Monday, January 20, 2020

Eliminating What Sets Us Apart: Some Thoughts for Martin Luther King Day

“I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”

So stated the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1962.

Class and race boundaries have a lot of rigidity. In combination with geographic boundaries, they separate people and foster misinformation, stereotypes, and fear.

The 1917 report from Wilder Research on health and housing in Saint Paul showed a concentration of unacceptable conditions in a central city area that we currently call the Thomas-Dale neighborhood. Seventy years later, data we analyzed for use by community groups showed that children living in roughly that same area more likely lived in poverty and had lower educational outcomes than children had in other neighborhoods. Use Minnesota Compass today to compare income levels and other characteristics across neighborhoods in Saint Paul, and what neighborhood district will you find at or near the bottom? (Hint: the same one that showed up in Wilder Research data a century earlier.)

In 1967, Dr. King noted the lack of progress for Black citizens.

“Negroes generally live in worse slums today than 20 or 25 years ago. In the North schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954 when the Supreme Court's decision on desegregation was rendered. Economically the Negro is worse off today than he was 15 and 20 years ago. And so the unemployment rate among Whites at one time was about the same as the unemployment rate among Negroes. But today the unemployment rate among Negroes is twice that of Whites. And the average income of the Negro is today 50% less than Whites.”

How much change has occurred since then? The Brookings Institution highlights research showing how race and economic disparities persist into the 21st century and fuel educational disparities that threaten our society. Reflecting the importance of economics, which Dr. King identified, they note that poverty-based segregation and race-based segregation contribute to the educational disparities we witness today. In fact, segregation based on poverty appears statistically to account for differences that we sometimes attribute to the effects of race and racial discrimination.

What maintains these rigid boundaries that produce separation with deleterious consequences? We can easily point to outspoken racists and advocates of segregation, of course. Dr. King recognized and confronted the visible, tangible elements of racism. He also faced observable white backlash. However, overt attempts to maintain inequality only partly explain our longstanding social problem.

Another insidious, though less visible, element also explains the persistence of economic and social disparities: a form of “backlash” that occurs through complacency. People who want to do good, but seek to avoid too much disruption occurring too rapidly in the status quo, can impede progress as much as vocal opponents of change.

“I'm absolutely convinced that the forces of ill-will in our nation, the extreme rightists in our nation, have often used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words of the bad people and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time. Somewhere we must come to see that social progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. And without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Let’s acknowledge that we need to win a Super Bowl of real life – much more important than the mere football game that takes place a couple of weeks after today’s important holiday. We cannot let the forces of evil play the clock to win, or we will experience a lose-lose for humanity.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Using Information for Good, as We Enter a New Year and Decade

Albert Einstein wrote: “The life of the individual has value in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful.”*

As we approach 2020 – one fifth of the way into the 21st century – every one of us can ask: How can we make the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful?

At Wilder Research, we use modern means of collecting, analyzing, and reporting information as powerful tools for improving lives. The past 20 years have seen the evolution and proliferation of information and communication technology, including social media, unimagined even at the end of the 20th century.

On the positive side, modern information and communication technology gives voice to all people. If any of us have a story to tell, we can tell it. We can recognize and celebrate the joys of the world. We can identify the injustices that need fixing. Without social media, for example, we would likely know far less than we do about the genocide and oppression occurring outside the borders of our country, and we would likely have less awareness of tragedies inside of the U.S.

At Wilder Research, we have exploited the benefits of information and communication technology. We can make more meaning and draw more informed insights out of data; we have a greater ability than we did 20 or so years ago to improve the effectiveness of programs, policies, and decisions that affect people.

However, the evolution of technology also has a negative side. Humans can become molecular units of analysis in big data, processed by algorithms intended to create profits for a privileged few. As consumers of what the internet transmits, if we let our guard down, false stories, reinforced by social media bots that spin thousands of perverse messages, can deceive us.

The internet and social media enable us to access directly far more information than we could through other means. However, the lack of standards for curating, assessing, and rating the validity of that information puts each of us on our own: Caveat emptor. With respect to human freedom, the internet and social media democratize our world, yet paradoxically they also offer a powerful tool for manipulation that can upend democratic processes. Sadly, we hear regularly about the ways that totalitarian-inclined leadership uses modern technology for control and constraint.

We at Wilder Research, along with others who do research, have the competence to use modern information and communication technology. In returning to Einstein’s thoughts, we should acknowledge the opportunity presented to us to add value to our own individual lives by using modern technology to aid in making the lives of individuals, families, and communities “nobler and more beautiful”.

