University of Michigan
News for Faculty and Staff

September 21, 2018

Knight Foundation grant to help project amplify Detroit voices

April 19, 2018

Knight Foundation grant to help project amplify Detroit voices

To help Detroit leaders better craft programs and policies that respond to community needs, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded $761,000 to help University of Michigan researchers collect and report Detroit residents' opinions on the city's most pressing and interesting policy issues.

"Credible and reliable public opinion information is a gateway to a different kind of community conversation," said Katy Locker, Detroit program officer at the Knight Foundation.

"It helps defuse conflicts and ensure that voices that are often silenced or unheard get fair representation in public debates. The Knight Foundation is excited to support the university's work to help Detroiters become more informed and engaged residents as the city continues to rebuild." 

The information U-M researchers are collecting will be used by city officials, nonprofits, business leaders and philanthropies to inform program development, guide investments in physical spaces and craft public policies that better reflect the interests of Detroit residents.  

"Policy solutions and community investments lose force when they don't stand up to the needs or expectations of citizens," says Elisabeth Gerber, associate dean for research and policy engagement at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and co-director on the project.

"Community leaders across the city need and want honest feedback on the challenges residents face and the ways new programs and policies are affecting them, but collecting that information in an accurate and representative way can be challenging."

A canvasser for the Detroit Metropolitan Area Communities Study meets with a Detroit resident to gather input. (Photo by Conan Smith)

Gerber, who also is the Jack L. Walker Jr. Collegiate Professor of Public Policy, professor of public policy and of political science, and her co-directors see the Detroit Metropolitan Area Communities Study — also known as DMACS — as a way to gather that feedback while meeting multiple objectives.

First, and most importantly, DMACS is designed to be a tool for Metro Detroit decision-makers — one that will help them develop investments, policies, programs, and resources in a way that more closely aligns with what the needs and wants of the city's residents. But the study also benefits U-M students, who obtain practical experience in survey methodology, and scholars, who can access the aggregate data to understand and address a wide range of social challenges.

"In the American democratic system, decisions are made by those who show up, and too often the voices of those in the most need go unheard," says co-director Jeffrey Morenoff, director of the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research.

"DMACS can't completely resolve that challenge, but with the best data and insights from the social sciences, active community engagement, and due diligence we can ensure that Detroiters have an opportunity to share their views and that their feedback and perspectives get into the hands of community stakeholders and are incorporated into the decision-making process."

Thanks to early stage support from the Kresge Foundation, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and Poverty Solutions at U-M, the DMACS model has been carefully designed and field tested over the past three years.

Throughout that period, the DMACS team engaged dozens of local stakeholders and end-data users through advisory boards and community partnerships to help design the study's approach and content. In addition, the researchers worked with more than 30 government, nonprofit, and academic partners to ensure that the data collected would help to inform future work.

Nearly 1,000 Detroit residents have been surveyed to date, and DMACS has worked with Poverty Solutions to develop and circulate a number of reports on early findings. These publicly available reports address community perspectives on crime and policing, trust in and priorities for local government leaders, and more.

"DMACS is driven by a passionate desire to facilitate community engagement and positive community change," says co-director Conan Smith, a Washtenaw County commissioner and lecturer at the Ford School.

"That means ensuring that the research we conduct is inclusive and representative, but also that it makes its way to decision-makers, advocates, and community leaders quickly enough that it can influence decisions."

"Engagement is a guiding principle of what we do at Poverty Solutions," says H. Luke Shaefer, associate professor of social work and public policy, and director of Poverty Solutions. "This project exemplifies academic research carefully designed to address real-world challenges in a way that closely aligns with community needs. We've been pleased to support and promote the work, and believe it will improve the lives of many Detroit residents in the years ahead."

The Knight Foundation award will allow DMACS to conduct nine additional surveys over the next three years, to expand its participant panel, and to disseminate policy-relevant findings more broadly.