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!