Censeo Connection

July 15, 2013

The “Mine”-ing of Data:  A reminder to check your ink

I’ve spent most of my career writing reports (I know, I know, you’re jealous).  As mundane as this might sound, I am frequently reminded that my work is not unlike that of a storyteller.  While my storytelling doesn’t involve sitting in the children’s corner at my local library and reading my reports in fun and varied voices; my work does have a voice.  My work should have a voice.  And that voice is not mine.

“Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a nonprofit organization who served youth who were all…”


The work of program evaluation, and research for that matter, involves creating ways to collect information from people and then sharing that information with stakeholders.  Here, the difficulty is that the program evaluator is telling the story of someone else; and doing so in a way that honors someone else’s voice – rather than ending up like this guy (though the gold pants are awesome)…

I'm sorry

I recently learned about an initiative called Polling for Justice, in a qualitative research course at Iowa State University (highlighted in the text Critical Qualitative Research Reader, by Shirley R. Steinberg and Gaile S. Canella).  What I love about this model of participatory research is that the evaluator simply facilitates; empowering youth to tell their own story.  It’s a good reminder that, in its best form, research is done “with” not “to” those involved.  I get really excited about this idea, because I imagine it to look like:

Youth Circle +



Double Rainbow

Polling for Justice is grounded in a simple, yet powerful, idea that the data youth provide us belong to them.  And, in order to ensure those data are reported accurately, and with their voice, they tell the story.

Check out the video to see the youth voices of Polling for Justice in action:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh0mdefVPHc.  As I watched it for the first time my initial thought was – where can we do this in Iowa?  (And use all that valuable Iowa Youth Survey data). My second thought was cringe-worthy, in realizing that my usual role is not unlike that of Dr. Researchy Research (but without the lab coat).

When I collect data they don’t become mine. I have a part in telling the story, but need to ensure that my bias is checked (click here for more on controlling bias).  Mark Twain said, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”  A history-of-sorts is the permanent, written, documentation of research and evaluation reports.  So, as evaluators, we become obligated to check our ink.  Or better yet, play a role which empowers others to write their history with their ink.











June 2013

Who’s Counting? 

Everyone knows the old adage in evaluation and research – “What gets counted counts.”  I find that despite its truth, this statement is completely unpopular and seems to suggest that organizations and individuals count everything, so that everything counts (which is a whole other blog…stay tuned).

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on this statement and its application to a workshop I presented at the 2013 Iowa Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth.  In the session, titled The Experience of LGBTQ Youth in Iowa Schools, I was given the opportunity to discuss the only available data specific to LGBTQ youth in Iowa with a great group of participants (see GLSEN’s 2011 National School Climate Survey results).  We were then able to compare this to other data sources, including the main source of youth data in our state – the Iowa Youth Survey.  While the Iowa Department of Public Health should be commended for supporting such an invaluable source of information, this survey does not ask questions specific to sexual orientation or gender identity.  Therefore, we are unaware of the experience of LGBTQ students – including their experience with specific survey items regarding bullying, suicide, connection with school, and substance use.  Furthermore, we cannot compare outcomes for Iowa’s LGBTQ and general student populations.

Failure to include these questions on the Iowa Youth Survey sends clear, even if unintended, message to Iowa’s LGBTQ youth – “You don’t count.”  This is unacceptable and irresponsible.  In an age where data drives decision making, where we are painfully aware of the negative long term effects of bullying and substance abuse, and where LGBTQ students continue to complete suicide, failure to ask this question can no longer be tolerated.  We are in effect silencing and further marginalizing a group of youth with a survey; the precise survey that could help us to understand their experience and ensure their safety.

Brave – and, responsible – communities and states have started to add these questions to their youth surveys (see the full report here).  So, while Iowa may be on the cutting edge of civil rights for LGBT adults, we are the dull middle (at best) in supporting LGBTQ youth – which begs the question, WHY?  In the Iowa Youth Survey we have a valid and reliable survey instrument and active district participation.  We just need to ask the right questions.  Doing so would give voice to LGBTQ students and send the important and essential message – “You Count.”

And remember that fabulous group of workshop participants?  They want Iowa to be brave and responsible, too – and more importantly, they want Iowa LGBTQ youth to know that they count.  Read a summary of their thoughts and recommendations for policymakers here.







October 2012

This morning I woke to a Facebook message from a friend.  She knows how passionate we are at Censeo Solutions when it comes to preventing bullying through programs and education and sent me the following link:

CBS WKBT News Anchor\’s On-Air Response to Viewer Calling Her Fat (Oct. 2nd, 2012)

Malcom Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’ takes a look at the factors that create change.  He examines national and global phenomenon to discover what the point was at which change happened- that change may be an epidemic going global, a fashion trend taking over the American Northeast, or decrease in teen suicide rates. It was Gladwell’s book that stuck with me this morning as I considered two sorts of tipping points in bullying. The first, the change in the form of bullying from school yard ‘teasing’ to full scale assaults via Facebook and Twitter.  The second, the change yet to come when we see a culture shift where accosting peers or people you’ve never met becomes an absolutely unaccepted practice.

At Censeo Solutions, we (and by we, I mean Jennifer) examine the success of programs designed to stop bullying.  I focus my work on a policy level, examining what states and school districts are doing to stop this education epidemic.  As I result of our work, I can say the encouraging news is that there is a lot of really wonderful, thoughtful work going on out there which impacts school culture and therefore the lives of
individual students.  The discouraging thought is that for all of the work organizations, school districts, communities, and states are doing to prevent bullying-  a great number of people out there, such as the anonymous viewer in the aforementioned clip, continue to behave in harmful,
hurtful ways.  Jennifer Livingston said it best ;

“But what really angers me is there are children who don’t know better. Who get emails, as critical as the one I received or in many cases even worse, each and every day. The internet has become a weapon. Our schools have become a battleground. And this behavior is learned. It is passed down from people like the man who wrote me that email.”

It seems to be that our tipping point will come when the children, who have learned in school how to treat one another with kindness and
respect, teach adults to behave in the same way.   Here at Censeo Solutions we work daily with a number of great organizations whose mission is to prevent bullying in schools.  October marks National Bullying Prevention Month, and gives us all the opportunity to take time to reflect on the impact bullying has on our children, our education, and our society.  Throughout this month, Censeo Solutions will share our thoughts, our work, and the great work of others in the area of bullying.  I look forward to spending the month continuing to examine this important topic with you.







The Censeo Solutions blog – December 2011

Think back with me to a time when Kermit the Frog sang songs about Rainbows.  As with most of Kermit’s teachings, the wisdom of The Rainbow Connection can be applied far beyond the Rainbow.  And in this, Censeo Solutions’ inaugural blog, I’ve chosen to push this limit as far as humanly possible (or amphibian-ly possible) and apply those lessons to data – good, bad and confusing.

Why are there so many fears about data? And what’s on the other side?

Every day, willingly or not, we are inundated with data.  Percentages, statistics, survey results – on the TV, radio, and the seemingly endless internet with it’s news and social media.

Sometimes, so overwhelmed, we ignore this information all together.  Other times we may like what we hear and feel comfort or confirmation in it.  We get a warm fuzzy feeling know that we have “good” information,  that we know what kind of results to expect from our actions; that evidence supports our work.  Or sometimes, that someone who is much smarter than we are, told us so – and, therefore, we are RIGHT.

Then there are the times that we don’t like what we hear.  In this case, we can quickly – sometimes automatically – assume that the information is “bad” – the data are wrong, the survey sample was small, the question was biased or the information is skewed.  It’s usually only in these instances of “bad data” that we ask questions.

Data are visions, but only illusions, and data have nothing to hide.

Data can confirm and challenge, but sometimes they confuse.  Data can leave us asking WHY?  This WHY makes us look deeper and broader – seeking other information, analyzing what else impacts the data – tracing back our steps until we analyze everything that impacts a result.  Frequently this journey backwards is filled with a personal need to prove the “bad” data wrong rather than see what we can learn from it.

So we’ve been told, and some choose to believe it…

Maybe data should always make us ask WHY, even when it’s “good.”  For most of us, good data means we are good, or our work is good.  While “bad” data may mean we are bad, or our work is bad.  But is this really the case?  In my mind, the “good” use data to improve – they embrace transparency and own their data, even when results are less than hoped and expected.  When they ask WHY, they seek to change this result – they use data to inform change and improve.  As long as data is used as a tool in learning, isn’t it okay if it points out challenges?  I believe answer is YES.  Remember, data can also provide us the solution.

We need to establish an environment for data – our data – which rewards transparency, regardless of what the data say, or who judges the outcomes to be “good” or “bad.”  This will give us the permission and freedom to own ALL data rather than deny or hide it; and renews our commitments to accountability and improvement.

Someday we’ll find it, the DATA connection – the lovers, the dreamers and me!

At Censeo Solutions I am lucky to have a team that is accepting of my curiosity, inner data nerd, and questionable sense of humor.  Even better, they understand the imporance of helping our clients understand their work and impact.  In our short 20 month existence, Censeo Solutions has sought to help organizations manage, utilize and own their data in a “good” way – one that allows for continuous improvement, informed decision making, and increased impact.   We don’t want our reports to end up collecting dust on a shelf – we want to keep the information alive!

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