Problem Tree Facilitation Exercise

I like this exercise at the beginning of Anti-Oppression trainings, as way to explain why we need to talk about root causes of injustice, and to give a picture of some of the ways intersectionality works. This is also nice as a part of organizing or campaign strategy trainings, to get people to think about the difference between symptoms, issues, and problems. It can also be useful in campaign planning – it’s a great way to draw out all the issues you could be working on.  (NOTE: You can also do this with sticky notes if you don’t want to draw. This can be really useful as sometimes you need to rearrange).

While these concepts aren’t complicated as far as the gut goes – people generally GET IT that the system is messed up – these concepts can be hard to articulate. (“Which one is an issue, which is a tactic and which is a problem, again?”).  Drawing the tree creates a simple shared language that we can use for the rest of the workshop.  I like it particularly with beginning and/or difficult/skeptical audiences.  And anyway, I love pictures.

I saw this exercise done a few times, geez, back in 2005? And since I haven’t seen it done except by myself, cause I love it.  I am curious to see other versions of it, and so please let me know if you have sources/examples. I found this article which mentions some potential origins of the concept of a tree as metaphor for understanding and articulating the root causes social justice issues.

So, it starts with problem – we’ll say mountaintop removal coal mining – process that involves exploding mountains to get coal to use for electricity.

Leaves – The leaves are the symptoms of the problem, or the impacts/effects. Real stuff. So, like, blasting causes dust pollution, destroying streams causes bad water, family cemeteries are destroyed…

Tree Problem 1

Branches: So what makes these leaves possible? What creates the situations where these things are happening? People are most likely experts in this – though you may need to guide them to bigger picture answers. For example, on dust pollution, people might say, well, this one article of SMCRA has a loophole – which goes on the branch – but then the next question is – what makes is so that this loophole allows people to be poisoned? And what makes that ok? And what allows that process? And who is in charge of that? Go a few steps out.  There are likely not wrong answers, but pushing deeper is useful.

So what? Generally, our campaigns are focused on cutting off a leaf, by targeting part of a branch.  A loophole allows you to cover my house with poisonous dust 4 times a day? Ok, I’ll close that loophole. That’s really important, because I don’t want to be covered in poisonous dust. But it is useful to think – but what created a system that makes it ok to poison people if half a line of legal text says you can?

Tree Problem 3

So say we win a campaign – say we cut off a few leaves: Here is a great place to name campaigns that people have won and/or are working on. It’s ok to cheer and celebrate out wins too! Tree Problem 4

However, the problem keeps growing new leaves – so how can we escalate our work by removing a branch?

Sometimes our movements feel like we are running in circles, fighting the wrong battles, and putting out fires instead of preventing fires…so what are the deeper issues that are creating all these problems?

It may be helpful to have a second example – let’s use the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom – popular culture has reduced the narrative so that is seems the main thing the civil rights movement was fighting for was the right ride on buses and eat at lunch counters.  Are these real, serious problems? YES. But they are also strategic as winnable campaigns that built towards a larger goal.  Segregation and Jim Crow laws were serious problems (aka TREE LEAVES) that needed to go! But the deeper goals of the movement are in the title of the “March for Jobs and Freedom” – people knew that the roots of injustice in their communities was not ‘only’ racism, but also economic injustice, and thus were also fighting for economic transformation at the roots – for money-poor black folks and for money-poor folks of all races.

Roots of the Problem: Once you get to the roots, you might look at other problems that are caused by the same roots – so in the example below, Coal Burning for Electric Power is causing lots of problems, and has some of the same roots/trunk at mountaintop removal coal mining, and the next tree over is fracking…

It’s ok if this part gets a little confusing – it is really confusing in reality too!  The tree/branch/trunk/root metaphor begins to feel really silly about this point – and also – aren’t environmentalists supposed to be saving trees, not cutting them down, in our metaphors? Laughter is fun though.  The point is to look at the deeper problems that are causing our day to day emergencies, and then discuss how we can be more strategic in our work.

Tree Problem 5

So, say we cut off a whole half of a trunk – and End Mountaintop Removal (MTR) – the underlying problems may crop up new issues – like say, more stress on communities facing mining in other parts of the world, or more fracking happening…it also may not fix the underlying economic injustices that allowed MTR to happen in the first place – therefore, the community might be vulnerable to a new extractive industry moving in.

That doesn’t mean it’s not important to WIN – it means that it’s important to be building up our work and our movement so that each of our wins brings us closer to true and lasting justice.

Tree Problem 6

Discussion questions:

  • It is important to work on LEAVES which are pressing emergencies (like bad water) in our community – how can we work on them in a strategic way that gets at the BRANCH they are attached to – or farther down the tree?
    • Are there some LEAVES that have a solution that removes multiple LEAVES? For example, most mountaintop removal can’t be done without poisoning water – so many activists have focused strengthening water laws as a way to limit the entire practice.
  • Sometimes solutions create a new problem because they do not get at the root of the issue – anyone have examples of this? For example, when coal air pollution laws were strengthened to reduce acid rain, that increased the amount of poison being dumped in communities near coal mining…because the poison didn’t go away, it just got transferred to a  new community…so how/what do we learn from this?
  • It may be useful or interesting to analyze a few example campaigns from your experience or from the audience.
  • How do we choose which leaf/branch to work on? (check out the Midwest Academy’s Checklist for Choosing An Issue)
  • How does our work today build up momentum towards larger goals/getting at the roots of the problem in the future?
  • What other trees/problems are growing out of the same roots as our issue?
  • What other groups are doing work with similar roots/trunks/etc. that we could learn from or connect with?
  • What does this tree metaphor tell us about intersectionality – what are the impacts in communities that are facing multiple “roots” in their communities?
  • What are ways that talking about our work in this “Tree” context can be useful? How can it be “not useful”?

It can feel depressing to put our work in this context – yikes, there is a lot to do.  It’s harder to know how to “fix” the root problems.  But one thing I know for sure, is that ignoring the root problems doesn’t make them go away.  It can however, help us feel more secure we are doing the right work and helps us make new allies who we can learn from and partner with.


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