Research Engine

The importance of being earnest about data and research

ConvergenceRI interviews the new deputy director of Rhode Island Kids Count, Jessy Donaldson

Photo by Richard Asinof

Jessy Donaldson, the new deputy director at Rhode Island Kids Count

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/13/17
ConvergenceRI spoke with Jessy Donaldson, the new deputy director at Rhode Island Kids Count, the leading advocacy group in Rhode Island on behalf of children and families, which produces an evidence-based Factbook every year, benchmarking the health and well being of children in Rhode Island that has become the veritable Bible of policy makers.
When will the research of economist Anna Aizer at Brown University on the impacts of childhood lead poisoning on third-grade reading levels in Rhode Island become integrated into the current initiative to improve third-grade reading levels in the state? How can the research by sociologist Shannon Monnat inform the development of a new policy issue report under consideration by Rhode Island Kids Count on the impact substance use disorders on families and young children? Can evidence-based research and data trump the current divisive nature of our politics to the point where facts re-emerge as an important part of policy decisions? Is there a way to better promote the convergence of ideas and conversations that break down existing silos in the academic and policy-making world?
In transcribing the interview with Jessy Donaldson, unnoticed at the time, was the undercurrent of the cacophony of sirens that swept through downtown Providence during a police chase and shooting on Thursday morning, Nov. 9.
All too often, the episodes of violence in our communities is something that happens elsewhere, out there, beyond the boundaries of daily life, save for the anxiety-driven reporting on local news outlets. As such, such events often become magnified in our imagination.
The connection of domestic violence against women, perpetrated by men, often gets lost in the conversation, as part of an if-then construction: if the allegations can be proven, then action will be taken.
What will it take for women to be believed? And, what will it take for men to stop defending the actions of sexual predators?

PROVIDENCE – Jessy Donaldson is the new deputy director at Rhode Island Kids Count, having been on the job for about three months. But her interactions with the leading Rhode Island advocacy group for children and families go back years, stemming from her work with the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, Md., the driving force behind creating 53 statewide advocacy groups for children.

Donaldson, a mother with three children ages 9, 7 and 3, is experienced in both policy development and advocacy built around data, having also worked with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in Quincy, Mass.

What Donaldson brings to her new position is a rock-solid belief in optimism, in accentuating the positive.

When asked about the biggest challenges faced moving forward, what Rhode Island Kids Count needs to work on, in terms of future directions for advocacy on behalf of children and families, Donaldson responded by saying, “What is really essential is figuring out how to identify solutions and opportunities, keeping people in a mindset that says: we can continue to get better, we can continue to create better opportunities for kids in our state.”

That optimistic mindset, Donaldson continued, needs to continue to drive Rhode Island Kids Count advocacy, with recommendations that are better grounded in data and research. “We need to keep the focus on how it can be done, and done better,” she said.

In a time when evidence-based rational analysis does not seem to be driving politics or policy decision-making, Donaldson stressed the importance of focusing on progress, pushing ahead to achieve even better results.

“It’s about progress,” Donaldson said. In Rhode Island, she continued, “We have 98 percent health coverage for children right now, and that’s awesome. That puts us in the top three in the country [behind Massachusetts and Vermont]. I always say, let’s push it to be even higher quality; let’s see if we can get even better outcomes.”

I have that mindset, Donaldson explained. “There are always ways we can make things better, whether you are talking about jobs or the economy, or for children and families.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Jessy Donaldson, the new deputy director at Rhode Island Kids Count, which has become one of the premier advocacy groups for children and families in the nation since its founding in 1994, under the leadership of its long-time executive director, Elizabeth Burke Bryant.

ConvergenceRI: What made you want to come to work at Kids Count? Were you recruited?
No, I applied. I’ve been in touch with Rhode Island Kids Count for a long time, actually, but not here in Rhode Island.

I worked at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is where I first came in contact with Rhode Island Kids Count.

Two bodies of work that I did there brought me in touch with the organization and with Elizabeth Burke Bryant.

ConvergenceRI: Were you based in Baltimore, Md., with your work for the Annie E. Casey Foundation?
Yes. I grew up in Rhode Island. My husband and I did some Peace Corps service. Then we ended up in Baltimore to do grad school. And then we ended up staying for about 10 years there.

