Monday, September 08, 2014

We can't shape effective community action in a vacuum

Police have a racist predisposition to shoot black males – true or false? Do we have any evidence to know the extent to which this statement has validity? Sadly enough, we do not, contends Michael Wines, whose recent column in the New York Times noted that statistics which could support or refute the contention that police shootings unfairly target blacks “do not exist. And because of that, the current national debate over the role of race in police killings is being conducted more or less in a vacuum.”

While not a criminologist, I did attempt to search for data on the prevalence of shootings, including homicides, by police in the United States. Academic and government statistics provide little insight. More than 20 years ago, the federal Office of Justice Programs noted the absence of data on police use of deadly force and called for a national reporting system. Such a system never evolved; sound data about shootings by the police does not seem to exist.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported, as did Wines, on one of the few credible studies of the topic. Interestingly, in Wines’ view, the St. Louis study revealed something counterintuitive: that black police officers shared participation, in proportion to their numbers in the department, in the homicides of black male suspects. Nothing to change the assumption that racism plays a role, but the study results suggest that simple-minded thinking about black and white might not sufficiently address a serious social problem, which Wines labels “the plague of shootings of black men by white police officers.”

Please note that I do not offer an opinion about the Ferguson situation. The shooting of an unarmed teenager seems immoral; no conclusive evidence has yet emerged to justify the use of lethal force and the death of Michael Brown. We will see what develops.

However, the attempt to discuss, understand, and address that shooting in Ferguson raises a larger concern: the need to shape our thinking and make decisions about social issues and social programs based on sound information, rather than acting in a vacuum where myths and inaccuracies can all too easily lead us down the wrong path.

That’s why, at Wilder Research, we engage in work that can drive thinking, resources, and policies in the most productive and humane direction. For example:

  • That’s why we work in the field of education, partnering with others in Generation Next and the Promise Neighborhoods, for example, to identify empirically what our children throughout the community need and what works and doesn't work for improving their academic success. Progress requires initially building upon what we know with confidence, then exploring different approaches, experimenting to see what works, and continuing to build on our successes.

  • That’s why we partnered with several foundations and the State of Minnesota to determine the value of supportive housing. Anecdotes had previously implied how it worked; but with a systematic study, we could illuminate the strengths and limitations of supportive housing. We could provide guidance and a baseline for improvement.

  • That’s why we partnered with the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging to study informal caregivers in the Twin Cities (family members, friends, neighbors who care for aging people) and learn the ways in which those caregivers might be better served through available resources.

A new and exciting study for the state of Minnesota will examine long-term supports and services for older adults, people with disabilities, adults with long-term mental health needs, and children with long-term mental health needs in all 87 counties of the state, in order to identify gaps that need remedying. Policymakers will have the opportunity to allocate resources best aligned with needs.

Our communities need information, insight, and wisdom – of practical significance, to make the best possible choices (even if sometimes difficult and wrenching) about how to shape policies and allocate resources. But also at a higher level, we need sound understanding, based in facts rather than myths, prejudices, and stereotypes, to live out our values and achieve our aspirations for an optimal and equitable quality of life for all people.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Prairie Home Companion, Wilder Research

Prairie Home Companion recently celebrated its 40th Anniversary with special events and a national broadcast at Macalester College. The program has grown successfully since its first broadcast which included an audience of very few people four decades ago. I did not have tickets for the two evenings of performances, but I sat just outside the fence, with a decent view of the stage and the ability to hear all that occurred.

I wondered: What ingredients make for the success of a program (radio or other), or for the success of an initiative, or for the success of any organization, for-profit, government, or nonprofit? What lessons might Prairie Home Companion have for Wilder Research? How could those lessons help us in our continuous effort to improve and increase our impact on the community? What parallels exist between the development of this radio program and the development of Wilder Research which grew from just a couple of staff , at about the same time that Garrison Keillor brought Prairie Home Companion to the airwaves 40 years ago, to the almost 100 staff that we have today?

For the radio program, several ingredients seem immediately evident:

Creativity. Garrison Keillor, his producers, writers, and others have continually looked for new ways to entertain and to meet the needs of their audience.

Commitment to a mission. The regular and guest performers sought to entertain, but, also to educate and enlighten.
Persistence. Not everything worked the first time; listenership did not blossom immediately; sometimes the performance venues had many empty seats. Nonetheless, the show carried on over the years to build a following.

Quality. All who play a role in the production strive to create the best performances, again and again.

Team work. The show depends on many. Some have greater visibility, but, especially in viewing a production live, you realize the large number of people required behind the scenes who run the show and deliver it to the radio network for worldwide listening.

Old-time religion. Values that Garrison grew up with come through in everything from the songs that are sung to the Lake Wobegon monologues.

Do I see these qualities in Wilder Research? We begin our business year every July 1st. We always want to do a little better each year than the year before, as we try to evolve to meet community needs. Looking forward on “New Year’s Day” this July, I asked myself how we should search for new ways of carrying out our work and how we should strive to improve.