As 2020 – a new year, a new decade – opens, let us acknowledge that our efforts to improve society and make life better for all will consume much energy, will encounter barriers, and will not always succeed. Nevertheless, let us keep our eye on the prize of lifting human spirits, building the capacity of people to better themselves, curing the individual and social illnesses and problems that produce disparities and constrict human potential, and helping to guide our society in a positive direction. The prospect of achieving even just a little bit of progress in whatever parts of this big world that we can touch – that should energize us.

Best wishes for the New Year!

*In The World as I See It, 1935.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Metrics for Healthy Communities: A tool for leaders of community health initiatives

What data exist to support and evaluate community health improvement initiatives? What limits organizations in their ability to use and cite these data? How can we readily connect downstream health outcomes to community development activities upstream?

Questions such as these motivated Wilder Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to join forces in the development of "Metrics for Healthy Communities", a website for anyone who seeks to plan, evaluate, or fund community health improvement initiatives.

Metrics for Healthy Communities aims to:

  • Build the evaluation savvy of its users by focusing attention on outcomes, not just outputs. 
  • Help shape and advance collaborative thinking about the long-term changes that well-designed community health improvement initiatives can produce, and the steps that are required to achieve them. 
  • Standardize evaluation across the field of community health improvement by promoting a common language and a common set of metrics.    

Since its initial launch in August 2015, Metrics for Healthy Communities website user data show that the desire to improve and measure the health of one’s community reaches all the way around the globe—from New York, USA to Victoria, New Zealand. The site has attracted visitors from thousands of cities in 140 countries.

Nearly 4 years later, we are pleased to announce the launch of Metrics for Healthy Communities 2.0. This newly expanded version of our Metrics website features a new user interface, more logic models, and links to the research evidence base.

Need evidence for a healthy food access program grant? Interested in how the financing of affordable housing is linked to improved health? Want to evaluate the impact of a child care center in an under-served neighborhood?

Metrics can help to answer these questions, and more!

In the beginning stages of planning a community health initiative? Visit our Get Started page to search for relevant activities and measures.

Are you a field expert looking for quick access to community health-related data sources? Search our data directory.

Wondering what in the heck is a logic model? You can learn the basics of logic models and learn how to use the site here. This site is designed to work even for folks without any formal research training.

Metrics is based on the wisdom of more than 600 practitioners who work in the fields of community economic development, housing, early childhood development, education, public health, and health care in the United States. Check out our list of site contributors -- you just might find a new cross-sector partner in your state!

So, take a look at the site. Let us know what you think!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Let’s Party (and Make Decisions) with Data!

Can reviewing data produce a lot of fun – plus insight? East Metro Pulse data parties suggest the response of “yes” to that question.

A team organized by the Saint Paul and Minnesota Community Foundations and Wilder Research (Nadege Souvenir, Nicole MartinRogers, Sheila Bell, Adam Murray, and Mary Kay Bailey) has offered partygoers at a series of events the opportunity to use the East Metro Pulse survey’s rich source of information on housing, health, education, employment, and other topics. In addition, they describe how to combine East Metro Pulse results with demographics and other information from Minnesota Compass and other reliable sources. 

Nonprofit organizations, foundations, government agencies, and anyone with a passion for improving community life – all can benefit by learning how to use data to enable better planning, evaluation, fund-raising, advocacy, and grant making. 

Making Decisions Based on Data

What constitutes the world’s most valuable resource? Data – according to The Economist.

For-profit organizations adeptly use data to understand their markets, determine the best sites for profitable operations, and develop new products. Sometimes, they even use data proactively to influence preferences to favor their products. Companies that rely on data increase productivity, perform better financially, reduce risks, and make faster decisions.

Why shouldn’t nonprofits do the same in their quest to fulfill their missions? As we in the nonprofit sector work to improve the lives of people, can we channel the world’s most valuable resource toward the good?

Another question with the response of “yes”! 

Many opportunities exist to use data. If we want to improve the quality of life of our communities, we need to take advantage of those opportunities.

Personal Data Literacy

Effective use of information requires data literacy for the people who make decisions. Most of us have good common sense that points us toward questions that have strategic and practical importance. For example:
  • What implications do changes in our community (aging, racial diversification, employment trends, etc.) have for our organization?
  • What needs do our clients have? Are those needs changing?
  • How much of the community do we reach with our work? How much do we miss?
  • Do we get the most productivity we can? How can we improve?
Answers to those questions require data. But how do we find data that have the accuracy and validity that we need? And once we find those data, how can we make sure that we examine them and analyze them correctly?

For effective leadership in today’s world, we need data literacy skills to know good data from bad data. We need skills to derive insight from a large amount of information. We need skills to portray data and communicate credible messages.