I came into contact with Rhode Island Kids Count when I worked on the national campaign [to improve] third-grade reading levels.

I also worked on the Rhode Island Kids Count team at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which runs a national network or 53 state-based advocacy organizations [on behalf of children].

I always thought it was a great place, really unique, even in that group of 53 advocacy organizations.

And so, knowing the work well, and knowing Elizabeth well, and seeing this type of position open up, I was really interested in it. So, I tossed my hat into the ring.

ConvergenceRI: Did you have to move?
No. Two years ago, we moved back to Rhode Island. And I took at job at the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation, which is in Quincy, Mass.

We moved because we made a decision to come back to Rhode Island to live closer to our extended families – parents, my siblings still live in Rhode Island, my nieces and nephews.

ConvergenceRI: Do you live in Providence now?
I live in Jamestown. It’s where my husband grew up.

ConvergenceRI: Is it a long commute?
It’s not too bad, actually.

It’s a good place; we’re raising our kids there. It’s a great community.

ConvergenceRI: How many kids do you have?
I have three: nine, seven and three. They keep me busy when I’m not here.

ConvergenceRI: I was around when Rhode Island Kids Count first began in 1994…
You’ve seen it over its whole lifespan.

ConvergenceRI: Yes. I’ve seen the role that Elizabeth has played, in shaping an organization that has developed a comprehensive strategy around data, and advocacy around that data, and the acceptance of that data and research as evidence-based facts.

But, today, I wonder if facts matter anymore in our divisive political landscape. We seem to have reached a point in our political sphere where a rational approach to policy decisions has shifted.

It is a provocative question: does a strategy that is evidence-based need to shift to make sure that there is resonance with the current political dynamic?
That’s a good question.

I think, personally, and I’m not speaking for Kids Count at this point, that there is a lot that goes into making good policy for kids.

A lot of it is a combination of politics and the nuts and bolts of policy. I think [that] politics are taking control right now, especially on our national and federal levels.

But, at the heart of it, I think having good data is going to improve the policy you can make.

While there is the politics of getting policy passed, I think that if you are not really looking closely at the data and at what the policy is actually going to do for kids and families, and what it is actually going to cost, you’ve kind of missed the boat.

That is why I will continue to get up everyday and try to create good data with this team here [at Rhode Island Kids Count], and try to figure out [how to get that data] into the hands of the right people who making decisions about policy, both in the legislature and in the administrative offices, which is where a lot of the rubber meets the road.

It is [about] not allowing politics to consume you, about not allowing that data to get taken out of the equation, because it’s absolutely essential. That’s why I get up and do it every day.

ConvergenceRI: At the Kids Count luncheon earlier this week celebrating children’s health in Rhode Island, Rep. Marvin Abney, the chair of the House Finance Committee, got up and said that there was a kind of most favored lobbyist status for Elizabeth Burke Bryant, saying: we don’t put a time limit on her when she gives testimony.

Which, of course, is a testament to the relationships she has been able to develop with many key legislative leaders.

At the same time, beyond fostering those relationships, I wonder if there is a need to translate policies around things such as health care, which are often so in the weeds, to engage with people where they are?
I think there is a huge need for people who can translate what is happening in the policy-making realm into something that people can understand.

I think there is also a need for people to be open to listen to each other.

That translation function is absolutely essential; I think even very well educated people cannot always understand all the nuances of the details of what’s being worked out in a policy conversation, because its not their area of expertise.

ConvergenceRI: Rhode Island Kids Count has aggressively ramped up its social media presence in the past year, aggressively tweeting and developing policy-related e-newsletters. You haven’t gotten into podcasts yet. Is that right around the corner?
I don’t know. We’ll see.

ConvergenceRI: Have the ways to reach your target audience shifted, given the decline of the reach of traditional media in the marketplace?
Our communications strategy has been largely developed under Elizabeth’s leadership, and Katy [Chu] is essential in making it all happen. I’m involved as well.

We see it as a both/and. We don’t see it as a decision to go in one direction or the other. So, for every release we do of a report, I think we are trying to translate what we are learning from research, writ large, as well as what the data is showing us, putting it into a package that pulls the information together and also provides [policy] recommendations.

