Tuesday, January 19, 2016

2016: Building Community

What do efforts to deal with global warming, the displacement of refugees, and the fight against terrorism have in common with efforts to address local quality of life issues such as failing physical infrastructures, the educational achievement gaps among racial and income groups, tensions over police shootings, and growing income disparities?

All of these issues require that we form strong social bonds if we want to make progress and improve our quality of life. Building community – in its broadest sense – demands our attention for this new year.

We, the inhabitants of this planet, share a common destiny. We will succeed or fail together to overcome ecological and social challenges at the global level. Nothing but working together – setting a worldwide vision and achieving it – will enable humanity to survive and thrive. Joint efforts have become a necessity for resolving economic, social, environmental, and other problems that transcend political boundaries and require us to forge social ties throughout a world community.

Closer to home, local quality of life issues related to infrastructure, education, housing, health care, and other parts of our lives demand reliance on our social groups – families, neighbors, community associations. The education of our children, for example, requires strong ties between parents and children, within neighborhoods, and between communities and schools. Each part of the community needs to stand up, do its part, and communicate with the other parts.

As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” By implication, we must nurture a cooperative spirit among the “all” in order to nurture the well-being of every “one” of us.

What practical implications does this reality have? Just a few examples, related to issues in the current press.

The achievement gap. For those who see the achievement gap as someone else’s problem, who feel that any mismatch between the competencies of our graduates and the needs of employers falls only on the shoulders of the business community to solve, please understand that all children are our children. We have a connection to them along with moral and practical imperatives to ensure their healthy development. If any of them fail, we all as a community fail.

Police/resident tensions. Recent police shootings have exacerbated already strained relationships between the police and some residents of our communities. One public official went so far a few weeks ago as to suggest that residents of his area should throw stones at the police. If we want to move forward productively, we need to resist the temptation to construct barriers. Community leaders should invite police officers to the next neighborhood barbecue, ask some of them to join in at youth clubs or school events to discuss their work, and take whatever steps possible to forge social connections that will build understanding and trust.

Immigration. We all come from somewhere else. Even our Native American residents migrated from another place. We serve as temporary caretakers of our land and our civilization, with generations of people to follow, some who look like us and many who do not. While surely we must protect ourselves from those who would do harm, we must put more focus on connecting with new arrivals. Efforts to foster continued success for today’s immigrants — private and public efforts alike, collective and individual — will pay rich dividends and honor our own immigrant pasts.

All of us can provide more examples. The theme is clear. Nurturing social connections, building community – we must focus on those activities during 2016 in order to achieve a better world for all.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Social Research - A Tool for Promoting Justice and Quality of Life

In this digital age, millions of people can tweet instantly about the issues of their choice: economics, jobs, racial disparities, violence, education, transportation, the environment, and so on. News media and advocates can raise awareness and provoke debates. Major social issues all seem to contain pressing challenges that demand solutions as quickly as possible.

In this era of instant information is social research still relevant? Does the laborious process of systematically gathering and interpreting information add value? That question focuses on the raison d’etre of Wilder Research and other organizations that do social research. I would suggest that we find social research motivating and fulfilling because we see it as a means to improve the quality of life for all people in a just way. Some of the features of social research that make it more important than ever include:

Addressing root causes to achieve long-term improvement. It’s frequently easy to see the symptoms of problems – someone out of a job, a student who drops out of school, a person victimized by violence. But understanding the underlying problems does not always happen easily. Research can dig in and discern those causes. We know, for example, that certain groups of people live longer and healthier lives than others. That’s why we have done research to understand what might account for that. We know that certain groups of children do better in school. That’s why we’ve done research related to academic achievement and early childhood development. We seek to understand what accounts for differences such as these and, more importantly, what we can do to eliminate them.

