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This often retold tale, originally from The Star Thrower, a collection of essays by the naturalist and writer Loren Eiseley, is a favorite of many as an example of how we each individually can make a difference. Businesses and organizations ranging from socially responsible investing and real estate to animal rights and children's issues have quoted this story as a way of explaining their mission and purpose.

While it's a motivating and inspirational perspective on making a difference, I've often wondered when I've heard or read this story: what made the starfish wash up in the first place? What could have been done to prevent them from getting beached? Maybe there was a storm. Maybe there was something in the ocean.

It's partially a question of where we want to put our time and resources, as individuals working to make a difference, and as a society. We want to save individual starfish, but in times of scarce resources, where can we get the most impact from what we do? While it's certainly important to help individuals in crisis, what could be done to prevent them from getting into difficulty? How could we move up stream?

While I'm all for us each finding our unique responsibilities and taking on issues we are passionate about, working alone can't always produce the impact we want. Sometimes it's easier to pick up starfish, rather than look for larger causes, because it's what is in our control, or it's what we feel we can do, either individually or as a society. Addressing systemic issues takes years, if not decades, and can be frustrating work. Yet, without addressing root causes, we'll just have more starfish to clean up.

It's necessary to find a balance between changing policies, systems and structures to promote the changes we want to see, and working to help individuals in crisis. We can't ignore the starfish, but we also need to ask why they are becoming beached in the first place. Where do you best make a difference?

If you're picking up starfish, what's possible upstream?

If you're working upstream, how can you stay in touch with the starfish?

Posted by Hanna Cooper, MPH, CPCC, ACC

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