By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–The Community Foundation of Southern Indiana has released its latest assessment of priorities for Clark and Floyd Counties.
The assessment, Priorities for Progress: Assets and Aspirations in Southern Indiana 2021, was prepared for the Foundation by the IU Southeast Applied Research and Education Center (AREC).
Dr. Melissa Fry, AREC director, and her team pulled together public data, findings from community listening sessions and surveys of more than 600 individuals living or employed in Clark and Floyd Counties.
They found that, despite the pandemic and economic turbulence of the previous year, a longer-term upswing continued to build optimism among residents, who remain enthusiastic about prioritizing quality-of-place amenities, even as they remain focused on the need for well-paying jobs and widespread access to affordable physical and behavioral health care, according the Foundation.
“Clark and Floyd counties saw important progress from 2015 to 2019, with increases in real median income and educational attainment, reductions in poverty, and fewer residents suffering food insecurities,” Fry said. “The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted momentum, but efforts to improve quality of place and quality of life continue.”
The new assessment updates and expands on the 2015 report–also produced by AREC–with a more detailed community survey that provides a more granular insight into public data. This renders the report more useful to local decision-makers.
Among the many opportunities to align public, nonprofit and business resources that are suggested by data from the assessment, the Foundation cites improving quality of place and life, building and attracting living-wage jobs and providing affordable access to housing, health care, childcare, education, and job training.
The project enabled AREC to leverage its unique competencies for the good of the community while also furthering the educational mission of the campus.
The student contribution was crucial.
“Students accessed, downloaded and managed public data on the two-county region, Indiana and the U.S.,” Fry said. “They attended and took detailed notes at community listening sessions, set up survey drop boxes in select locations, entered paper survey data, and managed the online survey. Once all the data were collected, they ran all of the summary descriptive statistics and created the charts and tables in the report.”
Mariah Benham, a senior from Salem, Ind. double-majoring in sociology and neuroscience, was in her second year of classes when Fry invited her to join the project as a research assistant.
The pandemic disrupted the project and forced Benham and the other students to think on their feet.
“The most challenging aspect was figuring out how to maximize my productivity during the pandemic,” Benham said. “Adapting to the situation as it evolved, and figuring out how to use technology to our advantage as we were forced to work from home was definitely a setback in the beginning.”
Relying on skills gained through previous experience and coursework, such as critical thinking, communication, problem-solving and colaboration, was critical for success, according to Benham.
“There are so many different people and parts involved that it is really important to understand what everyone is working on as you move through the project,” Benham said.
Benham appreciated the opportunity to be involved at all states of the project, seeing it through from survey design and data collection to analysis and preparing fact sheets, summaries and edits for the launch of the final report itself.
For Fry, the chance to participate in a long-term project gives students in this field to deepen their understanding.
“Regional community-based research helps students develop research and critical thinking skills, while also teaching them about the interconnected issues facing the local community,” Fry said. “This opportunity hones student skills, while also preparing them for leadership roles in our community by encouraging them to engage, pay attention and contribute to building on the region’s strengths to address our challenges.”
It also helps the university achieve its mission.
“In addition to benefitting our students, the final product contributes to the intellectual, cultural and economic development needs of the IU Southeast service region by providing common reference points for discussion, planning, and decision-making in areas from arts and recreation to education, mental health and homelessness,” Fry said.
The assessment, Priorities and Progress, may be accessed from the website of The Community Foundation of Southern Indiana.