Blog: Applying anthropology for successful civic innovation


Guest blog by Applied Anthropology Fellow Jennie Doss, recent graduate of the University of Memphis School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy

When I reflect on my time as a graduate fellow working with Innovate Memphis over these past two years, I think of the lessons learned, the work accomplished, and the new friends made along the way. As a (now graduated) student of the applied anthropology graduate program at the University of Memphis whose interest is in equity work, addressing systemic issues and finding solutions, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Innovate Memphis to provide qualitative research support to their ongoing projects. During my time with the organization, I was able to design user experience (UX) research initiatives, investigate the community and organizational impact of grants, analyze data usage in nonprofits, and collaborate on research focused on understanding the city’s solid waste management systems and how to mitigate issues of blight and illegal dumping.

This spring I had the opportunity to present my research findings on data usage within nonprofits at the Society for Applied Anthropology (SFAA) conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was excited to discover my poster, based on a paper titled “Data Usage in Memphis Nonprofits: How Data is Shaping Equity Work in the Midsouth” had received third place in the poster competition. This research brought attention to the challenges that nonprofits face when collecting, analyzing, and utilizing data to make informed decisions. I found that many organizations struggle to find and collect data that accurately represents the communities they serve, which can lead to a lack of understanding about the real challenges faced by marginalized populations. However, I also found examples of nonprofits in Memphis that are successfully leveraging data to promote equity and address social challenges and inequalities. These organizations are using data to identify areas of need, measure the impact of their programs, and advocate for changes that benefit marginalized communities. Being recognized for my research in the field of applied anthropology as well as highlighting the lived experience of the Memphis nonprofit workers who took the time to share their lives with me was a truly meaningful experience.

Overall, my time at Innovate Memphis as a graduate fellow reinforced what I was simultaneously learning in the classroom, that there is an importance in using research to create positive change in the world. By listening to and seeking to more deeply understand the experiences and perspective of others, we can continue to identify and pursue key interventions that can lead to important breakthroughs and lasting change in the lives of Memphians. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked for such an impactful organization, and I look forward to using the skills that were honed during my time here to continue to advocate for my community in the future.

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