Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Caring for Our Small Planet's Social Environment

"We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet." – Stephen Hawking

Strong words from the recently deceased Stephen Hawking – and more negative words than I would normally place in the preface of a post. However, his comments resonated with thoughts I shared – regarding our social environment – with a couple of hundred people at the Minnesota Compass annual meeting several weeks ago:

  • “Post-truth” became the Oxford-English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. It has entered our common parlance, along with “alternative facts” and Hope Hicks’ “white lies.”
  • “Agnatology,” a word coined 20 or so years ago as a label for the study of culturally induced ignorance, has increasing relevance.
  • People in the Democrat and Republican parties in the United States literally fear one another, as I mentioned in a previous post. People with differing political views have increasingly clustered together to live in communities with others who share those views, resulting in less interaction with divergent perspectives.

In short, pressures and barriers have mounted to create more “inward looking” than “outward looking” with respect to the important social issues that we face.

If we take an open-minded look outward, using real facts, not “alternatives,” what do we see? At that same Compass annual meeting, Allison Liuzzi showed us that:

  • A number of indicators reveal improvements in our communities: economic output; jobs; education; crime rates; traffic fatalities; and others.
  • But some important indicators show we have changed little or not at all during the past 10 years: median household income; poverty; homelessness; and others.
  • On one indicator, voter turnout (usually a source of pride for Minnesotans), we have declined – perhaps due to some of the issues I mentioned above?

Good news, in some respects; unsettling in other respects. Yet whether we see improvement or not on any specific measure of our quality of life, one fact stands out: The most rapidly growing portions of our population tend not to do as well as our majority of residents. Take a look at Compass indicators, and you will find a common theme: gaps in the quality of life for residents of color vis-à-vis white residents. We must address this, if we care about equity, or if we want to ensure a sound future in which new generations of Minnesotans continue the great strides of past generations.

As Compass reports, people of color (including a wide range of backgrounds, from indigenous to recent immigrants) are more likely to live in poverty, less likely to own their own home, less likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to suffer from chronic illness.

Nicole MartinRogers pointed out to our annual meeting participants that to address existing disparities, as well as to build the strengths of our Minnesota mosaic, we need to apply the best possible tools to understand the demographics of our multi-racial state. We need an objective, clear, nuanced picture of our residents. Living conditions and needs of different groups differ from one another. Creation of sound policy that will enable us to make progress requires appreciation of the nuances so that we can build on the rich diversity of our population.

So, back to Stephen Hawking and his critique of only looking inward.

Hawking’s words do relate to the rationale behind the operation of Minnesota Compass, an accessible, completely free-to-use website (which, by the way, recently won a “dot.org” award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits). Compass has creatively used technology to provide everyone in Minnesota easy access to nonpartisan, objective, relevant facts – not the alternatives, but the real facts. A resident of any of the state’s 87 counties, sitting in their living room, can obtain the same information as our state’s Governor sitting in the halls of power.

Compass provides a broad view as it supports efforts to make communities better. It promotes looking outward, taking into account all people, their perspectives, their cultures, their current situations.

We need sound tools to preserve our society’s strengths and to ameliorate our society’s weaknesses. Minnesota Compass, along with all the work of Wilder Research, strives to provide those tools.