Oct 1, 2018 3 min read

Collective Awareness as Fuel for Action

Photo of Sherri Chisolm, Executive Director of Charlotte’s Leading on Opportunity

Data as Trigger and Motivator

For some communities, there can be a moment when a piece of data, research, or analysis causes them to see themselves in a different way. In Charlotte, NC, it was the research of Raj Chetty and his team at Harvard University. Through Chetty’s ground-breaking work on the subject of economic mobility, Charlotte was surprised to find itself near the bottom of the ranking of cities in terms of economic mobility. It didn’t match the perception many held of the city, and it didn’t match the story they told of a growing and successful city. Chetty’s research and the supporting data shone a light on a deep truth that many had failed to see. This research and data created a moment of reckoning that became a trigger and motivator for their work.

This is how Sherri Chisolm, from Charlotte’s Leading on Opportunity, described the trigger for their work:

Our North Star is a big one, and it is really founded in the question, “Is the American Dream still alive?” Raj Chetty and his group of researchers out of Harvard issued a report in 2014 that ranked all large urban centers or cities according to a child’s ability to progress out of poverty economically within their community. Charlotte was ranked very last on that list. We were the 50th city, which is to say if a child is born into poverty in the Charlotte metropolitan area, they have about a 12% chance of their next generation not also being in poverty themselves.  That was pretty curious for Charlotte and quite honestly disappointing given the level of growth that’s happened in the city, given the level of economic opportunity, given the universities, jobs, and industries that are available for children to grow into adults and to thrive in. 
So, that launched a community campaign that we called the Opportunity Task Force, that was made up of a diversity of stakeholders–those from the business community, government, medical, healthcare (which was one of our largest industries), and the nonprofit and foundation space–to really investigate what in particular was happening in Charlotte and to put forward some recommendations that we as a community could rally around and also hold ourselves accountable to making better for the generations after us. After issuing that report, it was vital to the community that that work was continued and carried out. As a result, Leading on Opportunity was formed as an organization that I now have the privilege of leading to set some levels of accountability to chart a path forward and to make sure that the momentum continues.”

Data for Shared Understanding and Accountability

Charlotte isn’t alone in this. Most communities have a narrative that they use to promote and talk about their community to newcomers and prospective investors. If we’re not careful, we can begin to believe that is the whole truth for the community. While not always acting as a trigger, data can still serve to ground us in reality. In Charlotte they used their initial research and data to help establish a shared understanding of the challenges faced by many in their community. But, they went further. They also used data and analysis to help establish goals and shared accountability for their commitment to change.

People, Not Just Data

In my interview with Sherri Chisolm, she reminded us that

You have to be just as thoughtful in uncovering the problem as you are in solving the problem. 

As we work to build more inclusive communities, always keeping in mind that data is an imperfect representation of real people’s lives is critical. It is important to find the right level of abstraction to understand issues in a way that is more than anecdotal, but deep enough to see the real people behind the data.

Sherri also reminded us that both understanding and finding workable solutions are about getting proximate to the problem and centering individuals who are affected by the challenges you’re working to solve. It is about, as she said,

I always come back to community voice. It is what makes a difference. I would center community voices from the very beginning. What that looks like is making sure that they are not only at the table to provide perspective but at the table to make decisions.

Learn more about Leading On Opportunity.

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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