Samantha Denker works with Americorps in West Palm Beach, Florida. Part of her job involves working with the community to improve access to education and to alleviate poverty. Through Community Commons’ mapping tools, Denker has been able to see what aspects of the community needs improving. Through maps and reports she is able to visually show steps that should be taken to keep the community moving forward.
Thank you for talking with us Samantha. Could you tell us a little about the work you do?
I am actually an Americorps VISTA at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Americorps’ focus is education access and poverty alleviation. Around 2010, Palm Beach Atlantic University started what they called the Parker Avenue Consortium, which is a partnership between our project and the principals of our local elementary, middle, and high schools. They are all high needs schools and the goal is to try to improve the education access in the community and also help the physical and educational needs of the community. My job is to focus on our programs in Parker Avenue and brainstorm how we can improve our programs in our community.
Can you describe the population you work with in the Parker Avenue area? And also any other health issues or challenges they specifically face?
We’re focused on West Palm Beach on Parker Avenue. It’s a street in our area where our athletic campus is built. All the schools are Title 1 schools and there are a lot of students on free and reduced lunch programs. Elementary school is like 96% eligibility for free and reduced lunch and high school is at roughly 86% and middle school is at 81%. So it’s really high levels of food insecurity. It’s one of the biggest issues they’re facing and then transportation is another issue. That’s what we’ve found so far from our survey that is actually out now.
So how did you come to use Community Commons for the Parker Avenue Consortium?
I was partnered with one of our professors to do community assessments. We didn’t know where to look initially because we wanted to do primary research about the community and it seemed like there was very limited research so far on the community. [We were searching for] ways to process our own data on the community. Then we came across Community Commons and it’s become one of my primary tools to use. When I give community presentations I want to be able to explain what the poverty levels are in the community we are focused on. When I can have a map that shows our community and how that compares to our surrounding communities it’s really powerful because it provides a visual for people.
When I was partnering with students to try to explain what the needs of the community are, I would go to reports on Community Commons to show the percentages of poverty or ethnicity and racial breakdowns, for example. I was also able to show how many people over 25 have not obtained a GED. That kind of data was really helpful, even when applying for grants for different programs we were able to find through Community Commons by marking out our specific [geographical] area.
Right, I always thought that was really cool where you can customize the areas and populations you look at down to the neighborhood-level.Would you say the Mapping tools are your main resource?
I mostly focus on mapping tools. I find them very user-friendly and I am not technologically advanced. The fact that I was able to get and understand it almost immediately was amazing. It’s been a really good tool. Our focus has been to be a really good neighbor to our community. And as we were trying to build relationships in the community, It’s been cool to see people come on board with the work we do. This tool has helped to educate people. There are so many individuals that don’t understand or know the needs in our community and just the tool of being able to have very visible, color-coded maps has really been an incredible education tool. For as much I can talk about how in need a community is, to able to show somebody, has been incredibly helpful.
Why do you think resources like Community Commons are important to community development and public health?
From an assessment point of view, there are so many different organizations that are working towards similar goals, and it allows the community to come together in a way that all the knowledge is becoming common knowledge. [It] allows us to reduce duplicating efforts. That’s the biggest thing is that it brings in everyone’s individual work and helps us come together as a community with a common knowledge base.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part is knowing that everything we are doing now, we’ll be able to see change. Like the statistics of how many people don’t make it to high school, we are already seeing that now because of all the emphasis that is being put on community. We’re already seeing improvement in graduation rates and things of that nature. The work is so qualitative, but this tool allows you to see a quantitative change from qualitative efforts.