Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Obsessing about Trump’s Comments, or Making Progress: We can decide

“He emerged from the Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza Station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by.”

You might recognize this story, from 2007. The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing a violin valued at $3.5 million. As the news report indicated, “His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception, and priorities…In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The result? During the 45 minutes that Bell played, only 7 people stopped for at least a minute; 27 people tossed in a total of about $32, and 1,070 people hustled past the assumedly common busker.

Gene Weingarten, the reporter who wrote the story about this event, asked the question: “What is beauty?....Is it a measureable fact, or merely an opinion?”

Extreme partisanship: an obscurer of our goal

As I pondered the possibilities for 2018, the Joshua Bell story came back to me. Where should we look for “beauty”? Where should we look for “goodness”? How should a focus on the good energize us, shape our behavior, and keep us on a path to improve the quality of life for all people? But then, with some apprehension, I considered the current partisan divide – perhaps worse than it has ever existed in this nation.

Partisanship has skyrocketed during the past two decades. In her Theodore H. White Lecture at Harvard University, Nancy Gibbs asserted that the political center has “all but vanished.” She noted that since 1994, Pew Research data showed that the number of Democrats and Republicans seeing the opposing party as “very unfavorable” more than doubled. She contends that the partisan gap divides us more than any other divide – race, income, gender, or anything else.

Remarkably, Pew showed as well that people view members of the opposing party with fear. “More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”

Nate Silver’s analysis of presidential elections during that same time period showed that for the Trump vs. Clinton election of 2016, “Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins — less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992…During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196.”

Whether the result of self-selection through preference, or a product of social forces and deliberate policies that promote homogeneity, these data provide stark evidence of political segregation: we tend to cluster in proximity to people who think and vote like we do. Does this promote silos? Does this foster the partisan divide? Does this contribute to political gridlock around issues we need to resolve?

In my conversations, personal and professional, I perceive many liberals and conservatives poised to pounce on any incorrect utterance from the other side. It seems much easier to make ad hominem attacks (justified or unjustified) than to tackle issues of substance. That is troubling.

700,000 DACA residents have had their lives literally on the line; the future of these individuals lies in large part under the control of our legislators. However, beginning with one infamous meeting that included the President, the conversation in Washington and throughout the U.S. shifted predominantly to debates regarding: Did the President say “hole” or “house,” or did he say nothing of the sort at all?

As the outlook for DACA legislation dimmed, and as the final days passed toward the deadline for a government shutdown, cable news was replete with legislators from both parties speaking from the same template: “Well, since they did X, we must do Y. It’s their fault, of course, because they said A after we said B, but we said that because they had previously said C.” Attack – parry – riposte; the verbal duels proceed, with everyone stuck in place.

Finding “goodness” amidst division

We need to sift through this mudslide of argumentation, to see and testify to the beauty and the good of our fellow human beings. We must keep our eye on the prize – quality life for all, in accordance with our values – and not be waylaid by partisan bickering.

We may need to suck it up, bide the current situation (which we can change in future elections), and figure out how to work with others who hold different views and how to work around racist and incompetent leaders. Unfortunately, a certain proportion of public officials, organizational leaders, and community leaders are racist or incompetent, or both. I’ve worked my way around them in the past, and I plan to continue working my way around them in the future. If Martin Luther King and his visionary counterparts had waited to act until after the uprooting of every racist public official and community leader, no civil rights progress would have occurred.

Golden days of bipartisanship might, or might not, have ever existed. Nonetheless, let’s take our cue from the 7 people who stopped to listen to Joshua Bell – to look for beauty – not from the 1,090. As a New Year’s resolution, let’s keep our eye on the prize and resolve to work collectively in 2018, respecting differences, willing to compromise.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Information. Insight. Impact.

That tagline graces the Wilder Research entryway and greets us and our guests. We try to live up to it, year in, year out, including during 2017.

Production of information never constitutes an end in and of itself. Instead, information serves as a tool, enabling us to create the end we truly seek: positive impacts on the lives of individuals, families, and communities. We accomplish that by enhancing insight that shapes programs, policies, funding, and actions of organizations working for the common good.

