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To Use Data as an Equity Lever, Translate, Then Advocate

May 20, 2022

At a Glance

Data can spur people to action, but context, interpretation, and narrative-building are critical components of the process.

Derek Niño
Sarah Bennett Senior Program Manager, Partner Engagements and Special Projects
Practices & Centers

When Derek worked as a high school math teacher with English language learners and their families, he had an advantage: his own parents’ immigrant experiences of navigating a new land, a new culture, and a new language. (His dad is from a small village in central Mexico, and his mom grew up speaking Croatian with her Yugoslavian family). He understood and helped parents who wanted to speak and write to teachers, counselors, and school leadership on their students’ behalf but didn’t have the words to do so. So he worked alongside them, lending his voice, becoming a conduit of communication for their children’s aspirations.

Through this experience, Derek confirmed a fundamental truth that informs our work with the Building Equitable Pathways (BEP) community of practice: often, you have to translate before you advocate.

The 14 organizations that make up the Building Equitable Pathways (BEP) community of practice are committed to those dual acts of translation and advocacy. In Centering People in Our Data Practices, we shared JFF and the BEP community of practice’s commitment to taking a “do with” rather than a “do for” approach to data collection, translation, and use. Together we are asking how we might jointly—with students, educators, administrators, and policymakers—interrogate why youth don’t have access to high-quality career pathways. What is happening, and better yet, what isn’t happening but should? The answers to these questions—and opportunities for change—lie somewhere in the data.

In order to be an effective advocate, data must be provided in context. For example, percentages are particularly tricky. Without context, “her income rose over 100 percent” and “the high school graduation rate increased seven percentage points” can be misleading. A parent in Detroit might increase their income by over 100 percent— for instance, from $22,000 a year to $45,000—but still fall short of the wage needed to support one child. Increasing a high school graduation rate by seven percentage points is, of course, a step in the right direction, but when the rate improves from 46 percent to 53 percent, there’s still work to be done. Data need to be translated from raw numbers and observational trends into clear narratives that compel people toward action and advocacy. BEP intermediaries must navigate the data they own, the data that is shared with them from other sources, and the data they share with others to signal how to chart a course for structural change. Three intermediaries have developed innovative uses, using a mix of trend data, point-in-time data, and programmatic data to move their work forward:

  • Advocating for an equitable labor market (HERE to HERE)
  • Designing pathways to meet labor market need (Education Systems Center)
  • Fine-tuning student supports in service of more equitable outcomes (Career Connect Washington)

Articulating the Challenge: HERE to HERE

HERE to HERE is using publicly available data to illustrate that the accepted story—that getting a postsecondary degree will resolve racial labor market disparities—does not hold up to scrutiny. In their report, “The Key for an Inclusive NYC Economy,” HERE to HERE used labor market insights from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the New York State Department of Labor, and job posting data from Burning Glass exposed various aspects of the problem. In New York City:

  • Only 14% of New York residents employed in mid-to-high wage occupations are NY-born people who identify as Black or Latinx.
  • Black and Latinx individuals with college degrees remain twice as likely to work in low-wage occupations. Specifically, 40% of in-state born Black and Latinx college degree holders work in low-wage occupations.

Looked at through an equity lens, these data point to systemic problems in the labor market. HERE to HERE is using this data to advocate for policies and investments in paid work experiences that ensure students have access to experiences and resources to develop the skills, networks, and, most importantly, self-advocacy that allows them to chose postsecondary opportunities that lead to strong first jobs with opportunities for growth.

Mapping Options: Education Systems Center

Education Systems Center at Northern Illinois University (EdSystems) answers key questions about work-based learning and credential programs to help prepare and launch students in careers through Program of Study mapping as outlined in the Illinois Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act. But before EdSystems can translate data into model programs of study maps, they research the data—from the U.S. Department of Labor Career Onestop, the Illinois Department of Employment Security Virtual Labor Market Information, and the MIT Living Wage Calculator—to determine “high priority occupations.” The maps identify “promising credentials” that lead to those occupations, and then use data from local community colleges to determine a) what is and isn’t available for students and b) opportunities for strategic dual credit courses so students can start building towards those occupations early.

EdSystems sees this work not as a mutually exclusive secondary or postsecondary strategy, but as an integrated secondary to postsecondary process that incorporates earning stackable credentials and degrees leading to in-demand careers that pay a living wage.

Empowering Students: Career Connect Washington and Washington STEM

Washington STEM, a co-leader of the Career Connect Washington (CCW) initiative, worked with Eisenhower High School in Yakima, Washington, to get beyond anecdotes to learn how and where students receive information and guidance about dual credit and postsecondary options, their aspirations for postsecondary education, and their experiences in dual credit when enrolled. The data they collected challenged their assumptions about students’ experiences and perceptions of different dual credit options. Staff thought roughly 56 percent of their students expected to attend postsecondary; it was actually 89 percent. And unexpectedly, these Gen Z students were averse to getting career guidance from social media; they preferred in-person guidance from teachers. Because of the documentation and findings from the project Career Connect Washington is changing its approach to supporting integrated career navigation in the K-12 space. (See their Equitable Dual Credit Toolkit.) Washington STEM plans to expand the work to more schools via the networks supported by the CCW initiative across the state.

Never Stopping at the Data

Ensuring that students have access to quality pathways requires revisiting labor market information (LMI) and programmatic data often, translating it, and inspiring action by augmenting and amplifying a data-informed advocacy narrative. Better data-driven stories are key to how we shape the changes we want to pursue, but it is incumbent on all of us to act. Getting the “right” data is important. So is being a responsible analyst which means not getting lost in data. As Angela Freeman at the Rush Education and Career Hub (REACH) pointed out in our Community of Practice, “constantly searching for more data can be an excuse to wait to make change.”

Despite differences in source, in representation, and how and where they’re shared, the data examples here have something in common—they’re intended to describe, through number and narrative, what is—and isn’t—happening in our ecosystems, local labor markets, and communities, especially in terms of equitable access and outcomes for Black and Latinx youth and young people experiencing poverty. And if the data alone don’t inspire action, then, in our advocacy, we are called to translate for our peers: To make it more comprehensible, and to help others understand realities, inequities, and possibilities and that compels them to make the change we value and seek.