When it comes to solving social problems affecting children in Miami’s poorest and most violent communities, one option seems obvious when you hear it: Ask young people about their experiences and what they think needs to change.
Researchers and community organizations will be doing just that for a new project that will survey youth from Liberty City, Brownsville, Westgate, West Little River and Allapattah later this year.
The ultimate goal is to get honest answers from children about what they feel is missing in their communities and what they feel is working well. That data will be studied and used to produce a report that could influence local governments and school officials to invest in communities in new ways that go beyond adding more police patrols.
Rev. Charles Lee Dinkins, pastor at Hosanna Community Baptist Church in Liberty City, said he has already conducted a survey of about 800 children that will help lay a foundation for the upcoming work of researchers. One of the common problems he found was that many kids long for a better home life.
“One of the things that young people have expressed to us that they want the most is to have authentic bonding relationships with their caregivers,” he said. “We’ve seen children break down and cry in public when we try to have those tough conversations.”
Dinkins’ foundation will partner with University of Miami public health experts and The Children’s Trust to conduct student surveys of middle and high schoolers this fall under the umbrella of the Evidence2Success program, for which the Annie E. Casey Foundation is providing $450,000. Researchers from UM’s Miller School of Medicine said the money will allow local government and school leaders to make funding decisions based on the responses directly from young people .
The long-term data-based approach marks a contrast to the din of political statements, heightened police presence and intense media coverage that typically swell, then fade away after violent crimes in neighborhoods such as Liberty Square, where officials announced the research initiative on Wednesday.
Miami and Miami-Dade police have continued to keep a large presence in Liberty Square since two young men were killed in a hail of gunfire April 7. Police later arrested and charged two men in the killings. When the suspects' alibis checked out, authorities apologized and released the men. The murders remain unsolved.
The shooting sparked an outcry in the community — particularly among the youth. Miami Northwestern High School students, classmates of one of the dead, walked out of school to protest gun violence in an emotional demonstration days after the gunfire.
Eric Brown, associate professor in the division of prevention science and community health at UM, echoed the Northwestern students when he said that gun violence is a matter of public health that needs to be tackled in a less reactive way.
"Gun violence is a public health issue. Opioid use is a public health issue," Brown said. "And more importantly, building capacity for communities to take ownership of the solutions to these problems, to deal with these problems, is a public health issue."
Brown said the data gathered in schools will help his team identify the root causes of these public health problems and give governments and community organizations an idea of what kinds of services and social programs are necessary to deal with those problems and improve the lives of residents over the long term.
“From that they can use those data to choose prevention programs," he said.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said the work will help Miami City Hall and other government agencies take less of a top-down approach to helping the community.
"One of the big criticisms oftentimes is that solutions are not community driven," he said. "We're not going to apply an academic approach without consulting with those affected."
It will be the first time this model for research will be used in a city as large as Miami, said Dirk Butler of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He pointed to a 5 percent reduction in the rate of absenteeism in some schools in Providence, Rhode Island, after an Evidence2Success project found too many kids were missing too much school. In schools that adopted a program born out of that data research, the absenteeism rate decreased.
Miami is a different place with vastly different demands and issues, which Butler said gives his foundation a chance to influence positive change and upscale a model that could be used in other large U.S. cities.
"That's both a challenge and an opportunity," he said.