Centering People in Our Data Practices
It Starts With Curiosity
As a kid, I could hardly wait for my monthly copy of Highlights magazine. Opening the mailbox and pulling out that skinny tome, with its characteristic full-color cover and black-and-white insides, was a treat better than finding a bite taken out of the cookie I’d left for Santa. Because in that little magazine lay a collection of buried treasures in the Hidden Pictures puzzle that were waiting to be discovered by my dad and me. We’d race to find the watch disguised as a tree knot, the book hiding in a windowpane, or the crescent moon camouflaged as a cow’s horn. While I cherished that time with my dad, the experience surfaced and then galvanized, early in my life, a quality I think we all have: innate curiosity.
As we do the broader work, we need to remember that we’re endeavoring to improve lives. This means that we need to remember ‘who,’ not just ‘how,’ ‘why,’ and ‘what.’
In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “Research is formalized curiosity.” We conduct research to generate a compelling body of evidence to then do something: Shed light, reframe, convince, persuade. Integral to this research is data collection: gathering the qualitative and quantitative information we need to describe the “how,” the “why,” and the “what.” We then use this information—the data—to empower our agendas, make a point, or bring about the change we want to see. However, as we do the broader work, we need to remember that we’re endeavoring to improve lives. This means that we need to remember “who,” not just “how,” “why,” and “what.” We need to center people in our agendas, our points, and the intended change, which requires us to also center people in not just the data we collect but also how we collect it and how we use it.
Centering the People We Serve in Data Collection and Usage
I don’t assume that when we do research or collect and use data that we aren’t centering on the people we serve. On the contrary, as I and others at JFF worked with seven intermediary organizations across the country in the first phase of the Building Equitable Pathways initiative, we saw clear commitments to their respective communities. While different in kind, size, and location, each organization was dedicated to increasing access to the pathways leading to high-wage, in-demand careers for Black and Latinx youth and young people experiencing poverty. This first phase was foundational, focused primarily on the strength and effectiveness of the organization in serving as an intermediary—the “glue” in an ecosystem that binds vision, voice, passion, and people as they do the work.
The second phase of the Building Equitable Pathways initiative is just beginning. This community of practice—up from seven organizations to 14, with many returning from Phase 1—is just as committed to the vision and work as the first. The emphasis for this phase is squarely on systems change through three key areas: policy and advocacy; racial equity; and data and infrastructure. It may be easier to see how people are centered in the first two areas, with “advocacy” and “equity” at least inspiring ideas for what action could look like. “Data and infrastructure,” without context, comes across as a little inert, independent, and agnostic of the people and cultures that make up the communities we intend to serve.
This is why we at JFF are making a commitment to always hold true that data collection and usage will be most effective, as well as respectful, when we keep people at the center. Even further, when possible, we aim to involve the affected communities in that collection and usage, taking a “do with” approach as opposed to a “do for” approach. This approach is supported by a growing number of resources, a sampling of which are offered here.
Urban Institute’s Principles for Advancing Equitable Data Practice
Building on The Belmont Report (1979), the Urban Institute’s Principles for Advancing Equitable Data Practice encourages us to apply three principles intended to guide research and data practices. These three principles are beneficence, respect for persons, and justice:
- Beneficence is the commitment to maximize benefits and avoid causing harm to the extent possible, even if it is not a formal or legal requirement.
- Respect for persons is the responsibility to uphold people’s power to make decisions that are in their best interests and to protect people who do not have that power.
- Justice is the commitment to the fair distribution of burdens and benefits among people.
Taken together, these three principles offer a schema of sorts for better centering data collection, data usage, and the consequent work on the people we serve.
Project Evident’s Actionable Evidence Toward Equitable Outcomes and the Actionable Evidence Framework
Released in July 2021, Project Evident’s Actionable Evidence Toward Equitable Outcomes “seeks to engage researchers, practitioners, funders, and policymakers in the education sector to accelerate the development of timely and credible evidence that helps practitioners improve outcomes for students who are Black, Latino/a/x, or experiencing poverty.” The Actionable Evidence Framework, reproduced below, was developed to help realize these outcomes.
This framework assumes that the practitioner, one of “a broad range of actors whose decisions and actions shape the experiences and outcomes of students, including state and local leaders and policymakers, administrators, educators, and other front-line staff,” is the main unit of change. Project Evidence counts intermediaries as one of these actors.
Chicago Beyond’s Why Am I Always Being Researched?
Why Am I Always Being Researched? gets us thinking about how “we can begin to level the playing field and reckon with unintended bias when it comes to research.” It does so by naming seven inequities that stand in the way of impact, “each held in place by power dynamics:”
People-Centered Data Practices
The resources above don’t deny a need for research and data collection and usage, but, to echo the Urban Institute’s guidance, they call for beneficence and respect for individuals as we do so. A point Why Am I Always Being Researched? makes clear is that “right or wrong, research can drive decisions. If we do not address the power dynamic in the creation of research, at best, we are driving decision-making from partial truths. At worst, we are generating inaccurate information that ultimately does more harm than good in our communities.”
These people-centered data practices will help to shift goals and objectives; mission and vision will come into greater focus, and the work will evolve.
JFF, along with the 14 organizations in the Building Equitable Pathways initiative, will integrate into practice not only the data-related insights offered here but also those created together over the two years of the initiative. These people-centered data practices will help to shift goals and objectives; mission and vision will come into greater focus, and the work will evolve. I have no doubt that the new and revisited goals, objectives, mission, vision, and work will lead to improved services that are more reflective of and consistent with the needs and identities of the communities we serve. I also have no doubt that ultimately, we will get closer to realizing the systems change we envision by building equitable pathways, together, with data and infrastructure critical to that change.