Sunday, March 05, 2017

Do Facts Matter?

Do facts matter? That question – common during recent months – reflects the pessimism and skepticism of many people in the U.S. who wonder if our leaders care about objective information. Why the troubled mood?

Consider the following:
  • Oxford Dictionary selected “post-truth” as their word of the year. In the opinion of the editors, the word (though not new) captures the “ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the year.
  • Since Inauguration Day, squabbles have abounded between our current president and others regarding “factual” statements – e.g., the number of people who attended the inauguration, or the extent of illegal votes cast in the last election.
  • Neither our current president nor his predecessor rate 100% with respect to veracity. Politifact, a nonpartisan assessor of the truthfulness of statements made by politicians, found both Trump and Obama to make many statements deemed “mostly false” or “false.”
  • Social media is a first, and sometimes only, source of news for many people whose “filter bubbles” have great power to sway thinking through circulation of “information” with little or no grounding in context, and no exposure to challenging questions or counter-opinions. By the time fact checking, even retraction, occurs, the damage cannot be undone.
So, to paraphrase the rock band, Chicago, does anybody really know the truth anymore? Does anybody really care? The answer, of course, strikes at the fundamental raison d’»átre of an organization such as Wilder Research.

Amidst all the expressed questions and concerns, I would contend that facts have never had more importance. Moreover, the role of Wilder Research has never been more essential for enabling our communities to maintain and improve their quality of life.

Public officials, other community leaders, and the public at large need a reliable, nonpartisan resource that enables them to apply the best possible knowledge to their decisions, to use data effectively, to learn from experience, and to continually grow in their ability to govern wisely. We prize the strategy we pursue – seeking to provide compelling rationales and evidence for public decision making that benefits everyone.

Knowledge empowers. We hope to empower individuals and communities by making information freely available, through the many reports we distribute at no charge on our website, or through Minnesota Compass for example. No special training is required for someone to obtain information to support themselves in democratic participation and decision making.

No single person or entity owns the “truth.” The truth emerges and evolves through the collective efforts of people with disparate vantage points – we strive to discover it, we approach it, we never fully know it. The best researchers never cease the search. They continually challenge the beliefs which they themselves and others hold, in order to increase understanding of social issues, human biology and health, the environment, or whatever their focus of study. We move forward with determination – hoping that we know more now than we did previously, and recognizing that we know less now than we will know in the future.

We do our work objectively, creatively, beholden to no vested interest, political group or ideology, save our commitment and passion for improving human well-being. Partnering with others enables us to collectively improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities, locally and throughout the world. In that effort, facts very much matter, and we have no plans to discontinue illuminating them.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Words of Inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this Martin Luther King Day 2017, I pause and reflect on some of Dr. King’s words that have inspired and motivated me, during the past four decades, to do the work that I do to improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities, locally, nationally, and internationally.

“In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Those words provide a rationale for action. The inability of any one person in our society to achieve good health and prosperity detracts from the health and well-being of all. The words also exhort us to recognize that progress on social issues requires changes in the habits, customs, systems, and activities of all of us, with the ultimate consequence of a better life for everyone.

“There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” Research creates nonviolent tension, shattering myths and supplanting old paradigms and ways of thought with new understanding. The prominent publication of “creative analysis and objective appraisal” of information on the condition of our community’s residents – in some cases revealing disparities – constitutes a “nonviolent gadfly”. This underlies the nonpartisan, but strongly values-based, approach of Wilder Research to promote societal improvement.

“Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” 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.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” It sometimes seems that spins, half-truths, and false news dominate public discourse; in that context, credible, reliable, nonpartisan, objective resources, such as Wilder Research and other independent research organizations, seem more important than ever.

“For social scientists, the opportunity to serve in a life-giving purpose is a humanist challenge of rare distinction.” This statement, to the American Psychological Association, identifies the noble intent of the social sciences.

"The time is always right to do what is right," Dr. King said in a speech to Oberlin students in the early 1960s – a time when major riots took place across the U.S., civil rights workers were murdered or harassed, people lawfully exercising their rights to free speech faced persecution and prosecution. Good people have tried to do what’s right at that time, our present time, and the time in between. Our duty at Wilder Research persists to join them, playing our distinctive role to shine light, helping to illuminate a better path for all, in a collaborative “search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.”

