Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Je Suis Charlie


Democracy, whatever its imperfections, provides a relatively hospitable environment for research.

The events at the beginning of this year in France bring me to recommit to research which benefits all human beings – all races, age groups, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions. Extremists in their many forms – Muslim radical jihadists, Christian radical fundamentalists, hyper-politically correct liberals, and obdurately reactionary conservatives, for example – frequently dislike, even condemn, research. Totalitarian regimes suppress free-thinkers, journalists, artists, researchers and anyone else who seeks to promote transparency, see through diverse lenses, or challenge the status quo.

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.

The murderers in France represent visible threats to the advancement of knowledge and understanding. As researchers, we frequently confront less visible, but perhaps even more pernicious and insidious, threats. Vested interests sometimes promote biased research, or suppress or vilify valid research. Certain nonprofit programs and professionals committed to one variety of treatment or service resist study of their activity to prevent discovery that such activity does not work; some political activists and advocates consider research a potential threat to their ideologies and/or their power over their constituencies.

At Wilder Research, we collaborate actively with many individuals and organizations who seek to gain knowledge and understanding with the goal of greater positive impact on society. The majority of you fall into this camp. You constitute the "reasonable middle", not an extreme fringe; you hold varied points of view, and may disagree with one another and with us regarding what research findings mean, but you have a willingness to respect different viewpoints and to find common ground. You take risks; you learn by trial and error; you have no hesitation to try something new, fail, and then try something else. You promote the use of research, the transparency of information, and the discussion of facts as we know them. Partnership with you enables us to collectively improve the lives of individuals, families, and communities, locally and throughout the world.

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.

So, how can you expect Wilder Research to push the envelope, promote transparency, create new understanding, and collaborate with you in diverse communities, nonprofit programs, government agencies, and foundations in 2015?

We plan to continue to promote health – a human right – within our communities. We hope that our efforts – research on the effectiveness of systems of care, evaluation studies, health impact assessments, convening and engaging public officials and community members – can transform that right into reality for everyone. For example, one ambitious analysis this year will include input from all 87 counties in the state, as well as interested tribes, community partners, and consumers, to examine gaps in services for older adults, persons with disabilities, adults and children living with mental health challenges, and persons affected by a traumatic brain injury.

Young people always comprise a special focus for Wilder Research – their physical and mental health, their systems of support, their educational achievement. Our well-being depends upon the existence of educated community members, with technical and social skills suitable for the 21st century, as well as with the wisdom to participate in an equitable, democratic society. So, we will continue to promote the education of young people. For example, our efforts in 2015 include collaboration with Generation Next, Northside Achievement Zone, and The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, improving the educational achievement of youth affected by parental incarceration in Minnesota, and promoting the quality, availability, and effectiveness of out-of-school time learning. Some of our work specifically intends to disrupt and prevent the exploitation of young people through sex trafficking.

From our initial housing and health studies in 1917 to our current statewide homeless surveys and Homeless Management Information System, Wilder Research has devoted energy to promoting the human right of adequate shelter for all. We hope this year to promote the “coordinated assessment” of people who find themselves homeless, by increasing the capacity of Minnesota’s Homeless Management Information System, an on-line database used by 250 service providers, to assist those providers to deliver services more efficiently and effectively.

We will continue to support communities to strengthen themselves. Good research enables people to act to improve their lives. Efforts in 2015 include providing more information to neighborhoods in our larger cities, as well as to small towns, so that residents can monitor their quality of life and take action to improve it. We will work with ethnic communities who collaborated with us to shape the Speaking for Ourselves project, which gathered information directly from residents regarding their quality of life, living conditions, and needs.

We value our relationships with you. The activities mentioned above represent just a fraction of the close to 200 projects that our 92 employees will work on during 2015 – a year during which, more than ever, we must continue our quest for knowledge and understanding, as diverse people united in defiance of forces, violent and nonviolent, which promote narrow, partisan ideologies for discovering the truth.

For more details on this year’s projects, visit Wilder Research on the web.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Martin Luther King: Continued Inspiration for a Continuous Journey

Dr. King’s words – “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that” – speak loudly to researchers. I like to think that we have had the ability to shine at least a little bit of light by means of our research activities at Wilder Research, our engagement with communities and institutions, and our continuous searching for insight regarding the most significant social issues which face our society today.

As a keynote presenter at the 1967 conference of the American Psychological Association, Dr. King advised the social scientists in attendance: “White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject.” He suggested three areas of study which he felt deserved research and which could promote the cause of civil rights. Although some of his language seems a bit dated, and although research during the past half century has improved our understanding of these topics, his key messages still resonate.