How much competency does each of us need? That depends. Using an analogy to home repairs, I know enough to bang in a nail or do a small touch up with paint. But for anything beyond a certain size, I better call a carpenter or a painter, lest my activities lead to disaster. Similarly for using data, we all have our limitations beyond which we need to call an expert. But we can learn to do a lot on our own.

Organizational Features

Capacity also depends on organizational culture and expectations. The policies of an organization should promote the use of information in support of its mission and vision. Staff should see that the organization for which they work (whether paid or volunteer) will make decisions and allocate resources based on information, not based on haphazard or ephemeral considerations. Leaders within all levels of an organization must champion the use of data and nurture their staff’s competence to use data. An organization must commit itself to quantitatively measuring its performance, if it desires to improve its performance through data-based decisions.

Effective use of data also requires organizational capacity. Capacity depends upon a suitable technical system in place to manage and report data in useable formats. For one organization, such a “system” might amount to nothing more than a laptop with easy-to-use spreadsheet software. Another organization, however, might need a complex database managed by specially trained staff. Fortunately, organizations today can find much software – some free, some at nominal cost – which enables them to analyze data in ways that would have required expensive, complex processes even just a decade ago.

Building Personal Skills by Data-Partying

That brings me back to the data party. With the tutelage of Souvenir and MartinRogers, participants learn some basic best practices about using data, dig into the East Metro Pulse data, and practice how they might use the data in their work through facilitated activities (as illustrated here). For example, in one data party that I attended we looked at how data on employment barriers, taken from the community survey, demonstrated the efficacy of having an accessible outreach worker who could directly enable job-seekers to overcome those barriers. It offered strong evidence for a data-based decision that could justify funding.

Wilder Research and the foundations we work with on Minnesota Compass, East Metro Pulse, and other initiatives seek to make data available as freely and accessibly as possible to everyone from the smallest community-based organization to the largest charitable institution. Combining program evaluation data with community survey data with demographic trends data can create a potent force for organizational improvement, social equity, and positive community change.

So, let’s party !!

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Our common destiny on the "pale blue dot"

“This is where we live. In space. On a marble fortified against bottomless blackness by a shell of air and color, fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble.”

With those words, The New York Times opened a commemorative essay about a photograph taken 50 years ago by U.S. astronauts who witnessed “earthrise”, the rising of the earth over the horizon of the moon. Human eyes had never before viewed that occurrence.

I remember the original picture, shown in the media near the conclusion of “the year that shattered America”: 1968. And I remember the insights which discussion of the photo contributed to my plans for how to spend my life.

The divisions among Homo sapiens at that time – based on race, culture, economics, religion – seemed deep and almost intractable, from an earthly perspective. The lunar vista implied something very different: a unified orb, floating through space, inhabited by interdependent organisms who shared “life,” an essence which, as far as we knew, existed nowhere else.

Carl Sagan expanded this theme after the Voyager 1 spacecraft revealed that, from billions of miles away in space, our earth appears as a “pale blue dot”: “That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Our place in space

Today, we don’t need to travel to outer space to become cognizant of humanity’s social and ecological interdependence. Economics, technological development, and communications have connected all of humanity over the past half century in ways that we can readily feel and observe. Real time communication happens intercontinentally. Events positive and negative in one part of the globe affect many or all of the other parts.

Yet differences almost nonexistent from a universal perspective – race, culture, economics, religion, and now migration status – continue to create invidious comparisons that wreck discord within the human family.

Sagan noted gravely: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

Perhaps we cannot completely avoid human conflict. When we encounter dishonesty, greed, or injustice, for instance, we may need to confront and contain it with verbal or physical force. But given our imperative to care for this planet now and into the future, it makes little sense to squabble with, separate ourselves from, and even kill, our earthly compatriots. We all need each other, to preserve the precious blue dot.

The critical pathway…

The pathway to a positive future on this speck in the universe? In his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King asserted that to “transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood” we must “evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

With love, we should do our work – whatever role we play in whatever earthly locus, small or large, that we find ourselves. We must cherish the world, our human companions, and our place in the universe.

The earthrise photo, rendering salient our common destiny as human beings, illustrates the necessity of making the quality of life on this earth as good and equitable as it can possibly be for all people.

We at Wilder Research play our part, as we undertake various types of research intended to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities. We look forward to working with others during the coming year on many projects that will address key issues, inform significant decisions about policy and funding, and enable community-serving organizations to carry out their activities more effectively.

As we enter 2019, I have hope and optimism. We can unite in love with our partners to do our best in the portion of the earth that we can influence. If others around the world similarly join together and act in their locales, we can transform the livable surface of this 510 million square kilometer rock into a habitat that sustains all human beings as we journey through the universe.

Happy New Year!