No discards

acmeOn the path I usually take to the USC School of Social Work’s offices at the AT&T Building in LA, I pass by the storefront of Acme Display on Olive Street. They make mannequins, apparently.

Each time I pass, I see plastic models of women and children, often in a state of undress, piled together inside the windows. It sounds comical, but in actuality it’s a little distressing, a feeling of waste and excess dredged up by the disregard of the human form.

Yet this morning, while passing the fleshy miscellany, I thought, “Why is this the thing that bothers me?”

In the same part of LA, one can see the true discards, real men and women who society has forgotten, left on the streets to beg or rot or die or drink themselves into a stupor. Why didn’t that give me pause?

As many folks now know, in 2014-2015 my colleagues and I will serve as Innovators in Residence at the USC School of Social Work. There are plenty of reasons why it’s a natural fit. We’ve spent years figuring out how organizations can do more good in the world. And each one of us, in various ways, feels compelled by conscience or character or Christ to serve the poor, the sick, the weak. Those are reasons enough to propel our mission, our search for ways to increase social work’s impact by partnering with its most prominent school.

Yet thinking about those real and artificial discards made me see one more reason why we’re here.

If there’s anything I’ve learned by participating in dozens of Insight Labs, it’s that it takes all kinds to save a world. We don’t just need leaders or followers, innovators or implementers, creatives or quants — we need types of people we could never anticipate. This suggests that if we have any shot of building a decent world, we may well need everybody.

As heaps of encyclicals and sermons have said, in a just society we don’t exclude anyone. But what I hadn’t seen until now was that including everybody may also be the only way to get there. Until we readmit the discards, we won’t be playing with a full deck.

I’ll admit I don’t know how to do that. I’m not sure anyone does, even saints. But among all the kinds of people I’ve met in my travels, social workers are the ones who most consistently try.

We often talk about social workers helping people who can’t help themselves. But if I’m right, if we need everyone’s brains to build a better world, then we should also think of these folks as our most capable recruiters.

We need what the discards think and dream and know. We probably needed it for generations before I was born and will need it long after I die. But for the moment I’ll be looking for it in the best place I know, at the corner of 12th and Olive.