Urban Wire How Community-Based Organizations Use Data to Advance Racial Equity
Faith Mitchell
Display Date

A man presenting graphs to a group of colleagues.

When it comes to using data to effect change and ensure equitable outcomes in cities, community-based organizations are leading the way. By building internal organizational capacity to collect and analyze data, investing in trusting relationships with communities, and approaching data collection and analysis from an equity-informed perspective, these organizations are demonstrating how data can inform policies and programs that meet communities’ needs.

As part of Urban’s American Transformation Project, which elevates changes needed to build an equal future for America’s racially and ethnically diverse young people, a recent event examined ways to use data to support equitable outcomes for families and communities. The discussion revealed several effective strategies:

  • investing in an organization’s data gathering and analysis skills
  • developing community trust in the collection and use of data
  • incorporating community voices into policy and planning decisions
  • applying data to organizational decisions and actions
  • sharing data to build and strengthen stakeholder networks
  • analyzing data to hold policymakers accountable

But for more communities to successfully use these strategies, community-based nonprofits need encouragement, models, and support to fully incorporate data into efforts to achieve their missions.

Below, we share how two community-based organizations and the Urban Institute have used these strategies to advance equitable regional development and educational outcomes and spur community change. These examples can inform not only other community-based organizations but also the actors, such as policymakers and philanthropists, with the power to meaningfully support community-based organizations in this work.

Data for equitable regional development

Atlanta’s Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), which focuses on energy justice, equitable growth, health equity, and economic opportunity, considers strategic data use to be fundamental to racial equity. In response to the historical and structural factors that’ve produced Atlanta’s extreme racial wealth gap and “staggering” health disparities,

PSE and its organizational partners recently launched the Metro Atlanta Racial Equity Atlas (MAREA).

MAREA combines the strategies of developing community trust in data, incorporating community voices, applying data to organizational decisions and actions, and using data to strengthen networks and hold policymakers accountable. The atlas uses maps, analysis, and community perspectives to put the power of data into residents’ hands and translate data into action.

MAREA also provides mechanisms for increasing accountability, as PSE and its partners developed tools for advocacy and decisionmaking that offer in-depth analysis to help local leaders and communities achieve equitable outcomes.

For example, PSE and its community partners are using the BeltLine Data Explorer tool to measure progress toward the equity goals of a project that reclaims and repurposes Atlanta’s infrastructure across areas like housing and economic development. Another PSE effort has used data to successfully advocate for the ratification of a 15 percent set-aside of Atlanta BeltLine Tax Allocation District dollars—totaling $250 million over 25 years—for the development and maintenance of affordable workforce housing. 

Data for equitable education

The Academy of Hope DC (AoH) is an adult public charter school in Washington, DC. Like Atlanta, DC has disparities in employment, income, and education that reflect the exclusion of residents of color and other groups from the city’s growth. In this context, AoH creates more equitable educational outcomes by developing students’ basic reading, writing, math, and computer skills to pave the way for new opportunities that lead to better employment opportunities and improved economic security.

AoH’s data strategies include investing in the staff’s data gathering and analysis skills, developing community trust in data collection and use, incorporating community voices, and applying data to organizational decisions and actions.

AoH uses both quantitative and qualitative data to address its performance and impact. It also uses town halls, listening sessions, and end-of-term surveys to identify programming needs, make programmatic changes and adjustments, develop an advocacy agenda that reflects what’s important to AoH’s students, and assess the effectiveness of the school across several areas. Student voices are also represented on AoH’s board.

These data strategies have led to improvements across several student outcomes: Half of graduates earn more than $30,000 a year (compared with 10 percent before entering AoH), and more than half pursue postsecondary education or training. Many have also found better housing and become more engaged in their communities.

Data for equitable community change

For several years, Urban has worked extensively with community-based organizations to increase their ability to use data for community change. One example is the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP). Urban coordinates NNIP’s learning network, which connects organizations invested in ensuring communities have the capacity to access and use data to improve outcomes in their neighborhoods.

NNIP local members help community groups invest in internal data gathering and analysis skills, use data to inform organizational decisions, incorporate community voices, strengthen stakeholder networks, and hold policymakers accountable. Along the way, members contribute to community trust in data collection and use.

An example is the data chats developed by Data You Can Use (DYCU) in Milwaukee, which are community conversations designed to draw out residents’ perspectives and interpretations. In DYCU’s experience, if people—especially people of color and people with low incomes—have accessible information relevant to their local priorities, they’re better positioned to envision responses, advocate for resources, and participate in solutions to benefit their communities.

For example, after some Milwaukee residents learned in a data chat that 37 percent of households lacked a car, they brought the information to the county to argue against eliminating the neighborhood’s only bus line. With this justification, the county added two new extended routes accessible to the neighborhood.

How can more communities leverage the power of data?

As these examples illustrate, communities have tremendous interest in using data to reduce poverty and expand economic mobility. But many need more support to do so effectively. Organizations and actors able to provide this support, such as foundations, can play an important role by being champions for using data for equity and investing in communities’ capacity to use data to achieve their goals.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Community data use Community engagement Data and technology capacity of nonprofits Foundations and philanthropy National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) Neighborhood change Equitable development
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy Health Policy Center
Related content