If you like, please let us know how we can best improve to better meet the needs of your organization and the communities you serve. The ingredients for success, listed above, might prompt some thoughts; you might have other ingredients to mention.

Creatively, we hope to bring our many products and services to the next level – to name a few, our program evaluation work, community indicators (e.g., through Compass), return-on-investment studies, and new ways of gathering information through phone and web surveys, focus groups, and other means that we have developed in the past but want to improve. Our Speaking for Ourselves study, which involved a variety of cultural groups in innovative ways, will give new insight that should stimulate creativity. We will release the results of that study during the coming months.

Commitment to mission and persistence in our work have oriented and motivated us over the years. We strive to meet the needs of individuals, families, and communities through research and we look forward to hearing how to better do that during the coming year.

Quality constitutes a strong value. While never perfect, we seek to do the best; we welcome suggestions as to how we can do even better.

Team work. Just as in radio, many people comprise an effective research organization. Some of those people you see (at least their names; some you don’t. All do their part – designing research, collecting data, analyzing data, doing word processing and graphics production, maintaining our library and connections to sources of information, and creating our communications. That team is essential to our Wilder Research impact.

Old-time religion. Wilder Research staff bring strong values to their work. Whether from religious roots, secular humanism, or the many other sources of inspiration that people have, staff at Wilder Research choose to work in an environment where they can apply their professional skills in a way that helps others.

Wishing you the best in your work as you apply your values and talents to your mission of improving the quality of life of our communities!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

War on Poverty - Winning economically and morally

Has the War on Poverty succeeded or failed? January of 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “declaration of war” against poverty. As Johnson put it, "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it." During the first half of this year, some columnists and pundits have questioned whether we have won this war or lost it.

Arguments contending the war has failed: 
  • When the War on Poverty began, the national poverty rate stood at 19%. It now stands at about 15%. A four percentage point decline does not constitute “victory.”
  • Many Americans, both those living below the poverty line, plus some who live above the line, report difficulty affording necessities such as housing and food. (See, for example the Minnesota Compass housing burden trends.) 
Arguments contending the war has succeeded: 
  • Many people in this country have supports that did not exist before the war. Medicare and Medicaid, for example, have provided a safety net. Conditions have significantly improved for older people, who had great risk of living in poverty prior to the 1960s.
  • “Apples to apples” analysis of poverty over time, with a good methodology, reveals that many more people would have lived in poverty over the past 50 years if we had not taken the steps we did with the war. 
The seeming intractability of the official poverty rate does trouble me. Maybe as someone who has worked for social justice since the 1960s, in various volunteer capacities from the neighborhood to the international level, I don’t want to admit failure.  However, I tend to subscribe to the latter arguments, concluding that deeper analysis (such as that done at the Columbia Population Research Center) reveals some economic success as a result of the health, nutrition, and preschool programs developed as part of the war. Some segments of our society, older people and children for example, would fare much worse without the programs we have established.

A new foe in the war, some suggest, is that economic growth does not lead to poverty reduction, as it once did. Because of rising income inequality, the poor do not experience financial gains from economic growth the way that they did for much of the 20th century.

Although we must pay attention to the numbers, I don’t think we lose the war when we see a trend go in an un-hoped-for direction. I think we lose the war if and when we ever give up.

Our effort in and of itself constitutes a partial victory – the effort we expend to make sure that all children receive a good education and graduate from high school ready for college and career – the effort we expend locally, nationally, and internationally to close gaps that have the potential to reduce everyone’s quality of life and threaten our democratic institutions – the effort we expend to enhance the quality of life of every one of our community residents, from richest to poorest, as we tackle the social, economic, and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

We might not see the bad numbers soon drop to zero, but working together to push them as close to null as possible – translating our efforts into tangible economic results for low-income people – that brings us together as a community and enables us to win this war. Economically, we win by increasing economic opportunities that provide real gains for people at every step of the income ladder. Morally, we win by joining together in the fight.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Wilder Research Staff Sharing Globally, Acting Locally

How do youth development and education issues in other countries resemble those of our own? Have our international peers developed programs or strategies that we ought to consider here?

Richard Chase and I traveled in different directions out of the U.S. last month, to learn, share, reflect, and return to Saint Paul with information that might have value for promoting healthy youth development.

Rick, a senior research manager at Wilder Research, jetted westward with Betty Emarita, an ideation and strategic change consultant, to the Global Summit on Childhood, in Vancouver, Canada.  Their presentation – Promoting and measuring family and community engagement for healthy early childhood development – was part of a roundtable discussion with other presenters under the heading Family, Home, and Indigenous Knowledge.

