Retreating From A Clear-Cut Path

September 11, 2013

Kate Nussenbaum '15 is part of the inaugural TRI-Lab, a new initiative that will bring together students, faculty and community practitioners to engage with a complex social issue and collaboratively develop, refine, and test solutions.

Last year I grew interested in how socioeconomic status influences cognitive development, with children who grow up in low-SES households often showing impairments in key areas like attention and learning. Children growing up in poverty already face a vast array of challenges — it seems especially unfair that their brains, the best tools they have to create better lives for themselves, are implicated in the cyclical nature of poverty as well.

I knew that researching the nature of learning could help bridge the socioeconomic gap in cognitive development, but my notion of how it could do so remained fuzzy. So when I heard about the TRI-Lab — a new course that promised to integrate research around healthy early childhood development with the social and political work of community partners in Rhode Island — everything about it felt serendipitous.

At the end of August, we headed into the woods for our two-day kickoff retreat. When I when I started to get to know some of the students, faculty members and community partners who I’d be working with during our two-day retreat, I grew even more excited.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel daunted. Before the retreat, I had envisioned that when the group came together, everyone’s collective knowledge would create a magical solution to all of the health problems children faced in the state.

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. On the first day of our retreat, it became clear that I was not the only participant who was unsure of what our group was going to do together. We all took part in an activity where we listed goals for the TRI-Lab for two years down the road. Many were along the lines of “TRI-Lab initiative improves childhood health in Rhode Island.”

The goals were hopeful, but vague. They made me realize that the TRI-Lab was not necessarily going to provide me with instant answers about the best way to turn knowledge gained from research into tangible change.

Before the retreat, I envisioned myself as a worker in a complex assembly line. I had some knowledge and I had some skills — all I needed was for a manager to place me in the right spot, next to the right people and then together, we could create something useful. But the retreat made me realize that model was neither realistic nor desirable. The conversations that occurred over the course of the retreat — some over conference tables and some over campfires — made it clear that our role in this lab is that of equals. Some of us are more eager to learn and some seem to have more to teach, but we are all hungry for new knowledge and approaches and we are equals in our reliance on each other for new perspectives.

The fact that no one has a master plan means no one really knows what our collective impact on the state may be. But the retreat made it clear that as we grapple with such a complex ethically-important issue, our biggest impact will likely be on each other.