“What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell.
As a nurse, Georgia Sadler, was intimately familiar with the advantages of early detection and treatment of “everyday diseases” that affect women. She wanted to raise awareness of diabetes and breast cancer. Sadler was focused on starting a grassroots movement among women in the black community of San Diego. A patient population often underserved by traditional health care providers. Sadler started hosting seminars in black churches around the city, but attendance was disappointing. Although the churches boasted two hundred members, only twenty or thirty women would stay and of the women who stayed, many of them already knew about the diseases, but wanted more information.
Sadler knew that to make the kind of impact needed to save lives, she had to come up with a different approach. So, in 1997, with a little bit of money and a lot of determination, Sadler started the Salon Project. She realized that women needed to be in a place where they would be receptive to new ideas. Not only did she need a better venue, she needed a better messenger. Someone who women trusted. Sadler moved her awareness campaigns from the churches to the beauty salons within the community. The beauty salons provided her with a captive audience.
The Salon Project started with one beauty salon and eight stylists serving 207 women over three years. Sadler brought in a folklorist to train the stylists to coach them on using stories to present information on diabetes and breast cancer in a compelling way. The stylists continued to interact with their clients in the same way, as friends, but looked for opportunities to share a story about the importance of healthy lifestyle choices and prevention. The initial results of the study acknowledged that these women had disposable income to spend at a salon, but the data also revealed that the women shared the facts and stories they heard with their family and friends. The Project was having a real impact. Sadler took her passion for women, her knowledge about health care, and minimal financial resources to positively make a difference within the community.
Education is facing a similar issue as the women Sadler was trying to reach. There is an increasing population of low- to middle-income students who hear mainstream messages about the importance of higher education, but feel it is out of reach and do not realize the impact a lack of education has on themselves, their future, or their own community. They have a hard time making the connection when they are working minimum wage jobs, struggling to keep food on the table, and juggling family responsibilities. We are so often focused on trying to advocate change on a mass scale that we miss the population who can benefit from word-of-mouth understanding the most. The news is filled with reports on the declining higher education completion rates and lack of enrollments. We do not have a higher education problem, we have a communication problem.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary an epidemic is “characterized by very widespread growth or extent.” In higher education, we need to stop using the same old tired rhetoric that promises a yellow-bricked road leading to six-figure employment opportunities. We need to emphasize the importance of education for our academic health as a society. Higher education needs a grassroots movement where one individual shares their story with another and demystifies the obstacle-ridden path and that person shares their success story with the next.
Higher education was never designed to just serve the few, but was established as a public good to positively impact all. For many students, pursuing higher education is less about a choice about where to attend then it is an out of reach dream. For these students, higher education is a luxury they cannot afford. As a society, we should be concerned that this thinking will become the norm. We need an education system accessible for all who choose to attend. We need pathways that help them achieve their goals. We need an education epidemic.
“Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell
How can we better communicate education's value?