemingly simple questions to help guide inner dialogue and unlock leaders’ potential to make a difference, and offers up authentic stories from leaders who have decided they “can’t not do.”—Paul Shoemaker

We know how to solve the majority of the world’s most difficult social problems. This is the surprising truth: we already have proven solutions to most of our social challenges. I not only believe this, I’ve watched it play out in schools, neighborhoods and communities as the founding president of Social Venture Partners International, a global network of thousands of social innovators, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, business and community leaders that fund and support social change in nearly 40 cities in 8 countries around the world ( I’ve come to believe first-hand, with conviction, that coming up with more solutions to our problems is not our world’s greatest challenge; although we do need innovation. Nor is it finding more money for social change, although that always helps.

What we need most is more human and social capital. Simply put, more people committed, for the long-term, to making a change. We need more people in the game, committing for the long-term to that one cause, one challenge where they feel they can make a real dent. History has proved that if enough people hammer away long enough at a social problem, we start to change our world for the better. And the amount of positive change one human being can help create today has never been greater. Take Jeff Carr for example, who helped prove a solution existed to a social problem many at the time thought hopeless.

Jeff Carr grew up in Seattle, but he took off for college to see what more was out there in the world. He chose a physical education major with dreams of being a pro soccer player. In his sophomore year of college in the mid-80’s, he took a trip to the Azores Islands of Portugal with an all-star team and saw first-hand “what was out there in the world.” He saw poverty like he’d never seen in his life and it shook him to his core. When he got back to school, he changed his major to Philosophy & Religion.

After graduating, he spent the next 20 years involved in urban ministries and directing youth centers in Los Angeles. In 2006, when most forms of crime were falling in L.A. and violent crime was falling all over America, gang-related homicides, robberies, and assaults spiked about 15% higher in Los Angeles. It was a lightning bolt issue, a flash point for the city, and for Jeff. To stop the violence, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wanted to appoint a gang czar to oversee the city’s gang reduction and youth development programs. The mayor didn’t have to look far. There was Jeff, with his extensive background working in some of Los Angeles’s toughest neighborhoods.

I met Jeff on a trip to L.A. in 2012. Andy Lipkis actually connected us. I lived in L.A. in the late 1980’s when one of the prime gang violence prevention strategies was Operation Hammer (Google it). When I read about Jeff’s work, I knew I had to meet him, I couldn’t not. Jeff and I talked about his work and its inception. In 2007 he and his gang violence prevention team had to start somewhere, so they picked “the obvious”—the middle of the night in the most violent parks in L.A., working with young people at risk of joining a gang or already involved in one.

He helped develop a program, working with many others in the community, called “Summer Night Lights,” which kept parks open through the night with organized activities. Jeff used his experience with other programs, but felt there might be a better way to combine multiple tactics. In 2008, they started in eight parks. Jeff recruited at-risk youths who had already joined gangs to manage the parks and told them, “You are here because you were chosen.” He was giving these young people the opportunity to “change their life narrative from one of villain to hero.” Carr firmly believed that if you changed a gang member’s identity, you could eventually change their behavior and their lives.

Jeff explained what it felt like, “at first it was pretty hard; many of the people who had been my friends and colleagues at other community-based organizations seemed to turn against me when I took the city money they had relied upon and created a new strategy and new focus. It meant that some folks couldn’t continue the work they were doing. While this was hard, I knew I had to stay the course and follow through with the change or we would never get the results we needed. We had a window of opportunity and our job was to get as much done as quickly as we could so that we could keep that window propped open as long as possible and drive as much change through it as we could before it closed.” In this work, you face choices like which matters more, keeping friends or helping the kids in our communities that need us to stand up for them? If you decide to take it on, this work won’t be easy, but it can be life-changing; and that’s a tradeoff worth making.

That first summer, the amount of homicides in Los Angeles parks went from 8 in 2007 to zero in 2008. Overall gang crime dropped 20%. The next summer, the program grew to 16 parks, then 24, then 32, with at-risk young people filling more key leadership roles. They were achieving what others felt was impossible.

In 2012, L.A. had fewer total homicides (299) citywide than it had gang homicides alone in 2002 (350) and in 1992 (430). Between 2003 and 2013, gang-related robberies in the city fell from 3,274 to 1,021; gang assaults from 3,063 to 1,611. And in 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that gang crime had dropped by nearly half since 2008.3 Need more data to prove we do not lack solutions? Jeff Carr would never consider himself a superhero. Andy Lipkis and Suzi Levine wouldn’t either. Like the regular heroes they are, they were just doing something they couldn’t not do.

Seven Questions that Unleash Potential

Maybe you, or someone you know, are a little like Andy, Suzi, Jeff, or Bill. You have that internal feeling that you want to do more for your community, to find and give more to that cause that you can’t not do something about. As you read this book, meet the characters and read the stories, I hope you will also engage in an internal dialogue with seven underlying questions. These seven simple questions get at the heart of why certain people reach their greatest potential for social change:

  1. Are you a determined optimist?
  2. Who are you at your core?
  3. Are you willing to go to hard places?
  4. Are you ready to be humble and humbled?
  5. Can you actively listen?
  6. Do you believe 1 + 1 = 3?
  7. What is your can’t not do?

Using this book, you can work through answering these questions one at a time, thinking through them in order or jump around. Maybe a few of them speak to you more now than others, so start there. You definitely don’t need to answer them all at once. It’s not like the people you’ll read about in these pages ever sat down and took a 7-question quiz, I sort of reverse-engineered and simplified what I learned over 17 years. These questions are most surely the ones they commonly faced, wrestled with and are living out. Answering them will give you a roadmap to finding your Can’t Not Do.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Can’t Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive that Changes Our World by Paul Shoemaker. Copyright (c) 2015 by Paul Shoemaker All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.