I hope that you have some time today to reflect on Dr. King's inspiration in your life.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Transforming, Making Connections, Improving Lives

Why does A Christmas Carol prompt me to cry? I know the story; I’ve seen it many times, in various formats. So, as I sat at the Guthrie Theater a few weeks ago, I asked myself: Why do tears drip down my face?

Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly misanthrope at the beginning of the play, receives in a dream insight from his departed business partner and three spirits, with the result that he sees the world through a different lens. He transforms himself. He realizes the good that existed right before his eyes, in plain sight, to which he had blinded himself.

Perhaps it’s the wonder of witnessing transformation, coupled with hope that such transformation can last forever. Doesn’t such optimism, even in the face of great challenge, establish a basis for what we do at Wilder Research and at other community-serving organizations as we endeavor to improve our communities?

Scrooge enquires of the spirit who foretells the future: “Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?” The ensuing plot provides a message of hope: Individuals can change; by implication, social systems can change. But such change requires deliberate and concerted effort. Charles Dickens’ allegorical appeal for justice for all applies as much today as it did in 1842.

Simple actions – an attitude change, a charitable act, a social greeting that leads to a new relationship – can be powerful and transformative.

A few days ago, I spoke with a white police officer as he escorted a group of African-American young people around the Science Museum in Saint Paul. He said he likes to do this for two reasons. First, it gives these young people a worthwhile learning opportunity outside of school. Second, he wants to promote connections between young people and the police – connections which can develop deeply and solidly only if the two groups mix with each other in informal, social settings. He feels that black lives do matter, and to that end, he strives to build relationships.

Creating a better quality of life for all requires one-to-one interaction – parents nurturing children, neighbors supporting neighbors, public officials experiencing the life conditions of their constituents; it also requires collective action – our communities’ leaders, residents, organizations from all sectors joining in pursuit of a common vision, mindful of our shared humanity and common destiny. Dickens emphatically reinforces the necessity to see one another as fellow travelers on planet earth.

So, as we conclude the end-of-year holiday season, celebrate the new year, and move into 2017, my advice: Make a New Year’s resolution to reach out – both to those you know and to those you want to know or ought to know. Forge the one-on-one connections and the organizational connections necessary to build strong communities. If Scrooge could make the leap, we all can.

Happy New Year!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Immigration, Communities, Foundations

All communities experience immigration. No question whether it will occur, just when and how much. Some of us arrived as immigrants ourselves to a new nation; the rest of us descended from ancestors who came from somewhere else, to settle in a land still pristine or already inhabited.

Political events, economics, wars, environmental changes, and other events cause people to move, voluntarily and involuntarily. Worldwide trends suggest that immigration will continue on a major scale, with implications for nations and for their constituent regions and communities. Since 1990, the immigrant population in the United States has doubled; in Minnesota during that same period, the immigrant population quadrupled.

Speaking for Ourselves study

Using newly gathered information from the Wilder Research “Speaking for Ourselves” study, in combination with data from Minnesota Compass, Nicole MartinRogers, Ryan Evans, and I contributed an article to The FoundationReview to offer foundations around the world a bit of insight in deciding how best to partner with immigrant-led and immigrant-serving organizations. We sought to identify some of the benefits and the challenges that immigration brings to communities.

This research can help support foundations and their grantees to understand how to improve a community’s quality of life for immigrants and refugees – to the benefit of all residents. By understanding demographic trends and cultural nuances, organizations can increase awareness, access, and trust among immigrants and refugees, and can influence public policy.

“Speaking for Ourselves” is a community-based effort that looked at the experiences of Hmong, Karen, Latino, Liberian, and Somali immigrants and refugees living in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. We collaborated with an advisory group for the study, comprised of individuals from these five cultural communities as well as professionals in organizations of many types that serve immigrants and refugees.

The results of the research suggest focal points for foundation grantmaking, for example: support for secondary refugees; early childhood education; postsecondary education and employment training; long-term care planning; and capacity building.