Separating facts from myths. George Soros of the Open Society Foundation has gone so far as to say that “the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal. When reality is unpleasant, illusions offer an attractive escape route. In difficult times unscrupulous manipulators enjoy a competitive advantage over those who seek to confront reality.” In the absence of information, loud voices gain credence, whether right or wrong. Interest groups along all parts of the political spectrum try to entice us to accept their spin. Prior to our studies of homelessness, for example, many beliefs existed about where homeless people came from, what put them onto the streets or brought them to shelters, and how employment, family background, and health related to homelessness. Good research debunked the myths and validated the facts.

The democratization of information. Transparent, accessible information levels the playing field for all members of a community. Knowledge empowers. In making data freely available, through Minnesota Compass for example, we enable everyone the opportunity to understand trends in living conditions and needs and to monitor the effects of work intended to improve those conditions and meet those needs. No special training or resources are required for someone to obtain information to support themselves in democratic participation and decision making.

Anticipating what lies beyond the horizon. Research on trends can help us anticipate what the future might hold. In addition, needs assessments enable us to identify and quantify both positive and negative community conditions that exist, so we can prevent problems from becoming large and can build on existing strengths.

Increasing our effectiveness to improve our quality of life. We entrust government and nonprofit organizations to meet some of our communities’ needs. Program evaluation research provides a systematic means to obtain information to understand the effectiveness of those organizations and to improve their impacts.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that true education involves developing both intelligence and character. I like to borrow that thought to suggest that our character (our values, ideals, aspirations) motivates us to act to improve our communities; social research offers collective intelligence (information, insight) to make that action as effective as possible.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Generation Next: Key steps toward eliminating the achievement gap

Can we eliminate the achievement gap and make certain that all young people develop the skills they need for the 21st century? If Generation Next succeeds, Minneapolis and Saint Paul certainly have an excellent chance of doing so.

The Generation Next annual meeting, in mid-October, celebrated the initial steps that the initiative has taken and focused attention on what next steps we as a community need to take. In opening the meeting, President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota noted what Minnesota Compass has documented: that the gaps in academic achievement between white children and children of color result in a terrible ranking for Minnesota among the 50 states.

The situation might seem daunting, the problem intractable. The most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, show no narrowing of the achievement gap. However, Generation Next offers hope, for several reasons.

As Generation Next Executive Director R.T. Rybak pointed out, educational success relies upon joint action. He wants the initiative to provide tools to families, schools, and communities – all of which must work in concert in order for student achievement to occur. Generation Next has set a lot of joint action into motion.

Practical and tangible community steps

Generation Next has sorted the big issues into several goals within which the initiative can identify smaller, addressable community tasks. For example, it has worked in very practical and tangible ways to determine how many children lack quality child care or tutors for reading, raises awareness about issues like these, and develop strategies to link the children in need to resources effective for them.

Data informed programs

Generation Next has made excellent use of data to identify the timing and content of interventions to improve academic success. Eric Moore, Director of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment for Minneapolis Public Schools, described how 9th grade school behaviors (attendance and completing courses in 9th grade) constitute the most significant predictor of whether young people will graduate from high school. Generation Next intends to bring to our region an evidence-based program from the University of Chicago, which focuses on 9th-graders and which has demonstrated positive effects on high school graduation rates.

Professor Michael Rodriguez of the University of Minnesota (and an alum of Wilder Research) has done research showing that commitment to learning among African American males is higher than for whites. However, learning commitment tends to take a dip in junior high. Supplied with this knowledge, Generation Next can work with schools and others to intervene strategically to prevent that dip from occurring and thereby narrow the achievement gap.

Community investment

Generation Next has built coalitions of funders, providers, and volunteers. The United Way and the Bush Foundation have taken note of the momentum and announced at the annual meeting major new funding to sustain that momentum and promote quality care and services in the support of children’s education.

Will this all work?

