Friday, May 17, 2013

35 Years - Older and Wiser

The first week of May, 1978 – where did you find yourself? The Monday of that week, I arrived at 355 Washington Street in Saint Paul (current site of The Ordway Theater), to begin working at Wilder Research, continuing a career dedicated to improving the lives of individuals, families, and communities, through social research. 
  • In 1978, Jimmy Carter served as President, with Minnesota’s own Walter Mondale as Vice President.
  • The United States had about 223 million residents – who could expect to live, on average, 73.5 years. 
  • A first class stamp cost 13 cents; it rose to 15 cents mid-year. 
  • Military rebels in Afghanistan murdered both the president and his brother during a coup. 
  • The United States began to mint dollar coins with the image of women’s suffragist, Susan B. Anthony. The public largely disliked them, due to their resemblance to quarters. 
  • Lesley Brown, who died just last year in 2012, gave birth to the world's first test tube baby. 
  • The average cost of a home was $54,800. 
  • The first, public, dial-up “computerized bulletin board system” went online in Chicago. 
  • 400 of the world’s top climatologists met in Geneva to discuss climate change and if changes in climate were influenced by pollution. 

Clearly, the world has evolved in some ways, but has perhaps remained very much the same in others. The Internet has all but replaced computerized bulletin boards; Afghanistan remains turbulent; many people have not made up their minds about how to address climate change.

You can observe similarities and differences in the practice of social research over the past 35 years – the topics, the findings, and the methods.

In the 1970s, poverty among aging people consumed far more attention than did poverty among children. Social and health programs benefiting the elderly eventually alleviated much of that concern. Meanwhile, as the twentieth century ended, trends in childhood poverty and the condition of children in the United States began to trouble us. Awareness increased regarding the effects of social, environmental, and economic factors upon children – even effects upon early brain development, which occur prenatally.

Some words and issues common today did not appear on the radar screen, or just barely did so, in the seventies. The concept of “diversity”, for example, had limited circulation since at least the 1940s, but had not emerged in general use. Desegregation and affirmative action comprised policy approaches to eliminate discrimination. Racial issues stood as a major threat to the well-being of our communities. However, the notion of a diverse society, building on the collective strengths of multiple races and cultures, just approached the horizon.

The “achievement gap” did not receive the widespread attention it receives today. “Immigration issues” engendered less vitriol. Nobody even cared about the dependency ratio – the ratio of working age people to aging people who need support – given the large number of baby boomers in the beginning phase of their economically productive years. But that has certainly changed now, with the large number of aging and imminently retiring boomers, succeeded by a numerically smaller generation.

Researchers assessed public behaviors, attitudes, and opinions in the 1970s by means of mailed surveys and phone surveys.  With one (and usually only one) landline phone number in each household, researchers could use “random digit dialing” effectively, to produce representative samples of respondents. Today, with the proliferation of cell phones, a large proportion of households without even one landline, and the high mobility of some populations, researchers require new methods to locate survey respondents who will supply credible, representative information.

As I look back at Wilder Research over the past 35 years, what makes me the most proud, personally? It’s probably facilitating the growth and accomplishments of so many talented people – starting with about a dozen Wilder Research staff at the time I became Executive Director, to approximately 100 who serve here today. They carry out 200 or so projects each year, working directly with 150 to 200 organizations – evaluating effectiveness, assisting agencies to develop and improve their work, assessing changes in community trends and the implications of those trends. Wilder Research staff serve thousands more locally, nationally, and internationally by distributing information, sharing reports, training, and advising nonprofit, government, and neighborhood organizations who strive to make their parts of the world better places.

What has remained constant at Wilder Research, not just from the 1970s to now, but since our first study in 1917, is the commitment to provide objective, credible, culturally-responsive research to improve lives and communities.

We have seen that research can enable all people of all types to overcome challenges and live their lives better than if we never asked questions, never challenged conventional wisdom, never provided facts to inform judgment.

We should never and can never give up our searching for answers.