On a Wednesday morning, I met with Kristin Metcalf-Wilson, Tracy Greever-Rice and Nellie Symm-Gruender to discuss their non-profit organization the Women’s Policy Alliance over coffee at Dunn Brothers.
Although they joked about how many hyphens they share among their multi-syllabic surnames, it is clear that these women are serious about their cause. The Alliance’s mission is “to improve the status of women in Missouri by providing policy makers, advocates and the media with data and evidence-based analysis of public policies that promote women’s opportunities for advancement and equity.”
In 2004, Missouri fared poorly in the Institute for Women’s Policy Research state-by-state report on the status of American women. The news came as a shock to Kristin, a faculty member at the University of Missouri School of Nursing, who also maintains a local practice.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Missouri got a C on the IWPR report,’” she said. “There were a whole lot of people who did worse but a whole lot who did better. Out of that report grew this core group of women who have kept alive that spirit of, ‘what are we going to do to make this better; how are we going to move this forward?’”
The Alliance was organized under the leadership of Dr. Pat Sobrero. Kristin is one of the original board members and coordinator of the status project, which works toward solutions to the problems highlighted in the IWPR report while continuing to gauge women’s progress across the state. She secured funding from a number of sources, including the Missouri Women’s Council and the Women’s Labor Bureau.
“Some states have done status updates stemming from the IWPR report, but they’ve taken on specific domains,” Kristin said. “We took it all head-on because you can’t talk about education and not talk about health care; you can’t talk about the work force and economic equality and not talk about health care. You can’t focus on and fix one thing — it has to be a bigger picture. If you don’t look at bigger picture, you’re not going to move the status of women forward.”
As they spoke about their far-reaching project, the women radiated energy, intelligence and passion. They are friends bound by a common goal. The Alliance plans to measure Missouri women’s health and well-being, income and earnings, education and civic participation, all by October 2010. That’s when they plan to share the results of their study with anyone who will listen, but particularly with state politicians who have the power to make a difference in women’s lives. Quite simply, the project’s scope astounds.
Kristin explained that from November 2009 to March 2010, they engaged focus groups in six cities throughout Missouri: Cape Girardeau, Columbia, Kansas City, Kirksville, St. Louis and Springfield. Local men and women from an array of professions, all of whom shared a vested interest in improving the status of women in their area, comprised the focus groups. They were doctors and nurses, social service providers, nonprofit executives and politicians, and they met once to determine community strengths and weaknesses in areas directly affecting women’s lives such as education, health care, childcare and jobs.
“We chose those places because we truly recognize how diverse women’s living situations are,” Nellie said. “All of the women across the board have really different issues, though some commonalities emerged out of it.”
Now that the focus groups have served their function, the data gathering can begin. Enter Tracy Greever-Rice, a statistics guru whose recent run for a City Council seat ended in a narrow loss but whose commitment to the community remains unchanged. Tracy is the associate director of community and socioeconomic initiatives at the University of Missouri’s Office of Social and Economic Analysis. She’s a sociologist by training and earned her master’s degree in community development; now, she’s a self-described “data broker,” someone who serves as a broker between data and how a community might use it. When considering what kind of data to pursue for the Alliance, Tracy had parameters in mind.
“We work from two basic principles in trying to decide what kind of data to use,” she said. “Data must be reliable, valid, accurate and available in timely way. … It has to be collected and analyzable in a comparable fashion across every geography that we’re using. There might be really wonderful data available in St. Louis or Kansas City on women’s reproductive issues, but if we can’t get in Skylar County, we can’t use it.”
Although finding consistent, wide-ranging data sources is challenging, once done, the statistics have the power to change communities for the better.
“You can tell an awful lot about a community by how well its most vulnerable members are doing,” Tracy said. “Reports like this one are important because they lift up strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion but not to facts. Facts are facts.”
The Alliance’s report is what’s known as an Indicators Report, which is meant to provide snapshots of how a population is doing. Statistics measuring the number of children receiving free and reduced lunch are an incredibly accurate indicator of family poverty, and the Alliance would like to develop a similar method or form of “data shorthand” to gauge women’s issues.
Tracy predicts that the report might raise as many questions as it answers, but ensuring that the important questions are asked at all is one of the project’s primary objectives. The women give as an example the fact that, contrary to their initial assumptions, most women in Missouri have access to a good clinic; unfortunately, many of them lack the transportation to get there. Once armed with that knowledge, community leaders can work together to institute viable solutions.
This fall, toting their fact-packed report, the women will travel to Jefferson City and present their findings to state politicians. Already, they have caught the attention of heavy-hitting policymakers such as Regional Director of US Department of Health and Human Services Judy Baker and US Sen. Claire McCaskill. In St. Louis, several state representatives attended the focus group meeting.
“We do have support,” Kristin said. “It’s exciting when you hear back from them [politicians], and they say, ‘Please let me know when this comes out.’ They would rather have more information than less.”
But the Alliance will also report at the local level by returning to the original focus groups to discuss the data. They understand that, in order to get things accomplished on the ground, they will need the continued support of the community leaders who helped shape the report.
Nellie summed up the group’s vision of success: “Success for me overall would be really having people from all over the state engaged and invested in this and having people who make policy call someone at the Alliance and say, ‘I just read your report.’ We are just putting the information in front of their eyes.”
When we finished talking, the women hugged and made plans to meet again. I’m amazed by Columbia’s interconnectivity. In the course of our discussion, I discovered that Tracy is my neighbor and that Nellie once was, too, 800 miles distant in Lakeway, Texas, where her son and my brother played sports for the same high-school team. It’s just further proof that women’s lives are inextricably connected, and by doing our part to help build up one another, we are strengthening communities, states, nations. v
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