Scaling Systems Up And Down

Michael Metzger

Volunteer organizations such as Thread do great work. They also remind us of why we have to scale systems up and down.

Thread is an outreach to underperforming students in three inner-city Baltimore schools. The aim is to “interrupt the cycle of poverty, crime, and lack of education and improve the odds for all students.” This requires a system of about 1,000 volunteers surrounding 415 students. Each student is given up to five volunteers, amounting to over 30,000 hours of volunteering annually.

For students in the system for 10 years, the graduation rate is 87 percent. This beats the average in Baltimore city schools (71 percent), a number that has been rising over the past ten years, even though some researchers suggest that figure is inflated.

Thread’s success is largely due to successfully scaling systems down. Scaling down is one-to-one, personal, volunteering. Food drives. Helping the homeless. It’s after-school programs and Thread Collaborators who offer legal help, SAT tutoring, and so on.

But for all the good that Thread does, scaling down faces three challenges. The first: can we ever scale down enough volunteers to change the overall system? Doesn’t seem likely.

Take Annapolis, where Kathy and I live. Population: 39,000. Roughly 8,000 residents are trapped in systemic poverty or hover just above the poverty line. That leaves 31,000 who could volunteer. If Thread’s ratio (2.5 volunteers per student) is required to scale down a city successfully, two-thirds of Annapolis’ population would have to volunteer just to interrupt the city’s cycle of poverty. We wouldn’t end it, however.

The second challenge: will volunteers stay in the program for the ten years necessary to most effectively mentor a student? I don’t know. Seems unlikely.

The third challenge: what’s next? Where do students go after they graduate from Thread? I don’t know, but the number of Baltimore graduates going to college is declining. Most students will end up stuck in systemic poverty. No next step.

There could be a next step. This requires scaling systems up as well as down. Scaling up is institutions, public policy, economic reform, affordable college education, zoning, access to affordable legal help, healthcare, well-paying jobs for upward mobility, reliable transportation, finance, security, law enforcement, the judicial system, and networks. Scaling down doesn’t build these institutions. Scaling up does.

To see the power of scaling up, look at MS-13. The gang was founded in the 1980s in and around Los Angeles by immigrants from El Salvador who had fled their country’s civil war. Surrounded by hostile gangs, they formed their own group, which they called Mara Salvatrucha. After an alliance with the Mexican Mafia for protection inside California prisons, Mara Salvatrucha became MS-13—M is the 13th letter of the alphabet, a sign of respect for their new partners.

Today MS-13 is scaling systems up. It is the largest employer in El Salvador. Law enforcement officials estimate it controls in 248 of the 262 of the country’s municipalities. In San Salvador, the nation’s capital, MS-13 controls the local distribution of consumer products, experts said, including diapers and Coca Cola.

MS-13 is also scaling up in New York City, LA, DC, and Maryland. They’re the economic driver in many Hispanic communities. Want to make big money? Join MS-13.

It works the same way in Somalia. Just a different gang—al Shabaab (it recently killed at least 21 in a luxury hotel bombing in Nairobi). This gang of roughly 3,000 terrorists is scaling the system up, running the economy of the country with a population of 15 million.

I’m not against volunteerism or scaling down. We must help the vulnerable, but the problems that African-American and Hispanic communities are facing are systemic. They require systemic solutions. This requires scaling up as well as down if we are serious about seeking the flourishing of an entire city. It requires everyone having access to affordable college education, legal help, healthcare, well-paying jobs, finance, and networks providing upward mobility. Thread is doing a great job of scaling systems down. But it reminds us we also have to scale systems up.


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. My wife Kathy noted the MS-13 is a rather dark example of scaling up. “Aren’t there any positive examples” There are. Check out The New Meadowlands Project.

    Note that when we scale systems up, the scales of economy also scale up. New Meadowlands is a multi-year +$60 billion civic initiative.

    We’re launching our civic initiative tonight here in Annapolis, at Clapham House. How successful will we be? Don’t know. But we gotta try.

  2. One suggestion for further conversation: there is a growing mountain of sociological evidence from the past five decades that a main driver and predictor of systemic poverty is the breakdown of “traditional” marriage and family. In fact, recently it has emerged as the number one factor that predicts the economic future of a child, a factor more telling than class, race, geography, gender, etc. This is a complex issue, needless to say. But it does seem that any systemic reform that does not address the continued disintegration of families, which is significantly more advanced among the poor, may amount to building a house on sand …

  3. I couldn’t agree more with John R. In my own work with young people in Baltimore City it’s not an either or venture of scaling down or up, as crucial as both of those are. It’s more of a both/and proposition. Yet, from my limited view without the 1st system people were created to function in, the family, being intact things will only flourish so much. Needless to say things are multilayered and complex. I’m encouraged and challenged by your efforts in Annapolis. We all will learn from it.

  4. There are so many barriers for the poor to overcome. Money alone won’t solve them. Education is a false hope when society marginalizes people based on race and ethnicity. Volunteerism does help, but sometimes it too is based on stereotypes.

    Churches need to become the core of outreach to communities. Only there can we see people for who they really are.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *