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Kent County Essential Needs Task Force Shares How They’re Using the Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids Report

by Melyssa Tsai O’Brien
Kent County Essential Needs Task Force Shares How They’re Using the Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids Report

An interview with Wende Randall and Emily Madsen, Kent County Essential Needs Task Force

Kent County ENTF logoThis past spring, the Johnson Center released an updated review of progress toward economic inclusion in particular neighborhoods of Grand Rapids, Michigan, underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids Data Update looks at changes in economic inclusion indicators in 17 census tracts across the west and southeast portions of the city between 2014 and 2018. The area of focus (also called Neighborhoods of Focus by the Kellogg Foundation and within the report) stretches from approximately John Ball Park on the city’s west side, to Eastown and neighborhoods south of Wealthy Street.

Disaggregated data — data that can be broken down and examined based on different characteristics such as racial and ethnic identity, gender identity, age, and employment status — can be an incredibly powerful tool for community understanding and decision-making. Individual organizations and entire networks can use the same data to target their work, track progress, and ultimately create better outcomes for all.

When we at the Johnson Center share new data, we are always grateful to hear how people and organizations use that information to further their missions — and we hope their ideas and efforts can inspire others, as well. In an email interview, Wende Randall, director, and Emily Madsen, data analyst, both of Kent County Essential Needs Task Force (ENTF) shared how they’re using the Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids Data Update.

ENTF, formed in 1982, envisions a bright, prosperous future where the dignity and human rights of all people in Kent County are actualized by people-centered systems that guarantee equitable access to opportunities, tools, networks, and resources to meet their current and emerging needs. ENTF is a convening organization, comprised of five subcommittees, which include the Coalition to End Homelessness, Energy Efficiency, the Food and Nutrition Coalition, Economic and Workforce Development, and Transportation.

Icons of the subcommittees of the ENTF: Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness, Energy Efficiency, Food and Nutrition Coalition, Economic and Workforce Development, and Transportation. Each of these subcommittees works to ensure that the vision, mission, and goals of the ENTF are being carried out through their efforts.

What data from the Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids Data Update report was of most interest to your organization?

We particularly appreciate the data that is disaggregated by race and ethnicity in the Neighborhoods of Focus, such as the data provided about poverty on page 7 of the report and unemployment on page 10. These graphs highlight the racial disparities present in our community and motivate us to continue working to advance equitable outcomes for all people in Kent County.

How have you applied the data to your organization when making decisions?

The original report (Addressing Economic Inclusion in Grand Rapids, produced by M.C. White at George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis and Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness — please contact Tracie Coffman for a copy of the report) prompted organizations across the community, including ENTF, to target efforts towards reducing disparities in the Neighborhoods of Focus.

The initial report was highly effective in generating attention and clarity, and we are hopeful that this update report will have similar impact. It is important to see how the data has changed and be reminded of the reality that we are truly a ‘city within a city’ and must come together to address systemic issues. It provides us with an opportunity to invite new partners into this work and recommit ourselves against racism and systems of oppression.

This data will also be helpful as the Economic and Workforce Development Subcommittee members prepare to update their data projects. After the original report was released, the Kellogg Foundation funded two additional reports to further illuminate unemployment disparities and analyze the utilization rate of workforce development services by community members. The Johnson Center conducted a system analysis and Inclusive Performance Strategies conducted a service analysis, which together detailed the current state of service offerings and identified potential recommendations for service changes or partnerships between local agencies. With the support of Petersen Research Consultants, we are developing a new project that combines elements of from both studies within the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What strategies, programs, and/or policies have been informed by the data?

As a convening entity, rather than a direct service provider, we engage in intentional dialogue with our partners about embedding racial equity into every aspect of our collective work. We regularly facilitate county-wide discussions among direct service providers within the economic and workforce development, transportation, food and nutrition, energy efficiency/utility, and housing systems.

A recent example of this occurred at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, ENTF began convening food access check-in meetings to streamline communication between governments, school districts, and nonprofits to address growing food insecurity. Deliberate focus was placed on serving people living in the Neighborhoods of Focus, where there is already limited access to fair, green, affordable, and healthy food. Although this crisis has exacerbated long-standing inequities, we are encouraged by our many partners who have stepped in to mitigate the disparate impact.

How do you see your organization promoting inclusive growth and/or racial equity in Grand Rapids?

We do a lot of soft advocacy, posting almost daily on our social media and sending weekly newsletters to share various aspects of current and emerging needs and ways that people can get involved in meeting those needs and changing the systems that allow essential needs to persist.

We are also establishing shared measurements within each of the systems we convene. For example, our Economic and Workforce Development Subcommittee has identified a number of shared data points that service providers want to capture for each client at intake and progress points to help us answer questions like those on page 14 of the report. Those data points include information about clients’ income and barriers to getting and keeping a job, such as childcare and transportation. When agencies collect this information in a uniform way, we can learn about county-wide outcomes for improving financial security.

Suggested discussion questions are posed throughout the report to prompt deeper thinking and engagement with the data. The questions referred to here by ENTF relate to the coordination and sustainability of workforce development services and considerations for discontinuing, expanding, and/or adding new services.

What’s next for your organization?

We are in the process of finalizing a Strategy and Implementation Plan that centers equity and will guide our work over the next 3+ years. Our activities will include rejecting biased assumptions and changing narratives, holding leaders accountable, and advocating for policy and process change.