“People like their data like they like their food — fresh and local.”
Somerville’s mayor, Joseph Curtatone, dropped this statement at the launch party for Somerville’s 2017 Wellbeing Report, where stakeholders celebrated the publication of citywide health data that underscores social determinants of health. Although intended as a joke, Curtatone’s analogy was surprisingly accurate — capturing both the flavor of the party and the conduction of public health research that led up to it.
Somerville’s betterment agenda, as I’ve come to realize, is fresh in the sense of ingenuity; local in the sense of rootedness. In the public health realm, the city prioritizes up-to-date information, ever-evolving strategies, and the co-mobilization of various groups — all while leveraging the city’s unique history and local characteristics. And everything about the launch party reflected that. The venue was a beautiful, albeit modest, multipurpose space; the vibe was casual and friendly, despite there being some big-name stakeholders in the room; even the food offerings celebrated some of the mom and pop shops nearby. It was an apt celebration for an ambitious undertaking within a humble and community-oriented city.
But it wasn’t all celebration. Although the mayor opened by mentioning Somerville’s strengths, he also highlighted some of its weaknesses: persistent gaps in educational achievement, housing security, and enrollment in food assistance programs among the city’s poorest residents. There were also problems the mayor neglected to mention. Namely, in glorifying the Green Line extension — forecasting lower pollution, increased mobility, and higher residential desirability — he overlooked (or, at least, refrained from mentioning at this celebratory event) potential unintended consequences, like the displacement of low-income families due to the higher cost of housing surrounding new Green Line stops.
But do unintended consequences matter? For the most part, those conducting research and spearheading interventions are separated — demographically, spatially, emotionally — from those on the receiving end.
Most guests at the launch party, for instance, were white, well-educated, and held some position of power — a breakdown that made me question who was conducting research for the Wellbeing Report to begin with, and how they would later design interventions in response to its findings. After all, demographic differences between researchers and subjects can often lead to compromised trust, paternalistic attitudes, and incomplete findings (Cacari-Stone et al., 2014). And the Wellbeing report, while claiming to “engage community members and stakeholders… for feedback and comments,” is still community-based rather than community-driven — meaning that research is conducted with, but not driven by, community members.
But maybe that’s okay. The efficiency that comes with a more official, targeted agenda makes up for lapses in inclusivity. And given the mention of “shared purpose,” “co-production,” and “community partnerships” throughout the launch party, the stakeholders seem both interested and skilled at engaging those frequently left out of the discussion.
It was an appropriate ending to the party, then, to involve all guests in a rotating discussion about Somerville’s remaining public health gaps — informing attendees of the problems and encouraging participation in solving them. I personally felt a vested interest when I walked around and highlighted issues that stood out to me. Maybe at the next launch party, they’ll have more community members doing the same.