Is the direction of your work top-down, bottom-up, or…side-to-side? Bottom-up social impact spreads from the ideas, needs, wants, and often the organization of you and your neighbors. Perhaps you have banded together, or partnered with a community group. Your needs were clear, and highly motivating. Perhaps a local oil refinery’s toxic releases have led to illness and death, making its actions impossible to ignore. Together with your neighbors you sought out help, perhaps from professionals, and took action. 

Top-down social impact spreads from the science, data, and policy gaps that professionals identified in your community, region, or state. They partnered with other professionals to build a coalition to introduce legislation, apply for government funding, or coordinate activities. The needs were scientifically-supported after years of research and peer review. Perhaps particulate matter and asthma rates were definitively linked and tree canopy investments were clinically proven to reduce PM levels. Together, the professionals reached out to local communities for help with projects or political campaigns, and took action.

Side-to-side social impact operates both from the “bottom” and the “top.” In this power dynamic, the communities and the professionals find a shared problem that they all agree to act together on. The communities organized themselves over a clear, close-to-home issue (toxic practices from a fossil fuel plant), the professionals identified consensus on a scientifically proven problem (particulate matter in treeless neighborhoods leads to asthma). Together they shared their experiences, knowledge, problems, and ideas for solutions. They found opportunity for action in this space, and combined their skills to act together and improve the neighborhood.

Top-down and bottom-up are common power dynamics. Side-to-side is rare. Why is that? Are the professionals uncaring or uninterested? Are the communities unread or unsophisticated? Perhaps this is a rare issue because of generations of racial and class segregation. When scientists and professionals live in neighborhoods with other scientists and professionals, they lack the personal networks that engender trust in communities that need investments. When working class people only know other people who need to hustle daily to pay their rent and buy groceries, they lack the personal networks of people who can afford expensive and specialized educations. 

How can we start to dissolve those barriers, and promote side-to-side power dynamics that would support effective, long-term improvements in the lives of all communities? Desegregation of expertise is one solution. If relocating people is too much to ask (it is), could we mix it socially? Could a professional find a working-class park or garden and volunteer there regularly? Could a working-class resident be paid to attend meetings among professional partnerships? Both? More?

What about you, can you work side-to-side in your community to have more, and more equitable, impact?