Root as Metaphor


Recently, I acted as a judge for a Civics Day competition in Providence. This is an event which brings together students in 6th to 12th grades from around the state to show off the projects they’ve created in class. They make problem statements, do a root cause analysis and present to us, the judges, what drives them to work on this problem and what they propose to fix it.

OK, great.

I commend all of these young people, and their teachers, and I am genuinely inspired by their work.

That said, I noticed a pattern which said something important to me about problem-solving in our world. A significant part of the project is the root-cause analysis. What this means to me is a person or group looking very deeply, analytically and relentlessly into the history, mindset(s) and systems that underlie any problem.

One project, about police violence, for example, stated that the root cause of excessive police violence  is “lack of body cameras”.

Another, about animal abuse, suggested that the root cause of this is “lack of law enforcement”.

Yes, these were young people and let me take a moment to be SUPER CLEAR.

I do not suggest, at all, that these kids are doing something wrong. When I was a teen I had little concept of root causes, and I made exactly zero attempts to change the world with civic engagement.

What I want to call attention to is how we, as adults, as parents, as educators, as community leaders, present the concept of root cause.


As a plant lover and forager, I know roots. Like, I know them inside of myself, what they look like and feel like, how they are all different, how they interact with the world. I know that living roots are not a “thing” that can exist in isolation.

Roots are a system.

There is no root without a relationship.

There are also several distinct types of root–taproot, adventitious, fibrous. There are young roots and old roots, roots which are easily pulled up and roots which seem to go all the way down to the Earth’s molten core.

There are roots which reproduce the plants and roots which only last a season.

There are roots which smell like wet socks and roots which smell like Heaven.

Spicy roots, sweet roots, lucky roots, nasty-ass roots.

Roots which look like butts and boobs and the Virgin Mary and Elvis.

And don’t get me started on rhizomes.


So what I am saying is that roots are in relationship with the whole plant, with the soil and ecosystem, with animals and with humans, with history, with time, with water and worms.

And when we teach root cause as an isolated idea which can be reduced to an easy answer, I wonder how we are stifling the intellectual freedom needed  to deeply understand how problems are created and perpetuated?

How does accepting the idea that a lack of body cameras is the root cause of police violence block the questions we need to ask of ourselves and our culture?

Such as: what is the historical role of police in our society?

What is power, and who has it?

What factors have gone into creating our cultural power dynamics, and what systems benefit from inequity of power?

Whose death matters?

How can we view issues like police violence and animal abuse with a lens of prevention?

How can we understand the ecosystem which these problems grow in?

The soil which nourishes these problems needs to be altered.


It’s easier to just visualize a carrot from the grocery store, in a bag with all the other carrots, all of similar size, clean, safe, sanitary.

It’s easier to say ”this is a root”.

To believe that this is what all roots are  like, and that we can isolate it from the systems which have brought it to Stop and Shop.

Systems like transportation, migration, land ownership, irrigation, energy extraction.

Root cause analyses which lead to real change will require us to acknowledge interconnection and intersection.

This is a pain in the ass.

Complexity is frustrating and messy and most schools give educators 42.5 minutes once a week to attempt to transmit a civics lesson, in isolation from the other “subjects” which we have somehow convinced ourselves are best understood  separately.

I get that.

But there is something vital to going all the way into roots, to getting muddy and seeing what is really underneath stuff, to sweating and digging and direct observation and getting that real, bodily KNOWING about how plants and  ideas grow and interact in the world.

If we want to support our young people in their curiosity and passion to grapple with the really big issues that haunt America, let’s push them (and ourselves) to ask more deeply, to not just accept the first concept of cause that comes along but to dig down into the soil and pull out and engage with something emergent and amazing, something ancient and brand new, something for us all.