Tips for foundations working with immigrant populations

But perhaps more importantly, the research suggests attributes of an effective style for foundations to work with immigrant populations. We made three recommendations in this regard.

First, foundations, along with any other organizations intending to provide resources to immigrant communities, should take a balanced approach. They should consider needs as well as strengths. Funders should determine whether an immigrant community itself considers something a need, and if so, they should explore together whether that community’s cultural assets and other resilience factors might constitute part of an optimal solution in the eyes of both the funders and the community.

Second, funders should work with immigrant communities in an authentically collaborative manner – ensuring that the presumed beneficiaries of an initiative actually participate in defining the benefits. We encourage a judicious start to any new initiative within a cultural community, with full appreciation of the time and resources necessary to cultivate community engagement and collaboration. Flexibility, willingness to revise plans and start over, and openness to working jointly constitute characteristics of successful efforts.

Third, funders should beware of providing funding to organizations unless those organizations have made a special effort to understand and respond to the specific needs and preferences of the cultural communities they seek to serve. Funders should insist that potential grantees enlist the participation of cultural communities in the design of proposed programs, including collaboration in the adaptation of existing program models to fit a new context. Attempts to adapt an existing program to fit different cultural communities should consider language (oral, written, both formal and casual), values, customs, and the suitability of the program’s goals and methods, along with other features that affect the transferability of the program from one culture to another.

Some insights useful for all of us who want to strengthen our communities, regardless of whether or not we do grantmaking.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Clown vs. The Liar

That’s how my almost 90-year-old mother characterized her 2016 Presidential voting options. After attaining voting age in 1948, she cast her first vote for Harry S. Truman. Knowing that she might not live until the 2020 election, she laments this year’s choices, feeling that she really does not have a choice.

Her words came to mind as I read statements recently by two African-American women of the millennial generation, one who described her decision about the major party candidates for President as the process of choosing between a racist and a liar, and the other who described the prospect of casting a vote in the upcoming election as the choice between “being stabbed and being shot.”

Those comments, from an old white woman and two young black women, illustrate the cynicism and frustration of voters. Surveys reveal that close to two-thirds of potential voters do not “trust” either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, disenchantment among Americans about their government runs deep. A 2015 analysis of surveys of the United States public by the Pew Research Center showed that, “Currently, just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. Only 20% would describe government programs as being well-run.”

Three ways to build

We owe it to ourselves and future generations to enable voters to feel that they have many good choices, and that they have sound information and understanding to make the best choice. To that end, three types of “building” seem worthwhile.

Build processes to inform the electorate. Provide individuals with the information and tools they need to make informed decisions. While the news media might like to focus on attention-grabbing topics such as Donald’s obsession with President Obama’s nativity, or Hillary’s characterization of her opponent’s supporters as “deplorables,” other issues of much more significance deserve intense consideration: child care; education; poverty; public safety; and the list goes on.

Voters deserve objective, understandable information on such issues. At Wilder Research we strive to provide this, by documenting and interpreting community trends through Minnesota Compass, for example, and by conducting research to shed light on which programs and policies actually work to improve the quality of life.

Build multi-partisan collaboration. Political parties serve a valuable purpose. However, if allegiance to a party (or to oneself) becomes overly rigid, partisanship becomes counterproductive. As one researcher who studies political polarization noted, problems arise not when political parties disagree, but when the disagreement devolves into “partisan warfare” in which “combatants question the motives, integrity, and patriotism of their opponents.” Unfortunately, we see a lot of that today – from both of the major parties.

We need leaders, from local to national levels, who have a commitment to fixing problems and to working with partners of all political persuasions, not just their own, to move our communities forward. At Wilder Research, we attempt to foster such collaboration by engaging people with varied perspectives in the design of our major initiatives. In that way, we build ownership across political lines to nurture jointly-crafted understanding and problem solving on significant community issues.

Build good leaders in all parties. Integrity and competence do not have just one party label. Regardless of our own political leanings, we should champion the development of skills among candidates in all parties and thus create a body of legislators who will engage in robust consideration of issues, just the way that the creators of our democracy intended, and then make decisions and move forward in a positive spirit of compromise. Many such elected public officials now sit in our executive and legislative branches; we need more of them.