The Advantage of Data in Advocating for Change

The Advantage of Data in Advocating for Change

April 4, 2016 | Antoinette Davis

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Recently, while perusing Facebook, I noticed a somewhat disturbing post: “I have 200 Facebook friends but I wonder how many people actually take the time to read my posts. If you read this post, write one word to describe your feelings for me. If you respond, it means that you are one of the few people who really care about me.”  

Recently, while perusing Facebook, I noticed a somewhat disturbing post: “I have 200 Facebook friends but I wonder how many people actually take the time to read my posts. If you read this post, write one word to describe your feelings for me. If you respond, it means that you are one of the few people who really care about me.”  

Was this a narcissistic rambling or a real cry for help? My work in the field of social justice has made me aware of research in adolescent brain development indicating that a young person’s brain does not fully develop until age 25. The person who posted the Facebook statement is under 25, and it did feel a bit adolescent. It kind of reminded me of the notes my 10-year-old delivers to me after a disagreement or being disciplined. 

After reading further and reviewing the adjoining comments, I discovered this person was fine and simply participating in the “friendship test.” About 50 “friends” responded to the test and answered as instructed with various words and short phrases. Only one brave soul—the outlier—publicly challenged the appropriateness of the post, asking if he was seeking attention or actually needed help. In response he wrote, “I’m just reposting what someone else said; these really aren’t my thoughts or feelings.” In a second reply, the respondent warned about falling prey to Internet bullying—and reposting garbage.  

Social science researchers frequently are the ones asking others not to “repost” or reinforce “garbage” or bad information. We ask systems and agencies to incorporate research, make objective decisions based on data, and change longstanding policies and practices.  

Much of my work at NCCD centers on addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system, analyzing data, asking tough questions, and developing data-informed solutions. I find that having access to data and objective research has strengthened my ability to effectively share information and correct misconceptions and untruths. Having access to data is a key mechanism for advocating and rationalizing the need for change. It often is the only way to get an audience with some decision makers.  

An example of a project in which data was used to refute erroneous beliefs and information is an NCCD report examining the overrepresentation of Black youth in the Baltimore City justice system. At the time of the report, Black youth made up 67% of the youth population but accounted for 94% of arrests and almost 96% of the secure confinement population. Most jurisdictions have a similar pattern, with the bulk of the juvenile justice population being youth of color.  

To determine the reasons for Baltimore City’s overrepresentation, we asked stakeholders a number of tough questions. This included examining the belief that the nature of crimes committed by Black youth are serious enough to justify or explain the disparity. Our analysis found that was not the case. Although Black youth were arrested more often than their White peers, evidence did not show a level of serious delinquent or criminal activities that warranted the system’s significant racial disparities.  

Our investigation found that when in contact with the justice system and upon arrest, Black youth were treated differently than their White counterparts: They were less likely to be diverted to community-based services, more likely to be formally processed through the court system, and less likely to be found delinquent (i.e., guilty), suggesting a need for more diversion and mechanisms for supervising youth outside of the justice system. Not surprisingly, we also found that many of these system-involved youth lived in communities plagued by concentrated poverty, poor housing, high unemployment, excessive crime, and high police presence—all factors that increased their risk for justice involvement. 

Like the outlier mentioned above, social science researchers must continue to ask tough questions, push for change, and advise people not to fall prey to fictitious and erroneous information. As professionals, it is our responsibility to check the legitimacy of information, not simply repeat and repost.