We need to wait and see. The initiative has incorporated ingredients recommended by the National Education Association and by researchers who have spent years studying the achievement gap and its causes. Improvement of our children’s academic success will not result solely from efforts undertaken inside the school walls. Superintendents, principals, and teachers need to play their roles effectively to teach a changing population of young students. Generation Next can collaborate with those educators and with others to forge the symbiosis among families, schools, and communities that will make sure our children enter school ready to learn, succeed in learning, and lead fulfilling lives.

In sending us off from the Generation Next annual meeting, Kim Nelson, Senior Vice President at General Mills, reflected the excitement and energy embodied among those in attendance. She expressed hope. She noted: “We’re becoming aligned. We’re focusing on evidence based practice.” Through this alignment, she intends to help lead the community to our ultimate goal: eliminating the achievement gap and ensuring a great education for all of our children.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

African American Income and Poverty in Minnesota – “No change” should motivate us

“Black household income dipped severely; black poverty has increased. So, we need to take action.” News articles since the release of the most recent findings from the Census Bureau have expressed this theme in one way or another. Advocacy groups have vocalized it and have demanded action in response.

But did the trends in black income and black poverty really take an alarmingly sudden and significant wrong turn? Should a one-year change in black household income and black poverty trends cause us to take action? If so, what would we do?

Wilder Research staff member, Allison Liuzzi, explained to Minnesota Public Radio that the black poverty rate moved from about 33% to 38% from 2013 to 2014 in Minnesota, representing 20,000 more people reported in poverty in just one year. However, Allison and her fellow Minnesota Compass staff members have emphasized that in the previous year the poverty rate among blacks had declined by 5 percentage points. The recent change brought the rate back to its high mark for most of the past 10 years. That’s the news that she and others want us to understand.

Blips in the statistical trend lines, whether up or down, should not divert our attention from the real story, namely, that one in three black Minnesotans lives in poverty. Even though some numbers shifted back and forth, really “no change” has occurred, and that should disturb us. We must acknowledge the stark and serious fact that the economic status of the black residents of our communities remains dismally low.

So, what do we do? Implore the Governor to mobilize state policymakers and staff? Perhaps, but also recognize that no Governor or Government has succeeded at producing more than incremental change on these issues, and typically only slowly. Disrupt public transportation and public events? That activity achieves headlines and might work in certain situations. But, in my opinion, unless such demonstrators acquire the skills of the civil rights and peace activists of the days of Martin Luther King, such action runs the risk of being counterproductive, and might even divide rather than connect us.

If I had the perfect answer, I would share it. Yet I am certain that the route to the answer requires change at the molecular level of our hearts and the structural level of our society and economy. A “strategic plan” to address economic disparities that have the potential to destroy us should include steps at both of these levels.

At the level of the heart, we need to acknowledge our common humanity. Reasonable people can understand that the features we share outweigh the features that differentiate us. Extreme bigots may deny that premise, but most of us can be brought to accept it. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamt of the day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” As a first strategic step, we need to hold hands, literally and figuratively, in order to address economic disparities and ultimately improve the economic status of all.

We need a combination of research analysis and genuine soul-searching to understand what lies at the roots of the disparities we see in our state and how we strike at those roots. Why do differences exist in the poverty rates of whites and blacks? Yes, racism plays a role; yes, disparities in education lead to disparities in acquisition of wealth; yes, social determinants of health influence educational achievement, disease and disability rates, with resulting decreased earnings for certain groups.

But at the same time that Minnesota enjoys a relatively high overall standard of living, analysis reveals that, relative to the other 49 states, we have some of the largest social and economic disparities among racial groups. Why? If we don’t answer that question, we might have the misfortune of spinning our wheels with unproductive solutions to our challenge. Our strategic plan will create a failing strategy.

In fashioning solutions, role clarification becomes extremely important. What can we expect government to do? What must individuals do? What must communities do for their members? Educational success for young people depends, for example, on the combined efforts of communities, families, and schools. The educational system alone cannot produce success. Yet too many proposals for improving the education of persons of color ignore the necessity of involving all three of these elements of our society.

