More Than Data

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An interviewer once asked of the Connections program, “If we can’t measure your impact, what is the point of doing it?” In a world driven by data and the need for measurable impacts, the pressures on programs to report out metrics, demographics, or skills gained are realities of our modern society. Grant funding and philanthropic support often depend on it. Data is important. But it can sometimes be difficult for a program that is also based so much on personal stories, heart-felt emotions, and learning experiences lead by participant discussion. Below are stories that illustrate moments of deeper/meaningful impact for Connections participants.

For Meena, a refugee from Bhutan living in Concord, her moment came while reading A Chair for My Mother by Vera C. Williams, a Connections book, during a financial unit in her English class. In the story, a mother, daughter, and grandmother save money in a big jar to buy a comfortable armchair after their life’s belongings were lost in a fire. When asked to share a page from the book that was important to her, she chose the coin jar (above). Meena said that her own family saves money like this. Everyone contributes to buy clothes and things they need. She then promptly sent a picture of her own money jar in the class’ group chat. This prompted a larger discussion about the role of money and savings in countries around the world. A commonality amongst all students was the money jar and its unique ability to collect our coins.

For Miryam, another Connections participant, her moment played a more practical role in her life, and came during her naturalization test for U.S. citizenship. Coming from Sudan in 2014, Miryam had been dedicated to learning all the necessary civic values, systems of government, and U.S. history required for US citizenship. She had done this through her unwavering dedication to her English language classes, a private tutor, and listening to citizenship questions daily on her television. She also read the Connections book Two Friends: The Story of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins with her class at Second Start in the days leading up to her citizenship exam. She thrived in group conversation around American history and easily answered practice citizenship questions. In her written reflection on the book she wrote, “Susan B. Anthony was important because she was a teacher and speaker around the country, and she fought for women’s rights too.” On December 18th, 2020, Miryam received U.S. citizenship! When asked by her teachers if they asked a question about Susan B. Anthony on her citizenship test, she responded, “Yes they did, and I knew the answer.”

Finally, for an immigrant family from Romania, their moment happened as a family in a virtual Connections series at Derry Adult Education, led by longtime Connections facilitator, Maren Tirabassi. Parents Alina and Marius and their 10-year-old son Andrei all attended the online book discussion. They learned about themes of working together in friendship, humans’ relationship with nature, and the impact of technology on the environment. Alina reflected on her experience reading the three books below as an online class community.

“Even if the presentation of the books was done with the help of the ZOOM platform, the effect was very good. I almost didn’t feel the difference, and this is Maren’s merit. I really enjoy reading, especially biographies and nonfiction books, and this little Book Club, as I like to call it, gave me the chance to discover reading in a different language. The books presented by Maren in this session had interesting, current topics that can be useful in our daily lives. The world of books is fascinating and unpredictable, and the imagination of writers without borders. I wish I could write books, but I don’t have that ability; instead I’m glad I’m a reader.”

To return to the initial question of “What’s the point in doing something if we can’t measure it?” The answer is simple: Some impacts cannot be measured. Literature, even in the simplest of children’s books, can hold tremendous power and create some of our fondest life memories. Sometimes stories, and the way the make us think or feel, cannot be captured by a spreadsheet or a data point. However, that does not make them less important. In fact, it makes them more important. For they reveal the true heart of the Connections program.

By Mary Nolin, Program Manager – Connections