What have we accomplished during this past year, as we have worked on over 200 projects in partnership with nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and community groups? With so many projects, and 90+ staff working diligently, I can only offer a taste of our work. It has included research to: 
  • Reduce health disparities, improve health, and promote health equity
  • Address gaps in the delivery of services to people in need
  • Support the care of families and aging adults
  • Benefit youth, especially those whom society has historically excluded
  • Strengthen supports for those struggling in school
  • Enable the imprisoned and their families to build new lives
  • Prevent victimization and exploitation
  • Improve the effectiveness of neighborhood groups
  • Support large scale initiatives by major foundations addressing global challenges

Our projects have involved program evaluation studies, community demographic analyses, major surveys, cost-benefit analyses, and other activities. Our work has focused locally, nationally, and internationally. We share a lot – making information and insight available free of charge, to increase the impact of others. We feel good that every completed piece of work, every presentation contributes to taking a step forward; each step forward helps to move the dial to improve the quality of people’s lives.

However, as a nonprofit organization ourselves, we confront, along with our fellow nonprofit organizations, a spiritual angst – perhaps more salient at this time of year: We love our work, but much of it we wish we had no need to do. Wouldn’t I be happier if I could work myself out of a job? Wouldn’t I prefer that the research we do at Wilder Research became mostly unnecessary because we had solved the major problems of the world?

The answer is yes.

Thank you to our partners during 2017 – the innovators, the champions, the bold thinkers and the nose-to-the-grindstone, persistent, hard workers – those of you who put your talents to use in making the world a better place. We take pride in our collaborative accomplishments. It might seem odd to “celebrate” those accomplishments, because the work we do often has its genesis in the problems and challenges that communities and organizations face. The happiness of celebration will arrive if and when we no longer confront those issues. In the meanwhile, we share with you, our colleagues and supporters, the passion to make life better for people everywhere.

In that spirit, I hope you find peace and fulfillment as this year concludes, and I wish you the best for the New Year.

Friday, November 10, 2017

100 Years of Research: Celebration Edition

More than 200 people joined us for the Wilder Research Centennial Celebration on October 25. Many others sent their good wishes. We had the opportunity to celebrate a long tradition of high-quality research intended to benefit the community.

All in attendance had the occasion to understand historical details about the origins of research at Wilder – a novel idea at its establishment in 1917. Through exhibits and a brief program, everyone learned about our current work, involving 90 staff in hundreds of projects conducted with and for nonprofit organizations, community groups, government agencies, and others, in this area and in other parts of this country and the world.

Sondra Samuels, a valued partner, inspired birthday celebrants with her description of the groundbreaking ways that the Northside Achievement Zone has addressed education needs. She highlighted the collaborative efforts between Wilder Research and NAZ, which began even before NAZ’s “Promise Neighborhood” designation. Kari Benson, another valued partner, illustrated how the Minnesota Department of Human Services leverages the work of Wilder Research, for the benefit of all people in the state, especially those who need extra help in their daily lives.

The formal remarks, the conversation, and the historical exhibits that evening exemplified the significant attributes of Wilder Research that have contributed to our ability to do as much good in the world as we possibly can:
  • Our emphasis on high-quality research – State-of-the-art methods, plus highly qualified staff, have resulted in a vital 100 years.
  • Our collaborative approach – For a century, our best work has involved partnerships.
  • Our nonprofit status – We know nonprofits from a century of working with them, and because we are a nonprofit ourselves.
  • Our nonpartisan commitment – No preconceived points of view; just a commitment to facts for social improvement.

 So, thank you, thank you. We look forward to the next century!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

100 Years of Caring

We care. That statement, purely and simply, provides the rationale for every piece of work completed by Wilder Research from 1917 to 2017.

Because we care, we do nonpartisan, high quality research – focused on significant social issues and intended to move communities and organizations forward, to foster a high quality of life for all. We inform, assist, and build tools others can use. We also at times correct misperceptions and remake traditional patterns of thinking, based on new discoveries from our research.

In 1917, Wilder Research issued its first research report – motivated by the fact that many residents of Saint Paul lived in substandard housing. That study created positive change for the city’s residents. It led to the establishment of health and housing ordinances which served as models for other cities around the nation.

In that first report, you see threads that have persisted for a century: use of state-of-the-art research methods, pursuit of highly relevant issues, impacts on the ways community leaders and public officials develop programs and shape policy. You also see how we have multiplied our influence through demonstration – creating effects on policy and improving health not just locally, but around the U.S.

So, what has changed?

Nowadays, Wilder Research has about 90 staff who participate in more than 200 projects each year. That’s up from just a handful of staff, completing 2 or 3 projects annually, 100 years ago.

