Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Presenting Data: Case Study on Racial Disparities and Imprisonment

One of my interests in community indicators is measuring progress towards eliminating racial disparities. After considerable community dialogue around the issue, it became clear that, at least in my community, we needed a shared set of data to move from divergent perspectives to a shared understanding of reality. We also needed an unimpeachable data set for community accountability, and an objective way to tell if our community initiatives were working.

That being said, I started reading James R. Council's blog entry on America's Prison Crisis from a data presentation perspective (I was more interested in what data he was using and how he was sharing that data than in the conclusions he was reaching or their policy implications -- it's an occupational hazard sometimes.)

I saw some ways he used information that I thought were worth discussing, above and beyond the specific issue. (Though I highly recommend reading his piece for its intended effect as well -- the data are about real people, first and foremost. But I think you'll get that from the examples I'd like to share.)

Here's some of the data he presents:

1. The U.S. has 2.2 million prisoners. He takes that data point and relates it as a percentage of a larger set -- That "makes up 25% of the world’s prisoners in a country that holds 5% of the world’s total population." The 2.2 million number is now in context.

2. He continues to put the numbers in context by putting it in a population ratio -- 740 per 100,000. He then puts that in context by comparing the U.S. to countries we might want to be like, and countries we don't want to be like:

By contrast Libya, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan, countries whose rulers were rated in 2005 by Parade Magazine as the world’s worst dictators, have far lower reported rates of incarceration; the lowest is 57/100,000 in Pakistan and the highest is 207/100,000 in Libya (Fraser 2007). Other western democracies such as France, Germany, and England and Wales have 93, 98 and 140 per 100,000 respectively (Snacken 2006). The only European countries that rival America’s incarceration rates are Belarus and the Russian Federation with 554 and 595/100,000 (Snacken 2006).

3. He then establishes a trend line for a context over time. "America hasn’t always had such a high prison population. From the 1940s until the early 1970s, the incarceration rate in the U.S. hovered around 100/100,000 (Young 2007)."

4. Now that he has your attention, he turns to racial disparities. He takes the data on disparities and focuses attention on another contextual factor: the disparities in incarceration compared to disparities in economic, education, or other social indicators.

In his testimony before the Joint Economic Committee on October 4, 2007, Harvard University professor Bruce Western stated that, “young black men are now more likely to go to prison than to graduate college with a four-year degree, or to serve in the military” (2007). He goes on to say:

The large black-white disparity in incarceration is unmatched by most other social indicators. Racial disparities in unemployment (2 to 1), nonmarital childbearing (3 to 1), infant mortality (2 to 1), and wealth (1 to 5) are all significantly lower than the 7 to 1 black-white ratio in incarceration rates. (2007)

By this point, he had my attention. Then he began discussing the policies and practices that led to this point. It's an interesting discussion, found here.

Here's my takeaway:

  • Data gain power/meaning in context.
  • That context can include comparisons to communities we think we are like (or better than), or communities we think we are not like.
  • The context can also include a cluster of other indicators to highlight where the problem isn't just bad, it's much worse than the other problems we already know are bad.
  • And the data can be stronger than the soundbite -- compare:

    Over 40 years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and the passing of landmark civil rights legislation. But looking at the contrast in incarceration rates between Black and White Americans, we seem to have a long way to go before we become a nation that, “judges a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character."

    with this:

    [Byron Eugene Price's graph shows that], “by 2017, there will be more Blacks in prison (an estimated 2 million) than Blacks enslaved in 1860 (1.9 million).”

    What are your thoughts?


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