Meet the Team: Whitney Swander, Data and Research Manager | Chalkboard Project

Meet the Team: Whitney Swander, Data and Research Manager

Thursday, July 23, 2020

We’re thrilled to welcome Whitney Swander to our team as Chalkboard Project’s Data and Research Manager.

​Grounded in the belief that communities hold deep knowledge about the complex challenges they face, Whitney will guide our efforts to reimagine how Oregon’s data systems pinpoint pervasive disparities, and co-designs research with community partners to advance system change for children and families. She will join the Chalkboard team on July 31. 

Whitney has spent a decade collaboratively developing data-driven solutions through thoughtful and rigorous inquiry. Based in Bend, she most recently served as Director of Data and Evaluation at Better Together, where she partnered with local communities to establish and grow cross-sector data and evaluation capacity.

In this interview, she breaks down what “good data” really means, explores how communities become true partners in research, and finds beauty in tin graters. 

What brings you to this work?

I’m a really curious person. I love learning new things, digging into information, and exploring what doesn’t yet exist. I think of data and research work like exciting puzzles—there are almost always missing pieces, and finding the missing bits that tell a new story is what keeps me in the work. 

I also deeply care about children, youth, and communities here in Oregon. I grew up in Central Oregon—this is my home, and I feel a deep responsibility to use my training, skills, and experience to disrupt inequities that harm too many kids and families that also call Oregon home. I’m passionate about how we gather data to understand how we can shift conditions, increase access, and implement policies so that every community in our state has what they need to thrive.

As you see it, what can good data do for Oregon’s children? What can’t it do?

Good data can paint a clearer picture of lived experience. It can tell a deeper, more nuanced story about both where disparities persist and where bright spots shine, both of which help us understand root causes and underlying conditions for specific communities or writ large.

The thing about “good” data is that it doesn’t stand alone. It needs context. We live in a data-rich age. Everything we do generates data—we are quite literally drowning in data from an analytical perspective. I believe data is most useful when it’s framed with stories from people and communities represented in the data. No data without narrative, no narrative without data—it’s a mantra of mine.

I’m also a big proponent of using qualitative data in tandem with quantitative data. Together, they produce more honest, contextualized, richer data—the good data we need. And since it’s more nuanced, it may not tell us unequivocally what the right answer is, but it will help us keep asking the right questions and point us toward genuine solutions. 

You’ve been a strong voice for including community as an equal partner in research efforts. What does that look like in practice?

When I finished graduate school, I purposely walked away from a career in research—at least initially. I saw too much policy research being done to communities, and not enough research done with communities. Over time, I felt compelled to return to the field and change that.

For me, relevant research will answer questions that matter to communities, and will generate action that responds to the needs or issues those communities identify. In practice, as a researcher, this means building relationships with communities before research starts. It means understanding what communities want to learn and building it into the research questions and methods we use.

I also strongly believe in hiring and training community members as part of a research team. When communities understand the research process, they can start gathering their own evidence to answer their own questions without needing an “expert” to guide the process. That’s power

And finally, we need to analyze and make sense of data in partnership with communities, who know best how to interpret the findings. For too long, researchers have taken data and closed the door behind them, only to emerge when the report and findings are complete.

Since the pandemic began and the movement for racial justice has swelled, what do you see that’s most heartening to you?

More people are talking about race, racism, and Black Lives Matter movement openly; it’s in the news, on social media, at many workplaces, in neighborhoods, with grandparents, everywhere it seems, and that’s important. Like many others have said: This conversation is not new, it’s just that most white folks are new to it. Growing up in Oregon and as a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the prevailing culture around me was color-blindness and it made talking about race off-limits and taboo. It’s hard to understand and reckon with something if you can’t dialogue about it, so I’m heartened that (white) people are finally joining the conversation.

Where do you draw inspiration?

From the people around me. It feels cliché, I know. But honestly, I do my best to surround myself with people who know more than me, have experiences that are different from mine, and who challenge me to think and understand differently, and above all, to be better.

What’s hanging on your living room walls?

I have a set of traditional Ecuadorian graters used to grate green plantains, yuca, and corn, all hung in a pattern. My husband, who grew up in Bahia de Caraquez, calls it "the robot." The graters are totally utilitarian—pieces of tin shaped into a dome, with holes punctured by a nail in a circular pattern and then mounted on wood. But I think they are beautiful.

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