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by -- October 15th, 2013


When I was training as a restoration ecologist, I collected lots of data. Spending long summer days “in the field”, I surveyed vegetation, counted the number of stems of exotic plants, measured canopy cover, sampled soil.

Data: numbers that fit nicely into an Excel spreadsheet, ready to be transformed by statistics.

This weekend, I am collecting an entirely different set of data. My colleagues and I are conducting focus groups of community members, Paul Quinn College faculty and students, and government officials. We ask them to describe their neighborhood, to identify environmental amenities, and to suggest challenges facing the community.

And while I may not be filling a spreadsheet with numbers, I am certainly learning about what it means to be a well-intentioned outsider. During our first focus group, I learned that Paul Quinn College is not located in South Dallas but in the “southern sector”. First foot-in-the-mouth moment… but not the last.

I have learned that Dallas is divided into the “north” and “the southern sector”, not by any significant geographic feature but by unequal access to resources.

Then, I learned that all the open green space in this part of Dallas is not universally considered as an “environmental amenity. Community members view this undeveloped land as a symbol of neglect by the City government and private entities, who prefer to concentrate their development efforts in the northern part of the city.

During one focus group, someone suggested that this land could be converted into working farms, large-scale community gardens. Given that we are located in a food desert, this seemed like a great idea to me.

Community members quickly corrected my notion, however, arguing that what the area needs is commercial and residential development. They don’t need trees or farms. They need jobs. They need a grocery store.

These focus groups are the first stage in a multi-step research and teaching partnership between Paul Quinn College and Duke University. We are here to learn about this community, both in terms of their challenges and their celebrations. We are thinking of ways to extend this research, to involve community members, and to create sustainable relationships among stakeholders.

While we will have no neat spreadsheets or p-values to share with these community members, we were definitely called to task today. We can’t just come in and survey. Research is not needed here. What is needed is action.

Brene Brown suggests “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”  If that’s the case, our analysis won’t involve fancy statistical tests but a careful sifting through stories and conversations, not just looking for the data but to celebrate the soul.

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