Notes from the President: Dominoes (Spring 2007 Trust Magazine)

Domino toppling is an interesting activity. Players line up their “bones,” or tiles, then push the first and watch the others proceed in sequence, unless a glitch, like a misalignment, stops the action.

The “domino effect,” of course, has become a part of our language: a series of successive events, each irreversibly causing the next. It is an apt analogy for Pew’s work, which we organize not only sequentially but also consequentially: later stages are determined by the previous results. Through research, we identify a problem of wide public concern, define a niche by which we can address it, produce unbiased, databased information, apply this knowledge to potential solutions, assess public opinion and then promote policy change where the facts are clear and compelling. Furthermore, collaborations with others can make this pattern of events occur more rapidly and decisively.

Pew’s work to stop the wasteful and brutal practice of shark-finning—the at-sea removal of shark fins and the discard of live sharks or carcasses— began with data showing that overfishing imperiled the world’s fisheries. Studies on sharks find up to 73 million killed annually—an unsustainable level for nearly all species.

Importantly, sharks are the first tile in their own domain. They top the ocean food chain, and the sharply reduced abundance of these animals disrupts everything below. The result has been “a cascade of unexpected effects,” as The Washington Post described it when reporting that an increase of rays and skates, normally kept in check by sharks, caused such devastation of the North Carolina scallop fishery that it closed in 2004.

Studies supported by Pew and others have identified the challenges confronting ocean management and the conservation measures needed to rebuild depleted fish stocks. This knowledge led us, with our partners, to launch the Shark Alliance, based in Amsterdam and representing a coalition of 30 organizations working to generate public support and overcome the perception that sharks, as fearsome creatures, are not worth preserving.

The alliance also advocates for the closing of loopholes in shark-finning regulations in the European Union and seeks to secure responsible, science-based fishing limits for both the sustainability of sharks and the health of the ecosystem. Initial support from several countries—for example, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom— may attract other countries. And success in Europe will help strengthen a broader resolve to protect sharks and thus the biological integrity of entire marine ecosystems.

Data were also the starting point for Pew’s work on reforming the death penalty system so that it is administered in a just manner. Research revealed the need for three key reforms: access to DNA testing, adequate legal representation, and procedural safeguards such as trustworthy eyewitness identification—all goals of the Death Penalty Reform Initiative, supported by Pew and our donor partners.

Importantly, the project takes no stand on the death penalty itself. Instead, it alerts the public and policy makers to a view shared by both supporters and opponents of capital punishment—that innocent people should never be sentenced to death or executed, and society is best served when the actual perpetrators are in custody and trials are fair and accurate.

The initiative created a climate that led to the bipartisan Justice for All Act, federal legislation (which includes the Innocence Protection Act) encouraging states to reform their death-penalty systems. The project now works to ensure that all states apply the new law, and it is promoting reform specifically in Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, where new policies may have a bellwether effect on the other 34 states with the death penalty.

Domino toppling reportedly started in college dorm rooms, so it may be only appropriate that its effect can be seen in encouraging young people to become civically engaged. Until recently, the percentage of young voters was decreasing. But research explored the incentives that motivate young people to participate and explained how to implement the findings. This work was carried out by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), based at the University of Maryland and supported by the Carnegie Corporation and Pew.

CIRCLE disseminates the research results—for instance, that young Americans will often turn out to vote if contacted in a personalized or other interactive way—and it offers constructive advice to organizations that reach young voters. The dominoes are now falling in a positive direction: More young people are voting, others are getting the word that it’s “cool” to participate, and politicians are taking this constituency more seriously.

Like a successful tumble of dominoes, reaching solutions to challenging social issues requires the thoughtful alignment of building blocks. At Pew, our investments are designed to serve the public interest. With that goal in sight, we develop fact-based strategies, leverage public participation and build momentum for bold action—a process more complex than a string of dominoes but experienced-tested and a powerful tool for change.

Rebecca W. Rimel
President and CEO

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