‘What’s in a name?’ – Data, duty, and the importance of honouring our stories
There’s a stage play from the 1500s, where a famously star-crossed Veronese young woman once asked, ‘what’s in a name?’. You’ve probably heard of it, and while countless adaptations and theses have been inspired by its plot, we wonder if anyone has thought to answer her.
This week is National Storytelling Week, a joyful celebration of the power of sharing stories. When we think of stories, we often think of the tales of good vs bad that sit on our bookshelves, or the memoirs or personal accounts that accompany us on our morning commutes. But what if stories are a lot more elemental than that, and details about ourselves – our ethnicity, our place of residence, and yes, our names – help tell a powerful story about who we are?
Every time that we are asked to share personal information about ourselves, such as on a form to access a service or product, we are in effect being asked to share a bit of our personal stories. Our responses to these requests can feel automatic - how many times have you scrolled back to find your year of birth on one of those virtual calendars? But this is never a passive process– the sharing of information about ourselves can trigger a whole range of different associations, memories, thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Each time we do this, we are reaching into our personal stories and choosing (or sometimes feeling obliged) to share them with someone else.
Now, let’s pivot to the context of young people within youth provision and services, in which young people are asked to share information about themselves quite frequently. For example, they might get asked for...
- Demographic data - who they are and how they identify in relation to a wide range of categories, from age and gender, to ethnicity, religion, and household income;
Attendance data - where and when they participated in a particular activity;
Feedback data - their thoughts or feelings about how they experienced an opportunity; or
Outcomes data - whether they have experienced specific changes in one or more aspects of their health, skills, relationships or life in general.
Within monitoring, evaluation, and learning work, we often put these pieces of data together to build and convey stories about the impact of provision. This can be powerful, and an important way to advocate for high quality work with young people. Sometimes, an individual young person’s tells their own story, such as through a case study or a video, but more often than not, we – as evaluators or researchers – use these bits of data to tell collective stories on others’ behalf.
But, whilst we might recognise or acknowledge that individual stories are there, how often do we get a chance to stop and consider what sits behind each individual ‘piece’ of data. Do our collective approaches really allow us to do this? Behind each bit of demographic data, for example, there will be stories about how a young person identifies, what that identity means for how they experience the world, factors that are specific to them and ones that are determined by other people in their life (e.g. household income or Free School Meal status), the extent to which they feel comfortable and safe to commit personal details about themselves to a form or an organisation, and plenty more. And, as with all stories, we can only tell ‘the story so far’ and the narrative might change over time.
To what extent can our current methods (including categories that are often pre-set by others) sufficiently ‘capture’ who one young person is, how they see themself, and honour their stories? What is the consequence if this does not happen? And what becomes of those stories once they have fulfilled a given purpose?
Over the past year, we’ve been working with young people and practitioners to start building a deeper understanding of these questions, specifically within the context of the youth sector and work with young people. This project is about data collection, but it ultimately starts and ends with people’s individual stories – the stories of young people being asked to share information about themselves, and the practitioners who are in the position of asking for this information and then doing something with it.
The people that we have spoken to have generously shared a lot about their experiences, as well as some thoughts on how we could be doing better as a sector – specifically, approaching demographic data practice in a way that is more thoughtful, respectful, and with due regard to the stories and (often complex and fluid) identities of the young people we are working with. Within this are considerations of what happens when we ask questions about race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, mental or physical health, and other aspects of identity that interact with systems, structures, and a society that all still carry the impact of historical oppression. Language, relationships, workforce skills and capabilities, and the role of funders are also key considerations within this.
There’s a lot to dig into within these topics, and our next step after sharing the initial findings will be to launch a consultation and co-creation process through which we hope to continue conversations on these important areas. We hope to work together on some ways forward that, ultimately, mean we can approach demographic data practice with more care and attentiveness to the individuals and the stories that sit behind the data. We would love to invite you to work with us on this. If you would like to be involved, drop Catherine a line to say hello.
If the methods for collecting that data are undermining our aims (i.e. more equitable outcomes for young people) - even at the same time as collecting data with the intent of understanding the extent to which we achieve these aims - then we need to think deeply about how we can change that. By reassessing our understanding of and relationship with data, we hold in our possession a powerful tool for change. With great power comes great responsibility (as was once declared in another famous fictional story) and as privileged listeners to and keepers of those stories, we must recognise our duty to those who entrusted them to us. And while we don't have all the answers, we do have one - that there is, in fact, rather a lot in a name.
Our stories are often shaped by those around us. This blog was co-written by Catherine Mitchell (Organisational Learning and Support Lead) and Hannah Warsame (Communications Lead) at YMCA George Williams College.