Sociology experts partner with Muskegon Heights community leaders to collect data reflecting lived experiences

A green sign sitting on a raised, snow-covered cement base says: "Welcome. Muskegon Heights. City of Friendly People."

A collaboration among Grand Valley sociology experts and community leaders in Muskegon Heights is helping to expand the collection and analysis of comprehensive data that tell the true story of the city's residents.

Three sociology faculty members – Amanda Buday, Rachel Campbell and Anna Hammersmith – recently received a grant from the Michigan Public Health Institute through Access Health to continue the training of Muskegon Heights community advocates, who are learning through citizen social science training best practices for collecting both quantitative and qualitative data.

This adult learning is not only helping the community now and in the future, but also providing an opportunity for the residents to earn a non-degree-bearing certificate in data collection, the faculty members said.

The core mission of collecting the data, which is used to help develop policies and programs for the community, is ensuring the perspectives of Muskegon Heights residents are part of the process, said Kerri VanderHoff, executive director of the Coalition for Community Development.

"People with the lived experiences are the experts of their own lives, and that information is vital to understanding and conducting root-cause analysis," VanderHoff said. "The lived experience can help interpret the data more truthfully. Then you can leverage that as well, whether it's writing your own grants, building your own programs, or asking for a seat at the table when you bring this kind of deep information about the community to the table."

Two people smile while standing on a snow-covered street with houses in the background.
Kerri VanderHoff and Marquis Childers Jr. are actively involved with data-collection efforts and advocating for the Muskegon Heights community.

VanderHoff and fellow community leader Marquis Childers Jr., chairman of the Muskegon Heights Neighborhood Association Council, are part of a group that has worked to amplify residents' voices, including through funding opportunities. It was through these efforts that they became connected to the Sociology Department's Social Science Lab, and from there the adult-learning classes on collecting data were developed.

The fall class taught at the Annis Water Resources Institute focused on collecting qualitative data, such as interviewing skills and how to report out the data, Campbell said. The next session for winter has focused on quantitative data, which is survey oriented.

Hammersmith said the GVSU experts are hopeful this effort can serve as a model for similar collaborations. The goal is to equip the community advocates with data-collection expertise that they can use in the future, with Grand Valley experts providing continued support by helping with problems or answering questions.

"We really believe in the mission of having citizens collect data on their own community rather than outside stakeholders coming in and investing in their issues they thought were important," Hammersmith said. "We thought community members should be able to explore what they think is valuable, and that those data narratives could not only be used for empowerment but also for applying for state or federal grant funding eventually."

A park shelter is surrounded by trees. On a fence is a sign that offers information about neighborhood enhancement efforts with words including "Residents, Neighborhoods, Community Together. We empower us!"
A sign on a fence says in blue writing, "Good neighbors building strong neighborhoods." There also are drawn images of homes.
The Bethlehem Park Neighborhood Association came together to purchase, improve and provide upkeep of the park that is in the heart of that neighborhood. The neighborhood association is part of the Muskegon Heights Neighborhood Association Council.

Buday noted that distrust of researchers' intentions when collecting social science data can lead to residents' voices not being represented in outcome reporting. By having residents conduct this community-owned research, the chances are better that voices are included and elevated.

It has been gratifying to work with the motivated, accomplished students, Buday said.

"These are some very engaged residents," Buday said. "They have a lot of passion for organizing their community and driving positive change forward."

Childers said the GVSU training on how to leverage data to help the community has been "eye-opening." He said he has seen the power of qualitative data to help get to root causes of challenges.

One early effort he and VanderHoff helped carry out was a photo project where they asked residents to snap photos from their lives to accompany narratives to help explain their perspectives. Childers recounted how a resident took a photo of potholes on their residential street. But the resident's reaction to the potholes counteracted conventional thinking.

"I don't want them to fill the potholes because people drive so fast down the street and we have a lot of kids playing on the block," Childers recounted from the resident. "I'd rather keep the potholes because it makes everybody slow down. 

"That was a fascinating way of thinking," Childers added. "OK, that's a root cause, so how can we fix that. It's not the potholes, but maybe we need speed bumps."

A colorful mural with the words "The Neighborhood" is painted on the side of the building. There are images of people, flowers and a house.
A mural with the words "The Neighborhood" decorates the north side of the Muskegon Area District Library Muskegon Heights Branch. The library's community room is where early data-project meetings were held.

VanderHoff noted that this type of qualitative information has already made an impact on people outside the community who may have developed a narrative of Muskegon Heights based off such things as media reports, but who then see how neighborly the community is.

Added Childers: "In reality we all have the same goals. Everyone wants to have a great community, thriving, healthy, flourishing businesses and safe spaces for our kids.

"We all really have the same issues. We just have to talk to each other."


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