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Listening to the data

The following text was written and delivered by Rose as part of the RISE Summit hosted by The Leahy Institute for Rural Partnerships in June of 2024.

As a small nonprofit working in and with our town, we think a lot about how to gather data in a way that will not disrupt or disturb the individualized authenticity with which we engage. How do we accurately examine the effectiveness of what we are doing? How do we determine if a program is “worthwhile” to continue? Is it just through tracking participation numbers? Stories of engagement?  If we are in a real conversation with the town, how do we collect the information and feedback in real time, and in a way that is not invasive or clinical but can inspire real conversation? 

In our community, the greater Hardwick area, there is a long history of gathering data on community opinions and priorities– usually through surveys (sometimes with prizes or food as an incentive). These efforts have mostly come from organizations and nonprofits seeking to gauge where to focus funding and resources– how the library expansion should be designed, or how the school district should consider consolidating its campuses, or how federal relief dollars should be best directed. 

The problem with these surveys and questionnaires is that the majority of people in our community feel disconnected from both the process and result of the effort. They feel that there is literally no point in spending the time answering the questions because their true interests and beliefs are not necessarily represented in the questions to begin with, or they have serious doubts that their opinions will actually be considered. For many people, they aren’t even sure what services or programs these organizations offer or how they would engage in the first place. 

A gap widens here– between those with the power to effect change– whether as a municipality, state agency or nonprofit– and those who live and work in the community. The survey-makers feel that they have done their due diligence, in fact their most creative and best effort, to include ALL the voices in the community, and yet, nobody will fill out the survey! “If they care so much, why don’t they respond?” The feeling then becomes vague resentment and distrust on one side, and frustration and irritation on the other. This gap, this mutual misunderstanding of purpose and intention extends to many aspects of civic life and community engagement.

So what is the alternative? We believe it is active and constant LISTENING. That means allowing time for conversations in the line at the grocery store, eavesdropping at the bar, asking questions and taking in the multitude of perspectives and truths held within each community, no matter how seemingly small. Specifics– one person's experience, or a seemingly random anecdote are often the keys to answering the BIG questions.

We believe in the value found in this nonscientific form of data collection. This is actually traditional human-scale research: listening, experimenting, including, conversing. We are not seeking information in order to write papers, we are trying to respond in real time to what we are learning. We use this data in order to develop programs, to amplify ideas, and create new opportunities and resources. We are actively grappling with the different voices in the community. That is how we grow and change. It is constant.

Our aim in much of what we do is to have fun– meaning create situations in which people of all ages and backgrounds can experience the simple joy and pleasure of being together. This is a concept that seems to be more frequently reserved for private gatherings these days, and less and less common in the public sphere. But our aim is also immediate crisis response. The stakes are real. These two strands– joy and helpfulness, both informed by active and authentic listening is, we believe, what true community building must be made from. And, of course, that work is never done, it never reaches completion. 

There is also the data and research that we must do ABOUT the places where we live. The Civic is able to work in the way we do, to constantly listen and respond, in part because of the specifics of our community– a town of about 3,000 people, with a still surviving culture of local tradition and agrarian life. There are families that run many generations deep in our town and there is a living local memory– though it is tenuously held as the elders pass on, and many community organizations falter and fold. 

We see our work as a bridge between those traditional small-town forms of mutual aid and cultural organizing, and something never-before-seen, a place that can answer to the troubles and dreams of this particular moment. We need BOTH quilting bees and Narcan trainings–on the one hand, to breathe new life into the authentic traditions of our places and on the other, to find our own community answers to the emergencies and horrors of this very moment. We need these hands to hold each other, the new and the old, culture and crisis braided together. People suffering addiction in our rural small towns also deserve access to art and traditional knowledge. Everyone is better off by knowing everyone else. We haven’t figured it all out, but we feel that this approach gets us closer to the needs of our town and the people in it.


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