We see both [social media and traditional media] as important communications mechanisms. I don’t see us going in one direction or the other.

ConvergenceRI: How would you describe the target audience that you are trying to reach?
I think a lot about audience; I’ll say this being on the job for three months. We are definitely focused on policy makers and administrators. I think, additionally, we are very well aware that those policy makers are responsible to the constituents who have elected them.

But, our audience is much broader than policy makers. I think we’re trying to engage with people about these issues and in understanding the true data behind [the recommendations], and in understanding the research of what we know is good for kids – and then figuring out how we can win them over.

ConvergenceRI: In a time a budget shortfalls, let’s call it the seven lean years….
Can you clarify what you mean when you say the seven lean years? Are you talking about a specific age range?

ConvergenceRI: It’s a biblical reference, to Joseph interpreting the pharoah’s dream, and the seven fat years followed by the seven lean years. It’s a metaphor for the fact that we live in a time of budget deficits, and there does not appear to be a willingness to raise additional revenues through taxes. In that environment, how do more investments in kids and families get made?
It’s a budget prioritization process. If revenue is going to be flat, which is your premise, you have to determine how you spend the money.

We are always going to be strongly advocating for making investments in children, who we see as the future of Rhode Island. I may be over-simplifying.

ConvergenceRI: No, that’s fine. With the problems that have emerged at DCYF, while some of the issues are about resources, how can policy makers address some of the underlying issues, such as the economic disruption and tearing of the social fabric and social safety net?

For instance, in how substance use disorders affect families, particularly women. It seems hard to make progress, no matter how much money is being spent, if there isn’t a way to address the underlying modalities.
I think we [at Rhode Island Kids Count] are trying to dig in to so me of those root causes, to lift them up and make people aware of them.

We are developing a new issue brief, on maternal depression, that will be coming out in December, looking at the role of depression and mental health iare playing in mothers as they become mothers, whether that’s through adoption or through birth, and how that affects them as individuals, as well as their children, and their children’s healthy development.

I think mental health issues can be the driver in some of the things we are seeing with DCYF. We want to look upstream.

We are also considering, for next year, although we haven’t yet pinned this down, the idea of doing something more about opioid abuse, looking at it not just from the standpoint of parents, but how [those problems] are going to play out in the life and healthy development of children, particularly small children, who tend to be the most dependent on their parents.

I think we will continue to look upstream, always with an eye to prevention, on how do you create policy that can help families, to get help [to people] before they are in the system as a last resort.

ConvergenceRI: As you approach that work, you may want to look at the research by sociologist Shannon Monnat, who recently spoke at Rhode Island College, looking at what she calls the diseases of despair. Her research found that in Rhode Island, from 2010-2014, for white adults, male and female, between the ages of 25-35, 60 percent of all deaths were from alcohol, suicide and drugs, the highest such rate in the nation.
Wow. Is her work connected to what was published earlier this year in The Washington Post?

ConvergenceRI: It is related, but her research digs deeper, connecting the diseases of despair to the breakdown of the economic and social fabric of many communities.

Let me ask: How do families become engaged in the conversation, and not just policy makers and administrators, in your work at Rhode Island Kids Count?
If you saw our recent student-centered learning focus group report that Stephanie Geller, [the senior policy analyst], served as the lead on.

We conducted focus groups working directly with Young Voices as our partner; they helped to coordinate the focus group research.

With teens, sometimes it is easier to engage with them directly. We have a lot of organizations that serve as our partners that are directly working with families.

ConvergenceRI: With the maternal depression issue brief, who are your partners?
First, let me be clear; I am not writing the brief. We did have an input session; I think we had 25-30 different people attending. Some were medical providers.

We also included some outpatient programs for mothers who are suffering from depression around these issues, where they can go with their babies.

At the input session, some of the people spontaneously spoke of their own experiences of maternal depression.

One of things we ask the people who are attending an input session is: who else is missing, and how do we got those voices involved?

We also follow up to get their sense, as the brief is being written, if these are the right recommendations, and is this really going to be helpful to the people we were hoping to help.

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