“Social science may be able to search out some answers to the problem of Negro leadership.” He lamented a tendency of upwardly mobile blacks to separate themselves from those in the lower class. “Social science should be able to suggest mechanisms to create a wholesome black unity and a sense of peoplehood while the process of integration proceeds.”

“The second area for scientific examination is political action.” Dr. King went on to say that some political scientists had suggested that “voting is not the key that will unlock the door to racial equality because 'the concrete measurable payoffs from Negro voting in the South will not be revolutionary'….My own instinct is that these views are essentially erroneous, but they must be seriously examined. The need for a penetrating massive scientific study of this subject cannot be overstated.”

“The third area for study concerns psychological and ideological changes in Negroes. It is fashionable now to be pessimistic. Undeniably, the freedom movement has encountered setbacks. Yet I still believe there are significant aspects of progress.” Dr. King explained that social science needed to move forward to expose underlying, taken-for-granted precepts of American society which result in social and economic disparities. We would now use terms such as systemic racism or structural racism to capture the essence of Dr. King’s insight. He pointed out in his address that such racism can have a more significant negative impact than what he called “superficial prejudice.”

In his characteristically penetrating style, with a tinge of satire, he mordantly suggested to the psychologists who comprise the American Psychological Association that, despite their ever present efforts to help people to “adjust” to societal life, they should perhaps create an International Association of Creative Maladjustment. “I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence… As President Kennedy declared, 'Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.'”

“For social scientists, the opportunity to serve in a life-giving purpose is a humanist challenge of rare distinction,” Dr. King stated. We at Wilder Research strive, with determination, to take on that challenge more and more every day.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Starting a Fire, to Improve Health

“If a community wants to bring organizations together to carry out a project to improve health, what’s the most effective way to get action started?”

A member of the audience asked that question, after I delivered a talk at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on the day after Election Day. I had described some of the results from national research conducted by Wilder Research and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that examined collaboration between the health and community development sectors in the United States. My talk and a related panel discussion were hosted by Health Affairs, who brought together several authors from their November 2014 issue, Collaborating for Community Health, to shed light on new strategies, partnerships, and measurement tools that show great promise for addressing the health needs of our communities.

Why is this important? Because your health and my health depend on much more than medical care. The condition of our bodies, the illnesses we get, and even how long we live depend largely on the social determinants of health. These social determinants include our housing, our income, the availability of nutritious food, air quality, the level of crime in our neighborhood, facilities to promote physical activity, and other aspects of our environment. In short, health care leaders have come to recognize that many of the factors that lead to illness, or promote good health, lie outside of the health care system.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, who heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recognized that both the health and community development sectors devote significant attention to achieving better health for all by addressing these social determinants. However, they have traditionally worked in their own spheres, with little to no collaboration. She promoted a national movement (including The Commission to Build a Healthier America) to align their efforts.

A few years ago, Wilder Research teamed up with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to support this movement. We carried out national research to explore current collaboration between the health and community development sectors, to identify factors that underlie successful cross-sector initiatives, to identify obstacles that prevent successful efforts, and to determine how to best support additional collaboration.

So, back to the question, “What’s the most effective way to get action started?” I pointed to “leadership.” When members of a community recognize the importance of addressing social determinants of health and when they understand the increased effectiveness of working together rather than separately – that provides the fuel for cross-sector collaboration. The fire ignites from the spark of a person or some organization who reaches out to unfamiliar partners who share similar goals and invites them to sit at the same table and work jointly.

Do successful collaborations occur now, and how do you increase the quality and quantity of that work? Some of the most interesting findings from our research, included in an article in the most recent issue of Health Affairs, were:

·         In most parts of the U.S., health and community development organizations have begun to work with one another to collaborate to improve health.
·         To date, this work is limited; much opportunity exists for expanding these efforts.
·         Organizations within the health and community development sectors continue to lack a full understanding of one another’s activities; they also lack understanding of the roles one another can play in community health initiatives. For example, public health agencies rarely think of community development finance institutions as potential sources of health information for people who need care, but they could make such information available to people who use their services.
·         Initiatives to improve health seek better measures, to understand their accomplishments and to develop strategies for improvement. Standard, commonly-accepted measures of success do not currently exist. As Risa Lavizzo-Mourey has also said, “You can’t improve what you do not measure.”

Another audience member asked a question you might expect on the day after Election Day: “What implications do election results around the country have for cross-sector collaboration to improve health?” I suggested that cross-sector collaboration is non-political and can appeal to individuals across the political spectrum. Public officials who want to promote effectiveness and greater access to health care can see collaboration as a means for influencing social determinants of health and improving services for those in need. Public officials who want to reduce cost and promote efficiency can see collaboration as a means for leveraging limited dollars for greater impact.

We look forward to continued participation in this movement to improve the health of all residents of our communities.


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!