And, at the level of our overall society and economy, job creation stands out as crucial. No amount of improvement in education, no change in attitudes among the majority population, and no legislation will produce an increase in the economic status of blacks if jobs do not exist for people to fill and earn a livelihood. Our strategy needs to include government and the private sector in roles which attract and retain black workers in adequately paying jobs.

Lower economic status for our black residents should precipitate a clamor for intervention. All of us have a role in that intervention. I’m confident that, with increased understanding, hope, and a genuine commitment, we can act to move the line on the graph unswervingly in a positive direction.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Summer Reading from Wilder Research

For a bit of summer reading this year, I perused some of the most recent Wilder Research reports and took time to reflect on them. The past couple of months contain just a sampling of the more than 200 reports that we produce each year – all of them intended to enhance people’s lives by sharing relevant, actionable information that can improve our communities.

While research isn’t beach reading for everyone, I encourage you to think about this as a back-to-school reading list, spanning a variety of topics and issues. Below you will see some of the things that you can learn from our recent reports. I encourage you to explore the links and see what else these reports contain.

From our Big Picture Project, one report which reflects our research on the Central Corridor, intended to document how the construction of a new light rail line affects the urban neighborhoods through which it passes: “The Green Line has been up and running for one year, and change is evident for all parts of the corridor.” The number of new housing units has increased, as have advertised rents. Unique relative to national counterparts, the Central Corridor initiative has focused efforts to increasing park space along the rail line; no other city has yet to develop goals or metrics for the amount of parkland in a transit corridor.

From our Central Corridor Tracker, another report on the effects of the new Green Line: Along the Central Corridor, single family housing values are rising. The business mix, defined by type of business, has not changed. However, the mix defined by size of business has begun to change – with the smallest businesses declining, and mid-size businesses making gains.

From an infographic developed by our study of children with incarcerated parents, providing details on the chemical use behaviors of youth with incarcerated parents: Such youth “face more chemical health concerns than youth who have not experienced parental incarceration.” One in 10 youth with an incarcerated parent, who has used alcohol or other drugs, reported becoming violent or acting violently while they were intoxicated (versus 1 in 100 youth who has not had an incarcerated parent).

From our study, Families with Young Children Who Are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Minnesota: Some of the most common needs for parents of young children who are deaf and hard of hearing are: Emotional support; connections with similar families; role models that their child can look up to; hope for the future; American Sign Language capability; and information about assistive technology, such as cochlear implants and hearing aids.

From an essay on early childhood policies to prevent inequities: “Social, economic, and educational inequities and their lifelong adverse consequences are preventable…Reaching the goal of optimal healthy development for all children requires concerted, interconnected policy efforts across public and private sectors and disciplines and in partnership with families. The disadvantaged families affected by inequities must help shape and sustain the policies and community-led practices to strengthen themselves and their children within a cultural context.” Richard Chase explains the rationale for this conclusion in this short position paper – calling for government, schools, and other organizations to act, but also for families to take action on their own behalf.

From a report on the early childhood program, Invest Early: Invest Early is having county-wide impacts, serves higher-risk and underserved populations, and has convincingly demonstrated that it prepares low-income students for success.

From a report on a pilot study of Signs of Safety, a strengths-based, safety-organized child protection intervention strategy: The study offered insight into the process of delivering service. “Good communication and giving parents a voice are critical in working with families.” The study also identified some of the results. For example, caseworkers who respect and listen to parents increase the satisfaction levels of parents. With a formal network ready to help, parents feel more confident in asking for help with difficult aspects of their lives. The study also says, “Reliance on safety planning diminishes over time, but families find it helpful.” This seems to indicate that the strategy empowers families to act on their own.

Our website, www.wilderresearch.org, contains information on these studies, and hundreds more. We welcome the opportunity to work with any organization, large or small, to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities.