Navigating Compound Complex Situations

Published on August 28, 2017 | Written by

Although some time has passed, the complex issues surrounding one of Minneapolis’s latest police shootings remains fresh in my mind. The latest police shooting can only be described as compound complex, a term I learned from my UNICEF days to describe a situation that is so perplexing and vexing that it can leave you feeling overwhelmed.

Liberia’s complicated civil war (1989-1996), now famous for its atrocities, involved an estimated 38,000 child soldiers. These boys and girls, some as young as six years old and often doped up,  served in both government and rebel forces. Child soldiers were often deployed to the front lines, forced to participate in suicide missions, or serve as lookouts and spies. One of my lasting memories from the war was that of a young child soldier who excitedly mounted a tricycle as he unstrapped an AK-47 from his little body.

Blaming a child soldier for committing atrocities is an example of a compound complex situation. On an intellectual level you know the child soldier is also a victim. On a practical level you know the atrocities committed were horrible and harmed others.  Where do you assign blame and compassion? To the child soldier or to the victim? Like an onion, there are many layers of complexities to peel back.

The tragic death of Justine Damond is an example of a compound complex situation. My deepest sympathy goes out to her family who must cling to the memory of a loved one who lost her life attempting to do the right thing. By all accounts she was a quality person who cared deeply about her community and fellow human being.

As a true advocate of justice, I cannot ignore how swiftly this story moved from a police shooting to a Somali police shooting. How quickly we got to see the picture of Officer Noor, how rapidly the national media reached out to Somali leaders to comment on the shooting and shockingly, how the Somali community, who had nothing to do with this tragedy was being blamed and attacked.

What is going on? The whole situation unfolded so fast that most people, myself included did not know how to react. To stand by Noor’s right to defend himself if he feared for his life seems unthinkable. To ignore the parallels and stark differences between this death and Philando Castile is paramount to admitting we have different standards and expectations for situations that appear to be similar.  I wonder if a white cop had shot and killed a black woman in that alley if the dynamics would have been the same?  What if a black man had run up to a cop car and shots had been fired? In the Damond instance, the silence from groups that normally would speak out was loud.  Even to write about this, is oddly unsatisfying. It’s tough to articulate a position. And in these compound complex situations the only thing we can do is lean heavily on the side of justice.

We must have the courage to call out that the blame game, in and of itself is not applicable here. We have knowingly or unknowingly created a situation where police shoot first and ask questions later. We have a broken justice system that has not held officers accountable for their actions, even when it was clear that those actions were not compatible with approved police protocols.  We continually play out an ‘us against them’ mentality when the far better choice might be to find ways to unravel this situation together. And in these compound complex situations, it is going to take all of us working together to find the best solutions.

We should view this as a police shooting and apply the same standards to determine Officer Noor’s guilt or innocence. We should condemn racist inflammatory headlines and actions. We should embrace the family of a woman who lost her life while helping others without politicizing her death. That would be the right human centered thing to do. We should have deep and meaningful conversations to unpack what is really happening here not resort to silence and inaction because this is so mind bogglingly complex.

Sadly, this will not be the last compound, complex situation we will deal with in Minnesota. How do we navigate them?

Here are 5 Tips that could be helpful the next time we are confronted with one.


1. Lean into the situation and use it as an opportunity to define for yourself what type of community you want to live in. Analyze the complexities so that you are aware of the root causes that make the situation compound complex.

2. Consider how your personal bias affects your interpretation of the situation. In the child soldier scenario, the fact that I am Liberian and work in the youth development field significantly impacts my ability to be totally objective.  Youth Participatory Action Researchers caution us to be aware of our own bias by stressing the importance of Critical Reflexibility. Context is very important in compound complex situations.

3. Create spaces at home and at work to talk about it. Children watch the news and have an opinion.  In increasingly diverse working spaces it is important to acknowledge that every employee experiences the same situation differently.

4. Cultivate a both/and mindset. It is ok to be supportive of a family who has experience great loss and stand up for a community that is being attacked.

5. Compound complex situations often create leadership opportunities and facilitate personal growth. Compound complex situations can function as a platform for defining and refining your leadership skills.

Learning how to navigate these compound complex situations does not guarantee you will be well equipped to deal with the next one. But it will help you grow in your ability to handle very complex scenarios and think deeply about structural inequities that make their existence possible.


In 2016, Youthprise’s internal YPAR collective, The Northside Research Team hosted Policing and Community Relations at UROC. The above photos were taken during that event.

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