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Missing the Murder Weapon

2014-November 26
by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer

I was at a meeting a couple of weeks ago to plan a community-informed research project. With five participants, the discussion was lively and the diverse perspectives fascinating. At one point, we got into a conversation about whether we should focus on a specific group of kids at a particular school within a community as opposed to spending precious time and resources on conducting an inquiry around the entire neighborhood. My argument in favor of the broader approach took an odd turn, as I recalled an experience from an undergraduate non-majors chemistry class I'd taken called, "Chemistry and Crime."

The class was a general chemistry course viewed through the lens of forensic crime scene analysis. It was one of the most fun classes I've ever taken, both because it framed something scary (to me) in a way that captured my interest and because the professor employed lots of activities to keep us engaged. One such activity involved gathering evidence from a crime scene.

One day, Mr. Thompson (at Oberlin, profs go by Mr. or Ms. -- or they did 20+ years ago...) took over a neighboring chem lab and dressed it up as a crime scene, complete with a headless body (with a mess of blood-like substance where the head would have fit) and a suicide note. The students were broken into lab groups of three, and each group was given five minutes to investigate the crime scene.

When it was my group's turn to go, we opened the door, saw the body, and rushed right over to it. We pored over the body, the note, and the immediate surroundings. By the end of five minutes, everything we saw pointed to suicide.

Now, if you've spent any time at all watching police procedural shows (or reading such novels), you know that the proper method for investigating a crime scene is to set up a "grid" and to walk the whole thing systematically to avoid missing important evidence. This is not at all what I and my team did. As a result, we walked right past the murder weapon, sitting in plain view, right next to the door we'd walked through.

By (admittedly tortured) analogy, this is what it felt like to go straight to the kids in the school where we believed there was a problem. My argument was that by assuming we knew where the problem was (and maybe how to solve it) instead of spending the time to understand the full context, we might be going straight for the body and missing the murder weapon.

Too often in philanthropy, it feels like we're in such a rush to fix the world's intractable problems that we don't take the time to step back and take in the whole situation. We'd do well to "walk the grid" more often.


Photo by gfpeck
Flickr: Extra, Extra! / 4845710880
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

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