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Sunday, 14 September 2014 22:00

KConnect looks to inform systemic change in Kent County

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KConnect aims to convene community stakeholders from various groups to take a close, transparent look at what the data say about various parts of Kent County. A recent session included (kneeling, L-R) Neil Carlson, Mark Woltman, Ginny Vander Hart, (middle, L-R) Seth Starner, Michael Ghareeb, Lindsay McHolme, Erica Van Ee, Julie Ridenour, Pamela Parriott, Tracie Coffman (rear, L-R) Paul Doyle, Jason Kehrer, Matthew Van Zetten, Luis Lugo, and Angie King. KConnect aims to convene community stakeholders from various groups to take a close, transparent look at what the data say about various parts of Kent County. A recent session included (kneeling, L-R) Neil Carlson, Mark Woltman, Ginny Vander Hart, (middle, L-R) Seth Starner, Michael Ghareeb, Lindsay McHolme, Erica Van Ee, Julie Ridenour, Pamela Parriott, Tracie Coffman (rear, L-R) Paul Doyle, Jason Kehrer, Matthew Van Zetten, Luis Lugo, and Angie King. COURTESY PHOTO

The concept behind the nonprofit KConnect is so focused on the macro level that it can be difficult at times to describe the organization in detail.

Even Executive Director Pam Parriott refers to the collective impact group as “ambiguous.”

“I tell people it’s a new way of collaborating,” said Parriott of her way of describing KConnect. “The idea is to try to put people in the room who don’t typically work together but care about one central issue.”

Although the organization itself is a nonprofit, it relies on various sectors in the broader Kent County community to help carry out its educational and career success goals. The point in combining sectors is to get people together who see the problem differently and may be able to offer various solutions.

“[KConnect is] harder than heck to try to explain, but it’s when a group of people brings in resources,” said Diana Sieger, executive director of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and a KConnect trustee. “[We’re] trying to address how we are going to move the needle for families living in poverty.”

One of the ways KConnect aims to “move the needle” in Kent County is through dis-aggregating statistics, the practice of breaking up available data to compare geographic areas, race and socioeconomic status. Once that is done, the organization can better pinpoint the problem areas and focus on creating solutions, all while being transparent with the data, sources said.

“It’s tough sometimes,” Sieger said of the work. “It’s not that nonprofits are trying to drag their feet or trying to be secretive about their impact. It’s just expensive to do that kind of research and sometimes it’s one family at a time or one student at a time.”

That’s where KConnect is looking to fill in the holes by providing accessible and detailed data to the community.

“KConnect’s work is really aimed at the macro level — providing the community reliable, transparent data around the current state of our children (and asking), ‘How are we doing?’” Parriott said.

On the surface, statistics portray Kent County as solidly middle class, but KConnect aims to take a deeper look. By doing so, data show the county is segregated by geography. For example, the poverty rate in Kent County’s highest performing city or township is 1.0 percent, while the lowest performing city or township has a 30.1 percent poverty rate — a staggering difference.

“We really want to focus, by design, on the system, those structural barriers we walk through every day,” Parriott said. “For people in our community who are stuck in poverty — temporarily, we hope — it’s a different life than many of us know. And those barriers are ever-present to them, and we have to understand that.”

She cites as an example having reliable transportation to get children to school or adults to their place of employment on a daily basis.

“If you can’t get to a public transit line, or it doesn’t take you to your place of employment, that’s a structural barrier,” Parriott said. “So we really think that transportation in particular can be a significant barrier for preschool, quality childcare, school attendance.”

To make sure work is being done to chip away at these issues, KConnect has implemented nine initial work groups made up of cross-sector teams. The work groups are split up into four categories: domain-based, cross-cutting, support strategies and an adjunct committee. Each work group has its own specific goal, whether it’s working within the prenatal to third grade group, high school to career group, basic needs and more.

“For a long time, the narrative in Kent County is, ‘It’s a great place to raise children, we’re a middle-class community and we’re very close-knit community,’ and that is very true,” said Nadia Brigham, who was part of KConnect’s steering committee and who recently stepped down as a board member in August.

“What is also true is that we have hot pockets in our community that are really struggling … and they’re struggling to the point of us needing to pause and say, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Those involved in KConnect admit, however, that finding solutions to these problems is going to take time.

“Systems work is very long work,” Parriott said. “Oftentimes, we don’t have a central convener, someone who’s dedicated to keeping that energy in the room … and really think creatively about the common agenda. A lot of times you have to set your own mission to the side in order to think about possibilities.

So I think groups hit a wall when thinking about possibilities.”

To keep the work groups on track, KConnect also presents four goals for them. The first is Early Childhood, with a goal to make sure children are ready for kindergarten. The second goal is K-12 Academic Success, where KConnect aims to prepare high school students for college or the workforce. The third is

Post-Secondary Completion, where students complete a post-secondary credential prepared for the 21st century economy. The final goal is Career Success, with the hope that young adults will find meaningful careers and are engaged in their community.

“If we keep the data aggregated, we look fabulous,” Brigham said. “But if we disaggregated the data … oh my goodness, we have quite a bit of work to do. And that’s the promise of KConnect. We’re going to disaggregate that data, keep it disaggregated and develop strategies.”

Read 3278 times Last modified on Sunday, 14 September 2014 10:20

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