In the fall of 2015, Community Council of the Blue Mountain Region – in collaboration with Sherwood Trust, Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, and Blue Mountain Community Foundation – partnered with the Budget & Policy Center to launch a community-driven, results-focused process to create a more prosperous region. Now we are proud to release Building a Better Blue Mountain Region, a report summarizing this collaborative effort and highlighting a new, innovative way to support community-driven solutions.
The Blue Mountain Region includes Walla Walla and Columbia counties in Washington state and the northeastern part of Umatilla County in Oregon. It is home to a diverse and growing population and economy, and it is known for its higher education system, wineries, agriculture, and small-business community.
We used the Budget & Policy Center’s own Progress Index framework as a starting point for identifying local data that could tell a preliminary story about the region’s well-being. The story that emerged from the data revealed areas for improvement in the community as well as bright spots upon which to build. For example:
- The Blue Mountain Region ranks high for overall quality of life and has a strong healthcare infrastructure;
- Economic hardship is high throughout the region, especially among the Latino population, which is driving population growth;
- Among residents born outside of the United States, those who have obtained citizenship have greater economic security than residents who are non-citizens, and they have lower rates of economic hardship than their peers born in the United States; and
- Education outcomes – like kindergarten readiness, reading ability by the end of third grade, and high school graduation rates – vary considerably by race, ethnicity, and district/school, but many schools perform better than the state average on these important indicators, offering the opportunity to learn what is working for students.
Community Council and its partners used Budget & Policy Center data to hold two “data walks” – events where members of the community review and discuss what the data says about them – with Blue Mountain region residents. The attendees of these events were asked to discuss what the data in the infographics meant to them, answering the following questions: Does the data align with their understanding of the community? What conditions in the community explain why the data looks the way it does? How do residents want the story emerging from the data to change? And, what strengths does the community possess to change the story?
The conversations that took place during the data walks were dynamic and inspiring, giving Community Council insight into the ideas and aspirations of residents. It also gave the project partner organizations a better sense of the network of individuals and organizations they can tap into to achieve community-driven progress. [See pages 22-23 of the report for a summary of the data walk discussions.]
Thanks to feedback from the participants in the first data walk, project partners made the second data walk more accessible. It was held in the evening so people who work during the day could attend. A Spanish interpreter and bilingual materials were offered so more members of the Latino community could be part of the conversation. It also provided free childcare.
The partner organizations are now using the information gathered from the conversations at these two events in strategic planning efforts for the Blue Mountain region. With the data and the initial conversations as a guide, they plan to continue conversations with a growing network of residents to create a community-driven vision for the improvement of the well-being of the region and its people.
And at the Budget & Policy Center, this collaboration with our partners in eastern Washington marks a new way of doing our work. We recognize that data is much more powerful – and a better tool for developing and advancing effective public policies – when it is shaped by the stories of the people it represents. Building data walks and other community engagement tools into our research ensures that our analysis is informed by and accountable to the people and communities behind the numbers. They are the people and communities whose well-being we seek to ensure in our work to create a just, prosperous, and equitable Washington.