Collaborations and conversations — the two go hand in hand. And Data for Democracy has been doing just that, not only with collaborations among UCLA researchers, but also with Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teachers  and  students.

One of UCLA’s centennial initiatives, Data for Democracy came about because of a conversation between John Rogers and Megan Franke, professors of education in the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSEIS). Per Rogers, their thought was, “Wouldn’t it be great if teachers had a problem of the week? We could share charts, graphs and maps to engage students in trying to make sense of the ways equality and opportunity play out across Los Angeles schools and different social domains.”

They constructed the project with K–12 students in mind. “Our aspirations were to get data into the hands of teachers and young people in ways that were accessible,” Franke says. Then, she says, they could “continue conversations around issues of inequality in Los Angeles and help support young people engaging in their community around these issues.”

The sources from which to obtain the data? UCLA’s bounty of researchers. Twelve UCLA centers were immediately on board, providing data representations, charts, maps and graphs, along with questions to provide context to topics such as parks, immigration, housing and labor. The shared mission was to make the data accessible to youth without losing the complexity of the compiled research. A timeline was set for the release of one brief per month, with three rolled out so far. Presented first was a study on access to L.A. parks, completed through a partnership with the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.

Data for Democracy supports our goal to prepare students to be more well-rounded, empowered individuals and community leaders.”

Darlene Thùy-Vân Tieu

Teacher at the Mann UCLA Community School

Ready-made lessons

Published online, Data for Democracy was introduced to LAUSD leadership, principals and teachers by using targeted email and social media promotion.

“Data for Democracy randomly landed in my lap,” says Darlene Thùy-Vân Tieu ’15, M.Ed. ’19, a high school chemistry teacher at the Mann UCLA Community School in South Central Los Angeles. “It was so accessible that I put it in my lesson for the next day.”

Not only did the program provide a lot of resources that are usually gathered by overworked teachers, but the data’s presentation was also easy for students to grasp. “They could look at a graph and say, ‘Oh, I see a pattern between the areas shaded red with the number of black dots there,’” Tieu says. “That’s a really great way for me, as a teacher, to start a conversation with students that compares median income and its effects on park access, rather than giving them a dense reading.”

The program’s arrival dovetailed with Tieu’s plans to address climate change with students. “We were putting together data specific to our communities, but weren’t sure what it would look like,” she says of collaborating with other teachers of various subjects at her school. “Then Data for Democracy arrived from UCLA and was easy to integrate into our various curriculums.”

Tieu was excited about pioneering the project with her alma mater. “When I heard about their future briefs on immigration, housing, police interaction and public transportation, I instantly thought of my colleagues in English, math and history, who could also make connections in their classes,” Tieu says. “We’re all new teachers who see the value in cross-curricular collaboration.”

Data for Democracy covers ground that other public school resources don’t. Tieu points to the limited scope of textbooks when it comes to crossover curriculum between subject areas. “Data for Democracy supports our goal to prepare students to be more well-rounded, empowered individuals and community leaders,” she says.

Local awareness

Tieu sees power in having the data be specific to Los Angeles. “Students see themselves in the data,” she says. “They’re very aware of inequities that exist in the world and want to be empowered to confront them.”

Such was the case with Data for Democracy’s reporting on parks. Tieu’s students discussed the fact that they had parks in their neighborhoods, but they weren’t using them. The reasons ranged from cleanliness to safety. “My students’ voices were missing from the narrative,” Tieu says. But she believes Data for Democracy emboldened them with an important message: “Your voice, your knowledge, is important to the conversation.”

Resources on immigration were informed not only by the history of Los Angeles’ immigrant population, but also by interviews with experts and activists about the immigrant dynamics. In addition, the program asked, “How does your community make immigrants feel welcome?”

Encouraging students to take action is one of Data for Democracy’s goals. Links within topic briefs enable students to reach out to community leaders. “Our search engine allows them to find and contact their council members and state representatives,” Rogers says. “The intent is that this engagement data will lead to more public deliberation and, hopefully, more public action.”

This, in turn, should deepen democracy, he says, by giving young people an opportunity to hold public officials accountable and ensure their interests are part of the conversation.

In the future, a gathering will be held where the students and researchers will share their conversations, feedback and data. But school closures due to COVID-19 have delayed this meeting of the minds. In the interim, Data for Democracy is exploring ways to support LAUSD’s online environment and the use of the three briefs — parks, immigration and housing — during the school year.

Mutually beneficial

Who stands to gain the most from Data for Democracy? “The benefits are bidirectional,” says John McDonald, director of the Sudikoff Family Institute at GSEIS. “The researchers we’re working with are sharing work that really informs and engages young people in thoughtful inquiry.”

Equally important is the audience for the data. “I think the process of communicating our work to 12-, 14- or 16-year-olds encourages researchers at UCLA to think about the core ideas we’re examining, why these are important and the sorts of contributions they potentially make to public life in Los Angeles,” McDonald says. “Those are questions researchers often ask themselves, but there’s a certain depth and clarity that emerges when we try to communicate with young people that’s really beneficial to our work.”

Rogers echoes this: “In the last couple of years, political scientists have talked more and more about a democratic deficit or a rising illiberalism, not just in the United States, but in many countries around the world that have democratic governments.

“There’s a growing concern that the values that underlie democracies are being challenged — values that speak to the importance of deliberation that relies upon data and individual rights, and the protecting of those rights, of minority groups.” Rogers also sees this when it comes to information and who holds that knowledge. In many cases, it’s elite intellectuals.

The structure of Data for Democracy pushes back on these dynamics by inviting L.A.’s youth to become part of the research, making the entire process more human. “In the process,” Rogers says, “there’s not this extraordinary disconnect between information that’s created and the public, but rather the public is increasingly playing a role in inquiry and deliberation that’s aiming to address the shared issues we have.”

And along the way, data can open doors to collaborations and conversations, amplifying the voices of everyone from university researchers to teachers to K–12 students.