Now More Than Ever, We Need Data-Driven Advocacy

Kelli Caseman, Executive Director

June 1 marks the six month anniversary since we launched Think Kids. To commemorate this small milestone, I want to revisit why we started the organization and why data-driven advocacy is, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, more important than ever.  

Maybe you’ve watched Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk, “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.” If you haven’t, you should. Millions around the world have seen it. In it, she says:

“…before I did my residency, I did a master’s degree in public health, and one of the things that they teach you in public health school is that if you’re a doctor and you see 100 kids that all drink from the same well, and 98 of them develop diarrhea, you can go ahead and write that prescription for dose after dose after dose of antibiotics, or you can walk over and say, ‘What the hell is in this well?'”  

The story about the well, if we elaborate a little, is an important story about both public policy and data-driven advocacy.

  1. A village’s children are all sick and on antibiotics to treat their diarrhea.
  2. The village’s doctor, since she treats all the children in her community, shares this useful information to identify the source of their sickness to the rest of the village.
  3. A decision is made to stop drinking from that well.

Now, some information is inferred in this story. Somebody else in the village oversees the digging and upkeep of the village’s well, right? It’s not the doctor. The doctor shares her information with the other villagers, and a collective decision is made to stop drinking from that well, for the sake of the children.

Strategic use of credible data and common sense is important to the process of drafting and implementing sound public policy. So is collaboration– in this case, between the children/families, the doctor, and the keepers of the well.

Of course, not all policy change is as simple as this, and often, those around the table– like the children/families, the doctor, and the keepers of the well– don’t work together, for a variety of reason.  

Sometimes the families don’t take their children to the doctor, so the doctor has no way of knowing how many children are sick. 

Sometimes the doctor doesn’t collect, analyze, or share the data she’s collected.

Sometimes, the keepers of the well are resistant to change. Maybe they spent a lot of time and money building that well. Maybe they think it’s more cost-effective to keep the kids on antibiotics.

Maybe they don’t value or see the relevance in the data that the doctor is trying to share.

Maybe they have forgotten that, while they’ve been charged with caring for the well, the well isn’t actually theirs. It’s the whole village’s. And it’s in the best interest of the village– especially the children– to collaborate and dig deeper to find the root cause of why the children are sick and work together to fix the problem.  

Think Kids was created to bring the children/families, the doctors, and the keepers of the well to the same, equitable table to share their unique perspectives around the health of West Virginia’s children. We collectively study the proximal causes (sick children), look at the data, and identify the root causes (contaminated wells).

And then we advocate to fix those wells.  This, in a nutshell, is data-driven advocacy and our mission. 

And this is why Think Kids does the things that we do: hold bimonthly webinar meetings with state administrators, health care providers in the field, and parents/caregivers; disseminate surveys to learn how COVID-19 is affecting families; share newly published research in our newsletter, and work on a statewide assessment of services for kids affected by the drug crisis.

Now, as we look ahead to responding to the needs of children as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, this is what I see– a lot of villagers focused on handing out antibiotics and ignoring the fact that a lot of new wells are being dug. How our children are going to access health care, attend public schools, socialize, etc. in the midst of the pandemic is being written into policy right now. We must remember the importance of an equitable table where all of us– the children/families, the professionals, and the policymakers– have a place to share our unique and valuable perspectives on how keeping the children in our community safe and healthy is translated into policy.