The interest during the early days to uncover social problems, raise community awareness, and influence public opinion and public policy expanded in the 1940s to include a focus on improving the management of health and human services. Wilder Research studied the activities of public and private agencies and mapped service usage in order to compare usage to community needs. We conducted our first program evaluation studies and at least one “return-on-investment” study (a major innovation for that time). We sometimes worked in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, the State of Minnesota, and county government as well.

An appetite to know what works

In the second half of the 20th century – post World War II society in the U.S. – thought leadership exploded and moved in many directions, from poverty (e.g., “The Other America”), to the environment (e.g., “Silent Spring”), to city planning (e.g., “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”), to civil rights. Martin Luther King inspired a major social movement, leading to innovative legislation intended to bring about equality – a difficult and elusive, but nonetheless necessary, dream. The “War on Poverty” commenced with a wide expansion of social programs.

All of this increased the appetite of policy makers, program developers, funders, and the public to understand “what works.” Local communities, states, and the federal government needed more research to test programming and choose among the variety of alternatives the best options that existing resources could support. So, new opportunities for Wilder Research!

Expanding our capacity

By the 1970s, computers entered the picture. Wilder Research built computerized client record systems for both the Wilder Foundation and other service-delivery organizations. These systems offered new prospects for program staff to understand their client populations, the services delivered to those populations, and the effectiveness of those services. We at Wilder Research increased our capacity to do increasingly rigorous studies of service effectiveness.

During the 1970s and 80s, we expanded our community assessment activities. For example, we drew representative samples of households and walked door to door to conduct in-person interviews for a study of the elderly, a study of young adults, and a study of children. We completed ground-breaking research that used death records to draw a sample of terminally ill patients in order to understand the need for hospice care services that could benefit both the terminally ill and their family members.

During the 80s and 90s, our consultation work expanded in volume. We upgraded our efforts to publish important books to assist the human services field. The first edition of Collaboration:What Makes It Work sold copies worldwide, meeting a need for tools to assist organizations to work jointly to solve complex, modern-day social problems. The third, revised edition will be published in early 2018.

Around the turn of the century, we added two important dimensions to our work. First, we developed the first version of www.wilderresearch.org. Having a website opened new pathways for doing research and for sharing our products for the benefit of all in a very cost-effective manner. Second, we started to build our skill to engage more collaboratively with communities and grassroots organizations. Although we had previously done studies of communities, we did not really do studies with communities.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw an increase in our work with organizations serving cultural communities and immigrants. Our Speaking for Themselves study examined needs of new arrivals in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. We designed it in collaboration with the immigrant groups themselves, and 15 years later, we did a similar study with the newest arriving groups at that time.

Since 2000, many activities have proliferated within Wilder Research. Consultation and evaluation work has increased. We have expanded our book and report publishing. Other research organizations around the country and the world have borrowed methods we pioneered for studying homelessness, immigration, collaboration, and early childhood. Minnesota Compass has received formal recognition as a model for assisting communities to monitor and improve their quality of life. We do more culturally specific research, in more languages, than we ever did during the 20th century.

But something has remained constant: The fact that we care.

Because we care, we do not consider numbers, data, or reports as our results. Rather, for our work, we see the results as the lives that have changed because we did our work. For us, research results are, for example:

  • Children with a better start in life because of studies we completed.
  • Older people who live in supportive settings, attuned to their needs, because of studies we completed.
  • Communities who have experienced trauma or inequities and who can take a positive step forward because of our collaboration with them.
  • Agencies addressing the toughest social issues more effectively because of research we did for them.
  • And many more people, communities, and organizations who do better because of our efforts with them and for them.

Looking ahead

I invite you to join us, in whatever ways best suit you, as we move into our second century of improving the lives of individuals, families, and communities through research. Please feel free to get in touch – my email is paul.mattessich@wilder.org – if you have thoughts about where Wilder Research should head during its second century. What should we focus on? Where can we make the biggest difference?

We celebrate our birthday on Wednesday, the 25th of October, 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. at Wilder Center in Saint Paul. Hope you can join us for some socializing, maybe a little bit of singing!

All the best!

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Vacation (Thinking while Relaxing)

In early August, I spent a week away from work (mostly) – a “staycation,” in town. Grandchildren from east and west coasts traveled here to join their cousins who live in Minnesota. So, I engaged in a week of grandchild-oriented activities and behaved very grand-parentally.

Nevertheless, beachwear, a concert audience of fanatical youngsters, and high noise levels in many venues set me to thinking about social phenomena.

