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What (and Who) to Believe?


~by Michael Wilcox

Assistant Director and Program Leader for Community Development / Purdue Extension
Associate Director / North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD)


As Community Development Extension professionals, we are constantly asked by communities to provide technical assistance and guidance on how to address difficult issues. To be successful, we rely on action planning, inclusive processes, user-friendly tools, robust primary and secondary data, and relevant evaluation strategies.

Action planning typically involves goal setting, SMART objectives, evidence-based strategies, and steps necessary to be successful in a timely manner.  A useful and intuitive way of thinking about planning is using the Phased Planning Model. This model lays out planning in six phases, starting with the Initiating & Scoping, then the trio of Organizing, Assessing, Visioning & Planning, and ending with Implementing and Evaluating & Reflecting.

Inclusive processes are required to promote true community engagement. This not only means finding ways to bring a diverse group of people to the table but also creates a need for processes that ensure effective engagement. Purdue Extension’s Signature Programs in Leadership and Civic Engagement offer excellent opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for community members to engage in an inclusive and meaningful way.

User-friendly tools afford practitioners the opportunity to help stakeholders benefit from the interface between an inclusive process and robust primary and secondary data. In an era where the internet connects us 24/7/365, these tools level the playing field and empower stakeholders and decision-makers to constructively dialogue and (hopefully!) collaborate. Purdue Extension and IL-IN Sea Grant Program’s Tipping Point Planner, Purdue Extension and Purdue Center for Regional Development’s (PCRD) Indiana County Data Snapshots, and PCRD’s Data Analysis Tools all represent great examples of such tools.

However, there is another side to this 24/7/365 access.

Over the last decade, as social media has garnered more attention from literally billions of people from across the globe, information has been weaponized, and misinformation has found its way into daily life through memes, deepfake videos, and the like. These easily digestible and widely broadcast messages have replaced knowledge and driven the deepening polarization in our society. And, this polarization makes solving difficult issues seem impossible.

Enter robust primary and secondary data!

Not so fast.

The old adage says, ‘There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Now, statistics are dismissed as “fake news.”

Robust primary and secondary data still need to play a pivotal role. Now, more than ever, we need to keep in mind the source of the data, and that triangulation is preferred over a single source. Triangulation requires examining several different sources of data and applying analytical techniques that allow one to bring the analyses together to form an evidence-based observation.

I mentioned an example in our newsletter from last month. In that article, I introduced Erin Emerson and her efforts to increase access to childcare in Perry County. She and Adam Alson (President of Appleseed Childhood Education, Inc in Jasper County) have been tireless childcare and early childhood education advocates. They have the data to prove their case – childcare deserts are real. But, not all decision-makers are willing to heed their call for investments that would increase the availability of childcare in Indiana – a decision that can have adverse economic and community development effects.

Thus, the need for triangulation. In this case, it comes in the form of parents’ voices that are directly affected by the lack of childcare. These are the voices behind the numbers. Their stories are compelling, convincing, and – at times – heartbreaking.

Eventually, we must confirm that the decisions we made had the anticipated impact. Relevant evaluation strategies offer metrics and collection techniques that help communities determine if they were successful or not. We can follow data trends, interview key informants, and survey stakeholders. While doing so, we need to be careful as we walk the balance between correlation and causation.

What (and Who!) we believe is a complex mix of values, culture, experience, and education. These factors determine the when, where, why, and how we gather and process information. This has a direct effect on the conclusions that we arrive at and the actions that we take. Once we recognize this, we can begin the process of reflecting on our personal bias and how that shapes our worldview.

In the end, it is up to each and every one of us to find ways to open our minds, stretch our boundaries and carefully consider all sides when finding solutions to challenging issues.

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