The stories of our people give data context

By Jeremy Rhodes

Our ability to access and interpret data about our community is severely limited when we lack context to make sense of the data. The fact that our city’s median income is around $40,000 doesn’t mean much unless you also know that the median income for the entire state is around $60,000, and the median income for many of our peer cities is around $50,000.

There are a few reasons why our median income is as low as it is, but we can’t even speculate about it until we are aware of some of those key comparisons.

In December last year, we released The Waco Snapshot Report, which outlined trends in Waco around health, education, and financial security. Last week, with the help of Grassroots Community Development, we presented some of the data to leaders and stakeholders in three Waco areas — North Waco, East Waco, and South Waco. Our primary goal in these meetings was not just to share data, but to listen to the community members about their experiences in these communities over the last few years.

We were asking them to provide context. For example, in one neighborhood, the data showed an increasing median income over a five-year period. That’s good, right? We want to see incomes going up? Isn’t this something to celebrate?

You might think so, but the neighborhood residents attending our meeting told me about the recent construction of new housing developments that were not affordable to the people who lived in the neighborhood. These new housing developments attracted residents with higher incomes than the original residents, and those residents feared that additional development might continue this trend, possibly making the neighborhood unaffordable to those who had lived there for decades.

The knowledge of the community members helped me reframe the data I saw. The increasing income of that area was not caused by existing residents seeing their fortunes improve; it was caused by higher-income folks moving in, and in some cases, pushing the lower-income folks out.

It was rewarding to hear community members voice their concerns about housing, racial inclusion, and safety. More importantly, it was a great reminder that the stories of our people should always play a central role in the way we explore and understand the challenges facing our community. I have long loved numbers, statistics, charts, and maps; the data provided by people’s lived experiences must carry the same weight.

Jeremy Rhodes, Ph.D., is director of research and community impact for Prosper Waco.