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Social adversity exists outside your door where the three-headed hydras roam.

Three headed-headed hydras create the social adversity that can crush us.


This twenty-part series introduces you to twenty key terms used in a local mobilizing process that you and your community will require to survive and thrive during colliding crises. The articles will reference the three-headed hydras of apathy, envy and fear, those people in positions of power who are fighting to keep a broken status quo.

Concept 1: Social Adversity

Most of us have hit some walls in our lifetime. Pandemics and economic disruptions are two more to drive around or climb. While we can say that a force of nature is responsible for some challenges, the truth is that most of the social adversity we face is the result of the actions or inactions of people in positions of power — the three-headed hydras of the world. Allow me to explain.

How might we define social adversity?

Let’s get on the same page with a definition of social adversity, as an online search offers about 7,840,000 results.

Adversity [ad-vur-si-tee]

noun, plural ad·ver·si·ties for 2.

adverse or unfavorable fortune or fate; a condition marked by misfortune, calamity, or distress: Friends will show their true colors in times of adversity; an adverse or unfortunate event or circumstance: You will meet many adversities in life.

Adversity: hardships, challenges or misfortune. An example of adversity is poverty.

Adversity: a state of wretchedness or misfortune; poverty and trouble

Social adversities: These are accepted as critical factors in the development of psychological problems in young people, but the precise mechanisms of this relationship are unknown. Evidence to date suggests there is no simple relationship between adverse life events and the subsequent emergence of psychological problems.

Adversity: a difficult or unfortunate event or circumstance. As humans, we all experience adversity at one point in our lives. Unfortunately, some of us more than others. However, for something so critical to our development as humans, we don’t talk about it enough.

About adversity: Children exposed to social adversity — hardship as a result of social circumstances such as poverty or intergenerational trauma — are at increased risk of poor outcomes across the life course.

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Apathy, one of the three-heads of the hydra, loves to apologize for social adversity.

Who designs social adversity?

Interesting. There was no mention above of three-headed hydras, persons of power who obstruct progress while holding tight to a broken status quo, in any definition of social adversity. It appears that social adversity is like the wind. It just exists.

Indulge me. Do you see much difference between the following definitions?

Adversity: hardships or challenges experienced in society

Adversity: hardships or challenges experienced in society, the result of the actions or inactions of people in power.

If we are going to have a conversation about social adversity, we need to understand why adversity exists and who is behind the curtain pulling the switches to place adversity in one’s path.

Social adversity: one example

In one definition above, we saw that poverty is considered a social adversity. Let’s explore that. There are six main types of poverty according to Dr. Eric Jensen, who is a member of the Society for Neuroscience, the President’s Club at Salk Institute of Biological Studies, and the New York Academy of Sciences. From his study presented in Teaching with Poverty in Mind (2009), he lists these six types of poverty as situational, generational, absolute, relative, urban, and rural:

1. Situational: This particular type of poverty is usually temporary as it involves a crisis or loss occurring as a result of something like a divorce or a hurricane.

Before we explore Dr. Jensen’s five other definitions, let’s take a moment to explore the 2020 pandemic colliding with economic disruption. When leaders told us that for our own safety, we must stay at home for what would be months, some made the transition to working from home, with full salary and benefits intact, easily. For those in the service industry, the gig economy, freelancers and day workers, this meant no income. Yes, unemployment benefits existed for some, but not all. Social adversity hit folks like restaurant workers and contracting welders like a bucket of cold water. Will the adverse economic impact of physical distancing be situational? That remains to be seen.

As for the lives of your neighbors across town that were already punishing before a crisis, we can describe their type of adversity with the following definitions of poverty provided by Dr. Jensen.

2. Generational: This type of poverty involves the birth of two generations into poverty. Because they were born into this situation, they usually don’t have the tools to help get themselves out of it.

3. Absolute: People in absolute poverty don’t even have basic necessities like a roof over their head, food, and water. Their only focus is on surviving each day as it comes.

4. Relative: This type of poverty is known as relative because it is relative to the average standard of living in that person’s society. What is considered high income in one country could be considered middle or low income in another. If a family’s income isn’t enough to meet the average standard of living, they are considered to be in relative poverty.

5. Urban: This particular type of poverty is only for metropolitan areas with populations over 50,000.

6. Rural: Like urban poverty above, rural poverty occurs only in specific area types. These areas are nonmetropolitan with populations below 50,000. The low population limits services available for people struggling financially, and a lack of job opportunities only compounds the problem.

Social Adversity vs Adverse Childhood Experiences

Needless to say, one can write volumes on social adversity. One form, poverty, will take you to 280,000,000 results online. My point is to create a working definition of social adversity we can use in our conversations and campaigns to educate ourselves and the public.

As you know, much of my work has been focused on preventing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that happen within the home, the result of traumatized and/or struggling parents who inflict abuse and neglect on their children. ACEs are a very specific form of adversity, with twenty years of research behind it.

To make a distinction between ACEs and social adversity, social adversity is what we encounter when we step outside our home’s doorway into society. We enter a world of desperation or one of community support. Please consider four questions.

1. As children, will we encounter adversity in the form of underfunded schools? Instead, might we engage with fully-resourced schools with empowered educators, meals, youth mentors, tutors and accessible medical, dental and behavioral health care?

2. As parents, will adversity come in the form of isolation with little support? Instead, will we have access to parent supports, childcare, early childhood development programs and timely health care?

3. As a member of the workforce, will adversity come in the form of being unemployed or woefully underemployed? Instead, will there be a statewide system of subsidized training to help us transition from jobs that no longer exist, to those that align with the future job market?

4. As county residents living in times of colliding crises, will we be on our own? Instead, might we have access to housing and food security programs, along with other services for surviving and thriving, until one can transition to a new livelihood?

Humans create adversity. We can end it.

In some societies, the vital services for surviving and thriving are already in place, accessible to all residents. In your county, they aren’t. Data tell us where vital services are needed and why. History tells us that many of those in power, whether because of apathy, envy or fear (it’s a long list), have no interest in creating a seamless system of care to ensure 100% of county residents have access to support services until they can become self-sustaining.

Social adversity, at the end of the day, is a three-headed hydra saying, “no.”

The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.

Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of Joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. If one of my illustrations looks like a real human or three-headed hydra, that’s total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Questions? Answers await you here:

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

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