January 14, 2022

Zac Smith

by Zac Smith, Business Intelligence & Systems Coordinator

As we approach the third Monday in January, a day remembering the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his monumental leadership through the civil rights movement, it can come with bittersweet emotions to see how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. The reverberations of centuries of injustice are still felt as inequity today and amidst the tragedies across this nation in the past decade, that inequity has been publicly amplified.

Change doesn’t happen overnight or by standing alone. Each of us can take steps to progress our communities to embody the statement: ALL people are created equal. The first step towards addressing any inequity is to acknowledge that we all have our own biases. These biases stem from our unique personalities, backgrounds, and situations. Personally, I had a resistance to confront my own biases, feeling they were a weakness ꟷ but no one should be ashamed of having their own perspective, nor of the biases that inevitably come with it. With an open-minded approach we can utilize the perspectives of others to counteract our own biases and gain knowledge to better advance change.

Awareness of Equitable Lenses and Bias

As the Business Intelligence and Systems Coordinator at the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, I spend a lot of time with data. And as the Community Foundation lives into our core value of Pursuing Equity, an equitable lens is integral to my work. In the data world, the presence, or lack thereof, of an equitable lens in doing data work is a growing topic. Nationally, there are numerous resources and tools on this now, such as the champions at We All Count and the Racial Bias Assessment Tool developed by researchers of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. But these types of resources, while directed at data, have principles that can apply to a variety of project types and situations. Awareness of bias is not just something statisticians need to build confidence in their analysis; it gives us good reason to think about how our perspective has an impact and to use that knowledge to develop bias reducing solutions. This is critical to repeat at every new step along the way.

Focus on the Goal and Methods

The next principle centers around focusing the goal and the use of restraint. Simply put, more is not always better when it comes to demographic data; if there is not a specific purpose behind collecting this information, it is nothing but invasive to the people behind the data. Further disincentive is that too many personal questions are likely to damage response rates, reducing the answers you truly need. Additionally, it is far better to focus on identifying based on experience rather than demographics.

Demographics don’t commonly have a causal effect outside medical research, so digging deeper can get you closer to the root cause.

The Community Scholarship Program (CSP) at AAACF lives into this practice by focusing these scholarships to economically disadvantaged and first-generation college students. Through this, it is recognizing the lived experience of the students that is causing barriers to exist for them in pursuing a college degree. Demographic data isn’t inherently bad though; it can be a great starting point in helping guide us to the root cause and, if done with discretion, it can be used as a proxy: a variable that act in the place of another when that data is unavailable or yet to be uncovered. CSP’s third focus area is youth of color because national findings show that youth of color are also more likely to not have the resources needed to thrive at college. We know this is not saying that being a youth of color is causing them to have less resources, but it is saying that a disparity still exists and we need to hear more about their experience. We want to see students not only enroll in college, but persist to their degrees – and CSP an opportunity to provide scholarships to those who don’t have the resources they need.

Transparency in All Aspects

Last, but far from least, we should be transparent from start to finish. Transparency with your goals at the start of a project fosters trust in those participating and creates consistency. Transparency of why information is collected and how it is reviewed improves accuracy and builds understanding of the outcomes. Transparency in sharing out the results of the project brings knowledge back to the community and cultivates more action.

Honestly, you may be thinking that nothing said above is new, groundbreaking, or even that challenging. You are absolutely right. But often the most obvious things can be the easiest ones to miss. The challenge isn’t to agree with these ideas, but to embed them into our lives every day in pursuit of Upholding A Dream.