First, some highlights – especially from the grandchildren’s perspective:
  • Saint Paul’s Como Pool, where they spent about 6 hours one day, 4 hours on another. This newly renovated swimming complex has an extremely friendly design for young people ages 1 through 9. They considered it aqua-heaven.
  • Science Museum of Minnesota, including the Omnitheater show, “Journey to the South Pacific.” This venue very well serves a grandparent seeking a source of education and entertainment for young ones with varied interests and at varied developmental stages.
  • An Okee Dokee Brothers concert, free in the Walker Sculpture Garden. This was the second time that I experienced the Brothers (plus a couple of Sisters) live in concert. However, I don’t think that qualifies me as a groupie, since I did not venture into the mosh pit.
  • As a prelude to the concert, I shepherded, by myself, three grandchildren (ages 1, 5, and 9) on a journey on the A Line, the Green Line, and the number 6 bus to reach the Walker. That commute, in and of itself, provided another highlight for the young ones.

Observations made during these experiences led to three tentative propositions which we could subject to further research.

Tattoos manifest themselves more readily at the swimming pool than in the workplace.

The pool users did not represent a random sample of the population, but my observational survey led me to wonder: How many people have tattoos?

One study, more than 10 years old, reported by the American Academy of Dermatology, estimated that about one-fourth of men and women 18 to 50 years old, have tattoos. A Harris poll in 2015 estimated that almost 3 of 10 adults have tattoos. Harris data suggested some generational differences (e.g., 47% of Millennials vs. only 13% of Boomers).

A Pew Research study in 2010 found that about three-fourths of the people with tattoos say that those tattoos are usually hidden from view – evidence that supports my proposition.

I also wondered if people ever regret their permanent bodily inscription(s). Harris discovered that 23 percent of the tattooed have regrets at least sometimes. Among the most common reasons for wishing that they did not have their current tattoo: their personality had changed and/or their partner had changed. (I suppose that an intended pleasant day at the beach with Steve has a different tone when body parts not covered by one’s bathing suit prominently reveal an allegiance to George.)

As an aside, one young woman’s tattoo read: “Je vois la vie en rose.” I told her that those words set Edith Piaf songs going through my head. She said, yes, it does have that effect on some people.

Separating signal from noise becomes more difficult in the presence of 300 or more children under age 12.

The utterance, “Grandpa,” occurred many times per hour at the pool, where moms and grandparents constituted most of the adults in attendance. (What to conclude about the lesser-than-might-be-anticipated number of dads, could serve as another research topic, I suppose.)

More often than not, the adults seemed attuned to their own children. I wondered: Do parents and grandparents recognize their own children’s calls and cries, amidst the calling, crying, and other noisemaking of a large number of other children?

Based on a quick scan of the all-knowing web, it appears that, at least since the 1980s, psychobiological research has demonstrated that parents do recognize their own children’s cries. Decades ago, the data seemed to suggest that mothers, more often than fathers, recognized the sound of their own children – reflecting, in some people’s minds, “maternal instinct.” Recent research, though, indicates that fathers have begun to catch up, perhaps because more fathers now share childrearing duties and more intensively interact with their children, right from infancy. I think that this topic requires more solid research before I would draw any conclusions.

Children, finding themselves in a new space with other children they don’t know, manifest social norms of behavior, without adult intervention.

Whether dancing in the Okee Dokee mosh pit, cavorting in one of the water-fun areas, or exploring an exhibit at the Science Museum, most young children seem to know how to behave. They respected each other’s space, helped and guided one another (especially if older), and acted in a friendly manner. Sure, the occasional young scamp required a warning from a parent or a lifeguard, for example. However, by and large, social processes – and tons of fun – occurred very smoothly.

So, I wondered: Do children have an innate sense of how to behave in social situations? Do they learn rules at home or at school, which they apply to new situations? Do they model parental behavior? Child developmental psychologists might readily know the answers; the questions, though, challenged me.

Four years ago, in a Scientific American article, a Yale University Psychology professor asserted that people do not learn morality; they possess it at birth. The evidence points, he concluded, to the fact that morality has a human genetic component, with the result that infants have empathy, compassion, and a beginning sense of fairness, from day 1.

So, perhaps that innate sense translates into good behavior in social groups? Maybe what happens in families and schools does not so much “teach” norms of social behavior as it does offer tools to children to implement what they already “know”?

In Conclusion

Just a little bit of internet research can take great strides toward responding to substantial questions which, if one does not protect oneself from weighty thoughts, can emerge from observations of adults and children in pools, concerts, museums, public transportation, and other places.