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Our Voice: Minnesota Compass: Getting to know our neighbors

This article by McKnight program officer Sarah Hernandez originally appeared in the "Trends" section of the Minnesota Compass website in October 2011.

In recent years, we at The McKnight Foundation have increasingly recognized the value of developing a central collection of neighborhood indicators. When the opportunity presented itself to work with Compass to create such a system, it seemed a logical next step in our work together.

McKnight’s core programs include efforts to encourage development with livable communities and opportunities for everyone to thrive. Within this, one of our strategies is to support organizations and other community-led efforts to create vibrant neighborhoods where people, businesses, and communities can truly prosper. In support of such street-level efforts, we’ve been pleased to partner with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation for decades.

So, as part of McKnight’s focus on evaluating the progress of neighborhood work we support, we engaged Wilder Research to help identify a set of indicators to help track and measure key changes – always in movement – at the neighborhood level. With a keen sensitivity to broad engagement throughout development, Wilder welcomed representatives of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, United Way, the City of Saint Paul, and the City of Minneapolis to those early conversations. Together, the group determined that, in addition to identifying key indicators, it would be extremely valuable to enhance Compass’s current services with a new neighborhood focus.

Wilder invited the community that will use the tool to shape the tool – an approach that required thoughtful planning and process management to carry out effectively. And not only did the process inform Compass’s data collection, creating a truly top-notch service to nurture and strengthen community building, but it also laid the groundwork for a shared understanding that this data is the community’s data – owned by all, to be shared with all, to empower all.

This level of engagement is crucial because until that magic moment when data is somehow applied – given life through action – it is just numbers in boxes. Fortunately for Minnesota, Compass goes to amazing lengths to present the information it collects in ways that truly encourage creative application.

And the impact of such deep research and analysis is far-reaching. In the Twin Cities and around the state, Compass already informs and initiates action on issues such as housing, transportation, economic development, workforce, health, education, and civic engagement. Now peering through a lens with a focus on the city blocks that define our cities, Compass has an opportunity to help illuminate demographics and trends at an intensely local level for everyone from neighborhood development corporations to human service agencies, the media, community planners, housing and transit developers, and more.

In all great tasks, alignment is critical. Making use of credible data to inform the work of nonprofits and their partners is imperative – but creating opportunities for collaborators to draw from shared data creates real power. With good data, we can all make smart, but isolated, decisions; by sharing good data, however, we have more power to align strategies and leverage informed action into movements, engaging and embracing multiple participants and resources.

If ever there was a perception that one city or state equaled one community, those days are long gone. We know that life today in St. Paul’s Frogtown, for example, shares many similarities with life in Minneapolis’s Corcoran neighborhood – but that each area also faces its own challenges, and equally stands to take advantage of its own unique strengths and opportunities.

Committed to supporting the healthy development of community at all levels, McKnight and our many partners have a huge stake in understanding each and every neighborhood we hope to help. City-level data gets us a certain distance with that understanding, but only neighborhood-level data can take us to the blocks and to the homes where people live and work. It is in seeking long-term solutions at this very personal, human level that we believe we’ll find the deepest engagement and enjoy the longest-lasting, best outcomes.

Key to such work is the recognition that before we can engage, we must understand. Compass’s new data offerings hold great promise to help McKnight, our grantees, and the broad community do just that. It is an important step in our shared regional journey for all to thrive.

Sarah Hernandez is a program officer at The McKnight Foundation working within the Foundation’s Region and Communities program area. The program encourages efficient development in the Twin Cities region that creates livable communities and opportunities for all to thrive. Hernandez oversees the Neighborhood Improvement portfolio. Over time Hernandez has served on several advisory boards and committees of area nonprofits including the Corporation for Supportive Housing, Twin Cities LISC; Nexus Community Partners, and Minnesota Green Communities. She currently serves on the Neighborhood Funders Group Board of Directors. Prior to McKnight, Hernandez worked in corporate government and community affairs with the Honeywell Corporation in Minneapolis.