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.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Information-Based Progress, for Our Young People and Our Future

Amidst the daily and tiresome clamor about fake news, the opportunity to see people make a real difference, using solid information to turn the tide on significant social issues, can inspire and energize those who witness it.

I had such an opportunity at the July meeting of the Generation Next Leadership Council. (Full disclosure: I sit on the Leadership Council and Executive Committee of Generation Next.) Sondra Samuels of Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) and Muneer Karcher-Ramos of the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood (SPPN) educated us on the progress they have accomplished and the course they have set for themselves – based on creative use of data to inform their program development.

Northside Achievement Zone: Dissecting the Numbers

At NAZ, since 2012, nearly 1,700 families and 3,400 young scholars have participated in their programs which foster long-term academic success through effective partnering among schools, families, and community organizations. NAZ seeks to have every family resolutely take the lead in educating its children, while taking advantage of all resources available to assist in accomplishing that task. During the past five years, reading and math proficiency have increased on average. Kindergarten readiness has increased. Families have shown some signs of stabilizing their housing, employment, and health.

Creative and effective use of information requires more than just looking at overall totals and averages, however. It requires dissecting those numbers to discover what causes improvement, learn who does not improve, and determine whether a program can do anything additional in order to produce even better results. NAZ has taken those steps. For example, they documented the positive impacts of out-of-school programming; they showed how positive outcomes increased in schools where NAZ and other services have optimal alignment. With this type of knowledge they continually refine their strategy.

Sondra explained how NAZ achieved many goals over the years; she also mentioned things they have tried that have not worked. By learning from, and building on, both success and failure, Sondra’s staff and board members demonstrate the entrepreneurial talent that they infuse in the Northside Achievement Zone. As the NAZ brochure states boldly: “Every piece of data is a valuable opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t, so we can adjust our practice in real time.”

Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood: Expanding Reach

Muneer showed how the breadth of SPPN has expanded over the past five years, with almost 2,000 young and elementary aged children involved in 2016. The program has shown positive impacts on reading proficiency. Evidence seems to suggest that SPPN can prevent summer learning loss. In particular, the culturally based literacy interventions delivered in summer of 2016 seemed to maintain or increase the literacy skills of almost all of the young people who participated.

In an attempt to plan beyond only those being served, and move to a community-level ambit, SPPN has developed models and charts to indicate the numbers of additional young people they would need to reach in order to raise the academic performance of everyone in need in the neighborhood. That makes the task tangible and practical.

For the Future

Will both of these models succeed in the long term? Can they sustain themselves? Can others adopt these models in other locales? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s certainly hope so. They have established themselves upon a solid, data-driven foundation. This foundation offers the two programs the chance to build cumulatively on success; it enables others to view the ingredients for success and determine whether other programs can incorporate those ingredients. They increase the hope that good information will contribute to a strong future for our communities.

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!