What's the real story of Newtown? A community-led data project aims to paint a truer picture
By training members of the community to deliver surveys and collect data, the hope is that better understanding will emerge across the lines of race and socioeconomics.
Newtown, a historically Black neighborhood in northern Sarasota, appears on maps maintained by the US Department of Agriculture as a food desert, a low-income area where many people live more than a mile from the nearest grocery store.
That's true. But the USDA map doesn't show a community-led solution to the scarcity of fresh food — or the array of sweet potatoes, mangos, pineapples and oranges on sale each Friday and Saturday at the Newtown Farmer's Market, where a DJ plays music and customers can also pick up freshly cooked collard greens.
The farmer's market is in a neighborhood where federal data also shows nearly half of residents live below the poverty level, just blocks from the sandy Gulf beaches and multimillion dollar mansions that dot the Sarasota coast.
Customers can pay using government food assistance, like SNAP benefits, or get delivery if they can’t come in person, said farmer's market manager Danette Williams.
“I think it’s important to bring the fruits and vegetables to the community, because you can always go and find something that’s not healthy.”
Data collected at the federal or state level may offer a baseline of information, but may also obscure what a neighborhood is really like, or what its residents really need to improve their quality of life.
"Data itself doesn't do anything. Data is a mirror," said Gene-Marie Kennedy, with Sarasota's Multicultural Health Institute.
"And it can be a very cloudy mirror. It can look like one of those circus distortion mirrors. We think it's great, but no, it's not. And then it can be misused. It's like evidence in court, both sides can use it to tell their own story."
Kennedy recently helped administer surveys for the Newtown Data Story, sometimes called the Newtown Self-Portrait in Data.
The goal was to find out more about how people in Newtown described their lives and circumstances.
It was part of a project called "Data Across Sectors for Health" funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Its aim is to enable the people inside a community to collect and analyze their own data, and empower them to use the data in community improvement efforts.
Survey questions focused on key aspects that shape our lives, such as housing, food, access to healthcare, income — also known as the social determinants of health.
Joseph Mack was one of the community advocates in Newtown, asking questions. One focused on crime.
"We asked the people do you feel physically safe and do you feel emotionally safe in your community?" Mack said
More than 80 percent said yes.
"So that means that the people who live and work (there) are happy there and they don't feel threatened in their neighborhoods," he said.
From the outside there might be a notion that high crime characterized daily life but the survey found that could be a misperception. And it’s not the only one the team found.
Data analyst Jan Booher said while affordable housing was a real concern for about half of people surveyed, people who owned their homes felt ignored.
"There are many people who own their homes outright. They are elderly. So they may be on a low income, but they own their homes. That was fully 50 percent of the folks!"
Booher added that one of the stock questions they were asking focused on things like rental disputes, or conflicts with landlords.
"When this question went out in the community, some people said they were insulted that there was never anything that would indicate that they would be homeowners, which they were," Booher said.
The survey also reaffirmed some of the harsher problems facing the area, which have long been known. Nearly one in four said they had no health insurance at all. More than two in five people said they had trouble paying for food to eat.
Kris Fennie teaches epidemiology at New College of Florida, and took part in the project. He said there are some caveats to note — for example, the sample size was small — 120 in an area of several thousand — and was not randomized.
Its value though, is in the perspective it offers, he said.
"We are gaining understanding through the lens of community," said Fennie.
Kameron Hodgens, executive director of the Glasser Schoenbaum Center — a coalition of 17 non-profits located right in Newtown — attended one of the Zoom meetings to unveil the results of the Newtown data project.
During the presentation, Hodgens noticed a map, showing an area where the COVID vaccination rate was very low. She spoke up. Perhaps they could send a van, with a mobile vaccine unit there.
In an interview later, she said she hoped the data project would lead to more long-lasting, substantive changes.
"This isn't just about like, 'Oh, look, there's Black and brown people. Let's take the van over there,'" she said. "This is about a much, much deeper conversation for this community. This is about trust all the way around.
"Sarasota’s history in race relations and race equity is horrible. You know, we aren't doing it well."
Hodgens said she's heard people who claim to have a keen interest in boosting Newtown refuse to attend an evening gala on the campus, saying things like, 'I'm not driving over there at night.'
"These are real prejudices and assumptions," Hodgens said.
Shatrevia Spikes was among the community organizers who brought the survey to Newtown residents. She says many, like herself, were skeptical of yet another survey. What good would it do?
"I don't want nobody feeling sorry for me. Don't help me because you feel sorry for me," Spikes said. "Help me because this is your passion. And maybe you want to just see a difference in me or something. Encourage me, enlighten me."
She and others involved in the data project believe that the answer to Newtown's challenges isn't necessarily what they need -- in terms of money or resources.
In an area where perceptions — and misperceptions — can rule, simply providing more accurate information about the people who live in Newtown could help build relationships among community members, policy makers and businesses.
"The solution is to just get out there, build a relationship and build trust with the community," said Spikes.
Researchers say they met their goal of producing an equitable data project that could be replicated nationwide. Now, it's up to people in Newtown to decide how to use the data, and what projects to prioritize next.
So far, in meetings to discuss the findings, one theme kept emerging — people hope it will lead to better conversations across the well-worn lines of color and economics.
Our stories reflect reporting within the community, public records requests and other interviews designed to put the pandemic and health disparities in context. We’ve reached out to government and official sources and let you know when information we requested was not provided, or if sources declined interview requests.