Rick and Betty have developed two tools – an Early Childhood Assessment; and an Early Childhood Program Quality Rating – that blend family and community knowledge systems (indigenous knowledge) into measures of child development and program quality. When used together, these tools can promote and measure family and community engagement that goes deeper than language and logistics and is based upon valuing and respecting family and community wisdom and including families as an integral part of program design and decisions.  They informed the audience as to how the use of the assessment and the quality rating and the information from those tools empower immigrant and rural communities and communities of color that often feel that mainstream institutions and programs do not support or reflect their own knowledge, experience, and values. If interested, take a look at an overview of their work.

During the Summit, Rick learned about how central governments in developing African, Asian, and Latin American countries, with the support of UNESCO, are investing in early childhood education as a key economic development and nation-building strategy. Invariably, early education programs begin with curriculum and methods based on western standards of quality but then experience push-back from local and indigenous communities who find those standards biased, and even harmful, as they struggle to preserve their traditional, holistic practices under the pressures of globalization. Rick also learned that the use of these tools resonated with researchers and educators working in developing countries to produce culturally supportive early education experiences. 

I jetted eastward to Dublin, Ireland, to present at a conference on What’s Working for Young People, and then to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for meetings and to do a presentation at Stormont, the Parliament building.

Northern Ireland, while past “The Troubles” in some respects, still retains a significant legacy of conflict. I’ve been working on research and development of a project called WIMPS (Where Is My Public Servant). This project attempts to change young people’s political knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors within a culture which is deeply segregated (in housing, education, etc.), which runs on a tribal form of party politics, and where young people too often must choose between allegiance to paramilitary groups and participation in civil, democratic forms of community decision-making.

WIMPS involves young people in educational and experiential activities, to increase their understanding of politics and to develop their skills in media production. They put what they learn to use in “campaigns” intended to change public knowledge, attitudes, and government policies. For example, during the past few years, WIMPS participants engaged in successful campaigns to end paramilitary beatings and shootings known as “punishment attacks;” they successfully persuaded the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate voting at age 16; they campaigned for suicide prevention in schools and for better rural transportation services.

Evidence shows that the program significantly increases the knowledge and skills of young people, promotes the development of “social capital,” and increases young people’s interaction with public officials at all levels. It was worthwhile to talk with an international audience about our findings to date and to hear their suggestions for program improvement and additional research.

While at the conference, I also had the opportunity to learn from international colleagues about “what’s working for young people.” Much of the research pointed to programs which can influence features of children’s environments that Ann Masten placed on her “short list of resilience factors,” things like caring parents and other adults, prosocial peers, effective teachers, and safe communities. The culture and activities within some communities create these features naturally. Other communities need help, which various programs/interventions in a number of countries have provided. Similarities across national boundaries – both negative, such as issues related to inequality, achievement gaps, etc., and positive, such as a focus on outcomes and improved understanding of what can promote healthy youth development – stood out more than the differences among people living within different borders.

International conversation with colleagues who pursue similar aims always offers insights and encourages thinking outside of the box. We returned intellectually enriched, ready to share knowledge and engage in community-building efforts here, and of course, appreciating that there’s no place like home.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tackling the Gap with Generation Next

“The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten. School neither increases nor reduces it.” That’s what Nobel Prize winner James Heckman opined after reviewing the results of a study which tested the cognitive abilities of a group of several hundred children from age 3 until they reached age 18.

He spoke from just one study of a limited group of young people, to corroborate what we all know from other research of other children conducted over many years. Children’s environments strongly influence academic success. Those environments propel young people in certain directions. Nourishment and nurturing, from the earliest years, even prenatally, have lasting effects – for good and for bad.

Heckman might sound a bit too pessimistic about the ability of schools to make a difference for kids. But all of us do know that families, communities, and schools jointly influence our children’s environments. Consequently, all of these important institutions must play roles if we want to eliminate gaps in educational achievement and promote the greatest development of talents for all young people. No one of them can do it alone.

That’s why we at Wilder Research value the opportunity to collaborate with Generation Next.

Generation Next takes a holistic approach. It pays attention to young people from cradle to career. It seeks to mobilize all who need to be involved in promoting academic success for all of our children. Generation Next seeks to identify the causes of both the bad and the good.

That is, by examining the indicators, doing research, and assembling networks of organizations who have expertise, Generation Next will first figure out what needs or issues exist that might be restricting the ability of young people to succeed. (R.T. Rybak likens that process to CSI.) However, this initiative doesn’t want to focus only on the empty part of the glass; Generation Next wants to understand the full part as well: What produces success, especially for kids whose environments have created many challenges. What about the kids who do well despite adversity? What about the schools who transform kids who begin their education several steps behind others?

Generation Next wants to build consensus around whatever we need to do to ensure we have the best educated young people that we possibly can.

We are happy to support this effort by assisting Generation Next to keep everyone informed about community trends and to equip everyone with knowledge that increases their effectiveness. It’s not just a select few who need to work on increasing academic success. As R.T. Rybak put it:

“This whole community will rise or fall on our ability to solve this problem that has stood for too long, so this whole community needs to help us find the right actions that can close our gaps.”