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The scapegoats

Updated: Jan 5

By Deanna Ryan

Truth is, problems rarely get faced, never mind solved, when blaming starts. Between nations, Putin blames the Ukrainians for occupying land Russia once owned and brutally attempts to reclaim it. Between states, Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis blamed Northern Democrats for their lack of support with anti-immigration legislation and so flew foreigners to Martha’s Vineyard. Within our local community, nearly 50 dogs are euthanized and the officials who move and tend these dogs are blamed, even though euthanization is increasing across the state and ever increasing numbers of stray dogs are damaging property and killing other pets. Especially during election time, nearly every political TV ad and pop-up website has been an exercise in creatively blaming an opponent for problems real or imaginary.

Until this year, I served in public education for 22 years. As an educator, I noticed when there was a problem most teachers’ first response would be

to blame others.

Teachers are humans too.

The sixth grade teachers wanted to know why so-and-so passed fifth grade when he couldn’t read or count yet. When students were naturally unruly, parents were blamed for not caring enough to discipline their children.

At Swainsboro Middle School, one professional learning course, Root Cause Analysis, took a different approach when things went wrong. The simplest way of explaining what we learned is to say we followed the “why” or at least identified the “what” involved and kept digging in that direction. When problems arose, not just with low test scores, we were told to get rid of the names and follow the actions then share observations.

“What is the source of your information?”

“What was seen and heard?”

“Is there a pattern?”

“Have both sides spoken?”

Another name for the course could’ve been Investigative Reporting Done Right. The principle is simple, yet difficult. Few choose it over blame.

My Swainsboro nephew, Christian Givens, however, analyzes naturally. He isn’t a fan of formal education, but give him a computer or a relationship problem and he’ll say, “I’ve noticed…” and ask, “Why do you think this happens?” He’s helped his sisters, Miracle and Anna, and me see our ways through many a muddle.

Over four months ago I came to The Crossroads Chronicle seeking the jobs section to find a part-time job so I could write personal stories during a saved-up-for sabbatical year. As fate would have it, their main reporter left the week before. I was asked if I had any experience with newspaper writing and would I like to write for them? I dusted off old articles with my byline, shared them, and they offered me the job with a 90-day trial period to determine if it worked for both sides.

Last week marked the end of the trial. The learning curve has been steep. I’ve referred to the county administrator as the commissioner, misspelled Emanuel in a headline, included photos of euthanized dogs that were actually living (although the number of dogs killed was accurate), misplaced information and messed up tenses in obituaries. All rookie or flat-out-tired-from-writing-so-much mistakes, but mistakes nonetheless.

My friend in Colorado cautioned me when I started the job, “If things go wrong, don’t let them make you the scapegoat.”

Why did she say this? Only she knows, but it did get me thinking about why we create scapegoats. Then when I was asked to write investigative pieces, I realized many people may see me as the person looking to place blame on them, a sort of sleuth in search of culprits.

A few months after I joined, Rebecca Mills was brought on board to help with ramping up the website, writing investigative pieces and more. Together, we discuss and attempt to write investigative pieces. After reading the police report one week, we noticed an elevation in the number of Walmart customers caught not paying for self-checkout items, or “skip scanners.” Rebecca took it on. In her feature Skip Scanning: A Robin Hood story in desperate times, she left all the names out, followed the actions and the reasoning on both sides, and performed root cause analysis. In the end the article reveals how smaller stores with self checkouts are catching skip scanners, but are delivering consequences that do not always involve the police (as Walmart often does), and it may be working better. Rebecca and I then went on to interview all parties involved with euthanizing local dogs and discovered no one wants to put the dogs down (especially the people having to do it) and that if people in this community really care, we need to move ahead with dog fostering, an updated facility and more adoptions.

What is amazing is how despite all the different viewpoints, all the finger-pointing, and how slowly the wheels of local government turn, when our citizens and officials clearly identify problems and agree upon a solution, we can and do work together.

Need evidence? A group of citizens dress up as storybook characters and raise over $10,000 to ensure children in our community receive one free book a month. An art gallery stands in town where once there was none. A new radio communication system is being established so our first responders can respond faster and safer. An engineer has been hired so drainage problems that have caused lots of damage across town can be solved. Roads are being repaved. A renovated gym and a new theater (with first-show movies) are in the works, if we keep moving them along. And finally and most importantly, Mrs. Ida McMillan received the long-overdue deed to the property given to her, but not recorded, so long ago.

None of these changes would’ve happened if council or commission members walked out of the meeting or stopped talking or quit because a person was blamed for being inept or a racist or a thief... because when energy and emotion is put into blame, little gets solved.

Truth is, my stories haven’t increased the number of Chronicles sold. This could be blamed on my writing too little about what community members care about, or my errors, or the fact people get the news from their phones and no longer want the physical paper. My three bosses could agree they are better off without me, and could take great comfort in knowing that by getting rid of me, they’d fixed the problem.

They could, but they haven’t, yet.

That’s the thing, when we blame people and feel better for having done so, there are no messy start overs, no exposed vulnerabilities, no asserting or creating boundaries, also no learning how to grow together and create something new or deeply needed.

So maybe what I’m learning, my Colorado friend and dear reader, is that the trick of getting things done and solving problems is not only to refuse to be anyone’s scapegoat, but also to refuse turning others into mine.

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