17 Mar HOW DID YOU GET HERE? WHY DO YOU STAY? WHAT’S IMPORTANT?
Editor’s Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of the Biscayne Times.
Big reports don’t mobilize residents to take action. This statement seems obvious, but we at The Miami Foundation took some time to arrive at this conclusion.
Since 1967, our foundation has worked with more than 1000 individuals, families, and organizations to invest in their causes through personalized charitable funds. But we’ve grown, and our mission now extends beyond philanthropy to empowering every resident to be a civic champion for the issues they care about.
In 2012, we released the first Our Miami Report. Built on the bones of the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community study that examined how attached residents were to the cities where they lived, the report looked at the factors driving that attachment — access to professional networks and good jobs, vibrant public spaces, volunteer opportunities — and assessed how Greater Miami was doing.
Our strategy was to take the findings and create a platform where anyone in the community could help advance these important factors. But the website received little to no traffic, even after major investments to promote it.
By 2016 we were ready for a new iteration of Our Miami Report. We knew there must be a way that residents could experience the information, which now contained data for about 60 metrics affecting Miami-Dade’s quality of life. Still, we needed a way to animate the statistics so people could really understand what life was like across the county and make more informed decisions about community building.
So that year we launched My Miami Story conversations, a day of small gatherings where hosts brought residents together to share their stories: how they came to Miami, why they stay, what they care about in the community, and what we can do to improve it.
Conversation hosts (any resident could sign up) received decks of cards printed with facts from Our Miami Report. For example: “In 2017, Greater Miami fourth-grade students outperformed their U.S. peers on reading and math tests.” The cards helped people interact with the data, whether they’d moved here as Cuban immigrants in the 1960s, had come for work two years ago, or grew up here.
Over the next four years, My Miami Story conversations attracted more than 12,000 residents who sat down together and talked about things they can do to support issues they care about, from speaking up at a county commission meeting to helping a friend vote. The annual day of conversations quickly became more than just connecting face to face; they became catalysts to mobilize small-scale, personalized community change.
All participants receive follow-up surveys, which ask what they discussed and their opinions on a host of community issues. Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies, with support from the Knight Foundation, compile the results and generate a report that gives deep insight into what our residents experience in their daily lives, how they feel about living here, and what matters to them.
In October 2019, more than 3500 Miamians participated in conversations from Homestead to Aventura. More than 330 residents returned the follow-up survey. Here’s some of what we learned:
• Majorities of participants felt that their community is the perfect place for them and that residents have shared community goals and priorities. However, across the county, participants were divided on whether their community provides opportunities for everyone. A slight majority of whites and Hispanics believed their community provided equitable opportunities for all, but the majority of African Americans did not believe this to be the case, including almost one in four who strongly disagreed with this statement: “My community provides opportunities to everyone.”
• When asked to identify the three most important issues for their community to address, housing was overwhelmingly No. 1 (51 percent), followed by good jobs and economic development (34 percent), then environmental issues (33 percent). In fact, housing was the top response for every age and racial/ethnic group; environmental issues registered as less important among the top three issues for African Americans, who felt poverty and economic security were more important.
• As in past years, participants believe nonprofits, community organizations, and residents themselves have the greatest impact on making their communities better — more than local government, businesses, or faith-based institutions. This is telling for Miami-Dade, as it means residents look to themselves and community groups they donate to and volunteer with as the way to improve their community. They feel emboldened to be the change they want to see.
• The 2020 Census will be a huge determinant of our region’s ability to serve its residents into the future. The vast majority of participants understood its importance and plan to complete the census. However, only 70 percent of those ages 18-34 planned to do so versus 94 percent of those 50 and older, which means our community needs to work to mobilize younger people. Getting our fair share of federal government funding for college financial aid was one of the top reasons participants planned to participate in the census (Medicaid was also a popular reason), so the message should resonate with residents under 35.
After four years of conversations, The Miami Foundation has learned that residents are hungry to connect with others who share their passion for a cause. The survey results back this up. “Join a small group that meets regularly to discuss important issues” was the top way participants of the 2018 conversations wanted to get involved in their community.
We are now turning the initiative over to the community that made it the rich, powerful experience it is today. Now no one has to wait for that one day in October; all the tools to host a conversation are available for download at MyMiamiStory.org.
We hope that individuals or organizations will use this approach any time they want to gather people together and discuss ways to take action on the issues facing Miami-Dade County. Because once you ask the question — “What’s your Miami story?” — there’s no limit to where the conversation can take you.
Matthew Beatty is the senior director of communications and engagement at The Miami Foundation.