Wausau Pilot & Review

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This week’s featured Wausau organization is the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, most commonly known as WIPPS. Launched in 2007, the organization is a unit of the University of Wisconsin System that employs five staff, four interns, about 25 research partners and fellows and several contractors who work regularly on specific projects. Eric Giordano, executive director of the organization, said WIPPS addresses local, state, and national issues by advancing civic engagement, research, and student service to enhance community life throughout Wisconsin. 

Eric Giordano. Photo provided by WIPPS

WIPPS takes a systematic approach to these types of challenges, starting with addressing the community to identify specific needs, providing research-driven solutions, developing and preparing future leaders and educating and engaging citizens in the process. Their latest effort is a diversity survey now underway, which asks specific, well-researched questions in the midst of significant political polarization in the community. Here, Giordano discusses how WIPPS was created, his hopes for the diversity study and its findings and the organization’s goals. “The main thing that we’d like you to know is how much we truly value your perspective,” Giordano said. “Your perspective is unique and important, and we hope you will consider sharing it as part of the survey.”

All responses to the survey, which you can access below or at this link, will be anonymous.

What makes Wausau a perfect fit for WIPPS? Why is it beneficial to Wausau, specifically?

WIPPS emerged directly out of frequent requests by local community members and organizations to bring to bear the resources of the University of Wisconsin to address local issues. WIPPS was created, therefore, to address gaps in information, research, group process design, and to provide appropriate service to the communities of Central Wisconsin. Having students participate and learn from community engagement and service has always been another key element of our work.

Tell me about the diversity survey underway now. Who is receiving it and what do you hope to learn?

We have two distribution methods.  To ensure that there is broad distribution, we have sent out 10,000 paper surveys to randomly selected households in Lincoln and Marathon County. And to ensure that ALL residents of both counties have an opportunity to take the survey, we have made it available online to any current resident of either county who is 18 years old or older. The survey can be accessed here: wipps.org/LMdiversitystudy or by using this QR code:

What prompted you to create the survey, and how did you come up with the right formula of questions to ask?

In the aftermath of political polarization around the Community for All Resolution in Marathon County, including highly damaging national media attention, the WIPPS Advisory Board deliberated over whether or not there was anything constructive WIPPS could do to shed light and reduce heat around this issue. Our Board determined that the community would benefit from having information about how people truly think and feel about issues around diversity and community welcomeness.  Board member Rich Poirier, CEO of Church Mutual Insurance, committed to fund such a study—to which was added a generous grant from the B.A. and Esther Greenheck Foundation. The data gathered will be made available publicly in the hope that it may cut through the political antagonism, lay to rest stereotypes and false assumptions, and jumpstart healthy dialogue so we can understand our common goals and values.

It was difficult to narrow down the questions.  First, we researched and borrowed ideas from many national studies. Next, we formed two Citizen Advisory Groups—one from Merrill and one from marathon County–with about 35 members total. From the very start, therefore, this survey has been a “bottom-up,” grassroots effort. We had a series of back-and-forth conversations with members of our Advisory Groups about what questions they liked in the survey (and didn’t like!), and what questions were especially relevant for our communities. We had to make some tough choices on which questions to ask given the goal of keeping the survey to ten minutes. In the end, we focused on four sets of questions (as well as some standard demographic questions): 1) How welcoming people believe their community is to people of different backgrounds; 2) Whether and to what extent people feel a sense of belonging in their community; 3) What values people feel strongest about; and 4) People’s level of comfort with others who have different backgrounds or points of view.What do you want to learn from the results? Who will you share the results with?

This survey is asking a series of questions for all residents to think about and consider. For instance, we want to know whether residents feel like they belong in their communities, and whether they believe they have a “place at the table” where they live. We also want to know whether people feel that their community is welcoming toward lots of different people, including different genders, races, ages, incomes, religions, and other groups. We are also curious how people think about diversity, and whether they feel comfortable around or trust different types of people.

The important thing to know is that these questions are not slanted in a particular way, and we are not trying to “manufacture” a certain result. We want to know how residents of Marathon and Lincoln Counties genuinely feel about these issues, and the questions are set up to allow participants to share their own perspective–whatever it is! For example, if you feel like you belong in your community–you can tell us that through the survey. If you feel like you don’t belong–you can tell us that, too. If you feel like diversity is a topic that isn’t talked about enough in your community, or if you feel like diversity is talked about too much–the survey is set up to allow both of those opinions to be shared.

The results will be shared publicly on the WIPPS website and will be made available to any individual or community group or organization that desires them. Please contact us at info@wipps.org to learn more.

What is your ultimate goal here?

Our goal with this survey is to get as many people as possible from Marathon and Lincoln Counties to share their perspectives. With as many perspectives shared as possible, we can have a better chance of estimating how people think and feel, and what people value in their communities. If there are certain strengths across communities, this survey can help identify those strengths so we can celebrate them. If there are certain weaknesses across communities, this survey can also help identify those so we can have further conversations about how to improve.

The ultimate goal is to cut through the negativity that tends to surround public discussions about issues of diversity and inclusion.  We want to shed light, not heat.  We want to provide a handhold and jumping off point for constructive conversations among people of different backgrounds and perspectives.  We hope that the results also allow us to put to bed certain stereotypes that get repeated by people on the extremes and magnified by social media (and sometimes traditional media).  In short, we would like the community to move toward a pathway to healing, common ground, and to mutual respect despite our differences, so we can highlight what makes our communities great rather than focusing on what divides us.

In what other ways has WIPPS worked with community leaders in the past? And – how do you see WIPPS working with local communities to make central Wisconsin a better place to live?

We have always sought to embody the Wisconsin Idea by bringing the resources of the public university to be used in the service of Wisconsin residents and communities.  Whether sponsoring or facilitating healthy dialogue and debate; bringing national and state speakers to enlighten us on timely topics; tackling difficult community issues like mental health, substance misuse, early childhood development, support for marginalized communities; and much more.  We consistently seek out and do our best to listen and understand community needs, and then creatively apply resources, connections, evidence-based research and skills where we can in support of community goals. 

Connect with WIPPS

Learn more about wipps at www.wipps.org or https://www.facebook.com/WIPPSorg/.