UTEP’s 1st Social Justice Pioneer Award honors leaders in Positive Deviance movement

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EL PASO -When Monique and Jerry Sternin took on the challenge in 1990 of reducing childhood malnutrition in rural Vietnam, they didn’t show up with their own notions of what should be done. Instead, the Save the Children workers went in search of the “deviants,” the families where children were thriving despite having the same resources as those whose children were undernourished.

The couple was applying the concept of “Positive Deviance,” which initially appeared in nutrition research literature in the 1960s, according to positivedeviance.org. They observed the families that had healthy children and then led these mothers to pass their methods on to the rest of the families, and within two years reported a dramatic reduction in malnourishment.

“We had met ordinary people who had been more successful than others. These people were often overlooked,” Monique Sternin said. “When we had the opportunity to try something different to help people help themselves solve something very complex we invited people with the problem to find a solution and act on the solution because people would say, ‘she is doing it, she is just like me’”

From that early success, the Sternins continued to work with their Positive Deviance approach and, in 2001, established the Positive Deviance Initiative at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University. Jerry Sternin died in 2008, but Monique Sternin continues as director of the initiative.

Monique Sternin with award

photo by: Arvind Singhal

In April, the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Texas at El Paso recognized the Sternins for their creative, courageous and influential approach with first Social Justice Pioneer Award.

Since 2008, UTEP’s Social Justice Initiative has applied the Positive Deviance Approach to health communication programs and research. UTEP Communication Professor Arvind Singhal, director of the initiative, has led Positive Deviance outreach efforts that span public health, education, human rights, poverty alleviation, sustainable development, civic participation, democracy and governance, and corporate citizenship.

“The people who started this approach have, in some ways, influenced us greatly in seeing the world in a different way,” Singhal said.

Speaking as part of the award program, Monique Sternin mentioned how positive deviance principles are being applied in El Paso to help students faced with economic struggles.

“Here in El Paso, one of the student at UTEP, has been looking at financial problems that students have here,” she said. “He looked at students that had a lot of difficulties. How is it possible for a student with very little resources be able to be financially stable? He discovered that people have very simple solutions available,”

UTEP President Diana Natalicio came to open the ceremonies and spoke about how the university is an example of outlier among U.S. universities using a positive deviance approach to improve social mobility in the region.

“I was very intrigued on how you can change behavior through a variety of strategies that really focuses on the outliers.” Natalicio said. “I’m asked often when I go to professional meetings ‘what is the average SAT scores of your entering student population?’ I always tell them that I have no idea. At UTEP we don’t think that that is a relevant metric to predict success at UTEP.”

In 2017, the Brookings Institute rated UT El Paso number one in research and student social mobility.

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