Throughout the pandemic, Karyn Chin searched for mental health care in Jackson that suited her needs.
But as a queer woman, a person of color and a single mom, she had trouble finding a provider that fit her and could address mental health issues for people who felt marginalized.
So when she heard about a Community Foundation of Jackson Hole survey intended to better understand the community’s mental health needs she was ready to fill it out.
“I was like, ‘Oh great, I really actually have something to say about this,’” Chin said.
But what she found disappointed her.
“At every moment a question about my identity was being asked, some part of my identity was being erased,” Chin said.
Twice in the span of a few months, major community institutions — first the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole and, later, the Jackson/Teton County Housing Department — distributed surveys as part of efforts to understand the needs of the Jackson Hole community, including people from backgrounds typically underrepresented in regional data.
The Community Foundation’s study, the Behavioral Health Needs Assessment, was intended to evaluate the community’s mental health needs, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic; the Housing Department’s project, the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, aimed to gather information to set housing policy and build new homes suitable for local workers.
But in both cases, people who spoke with the News&Guide felt that the surveys marginalized community members: In the Community Foundation’s case, LGBTQIA respondents and Jacksonites of color and, in the Housing Department’s case, the valley’s Spanish-speaking population.
Community Foundation and Housing Department leaders said the surveys were intended to determine the needs of people from typically underrepresented backgrounds.
Community Foundation President Laurie Andrews, for example, said in an email to Chin that the writing of the Behavioral Health Needs Assessment survey was intended to “lift up the voices of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC individuals as well as those with intersectional identities.”
But some, including the leaders themselves, felt their efforts fell short of their aim.
“Clearly, the demographic questions didn’t reflect that intention,” Andrews wrote.
Housing Director April Norton said her department was able, for the first time ever, to get a representative sample in the survey from the valley’s Spanish-speaking population.
She saw that as a success, but recognized that the survey was flawed.
“We’re not perfect for sure,” Norton said. “My hope is that we’re able to, a, celebrate the success, that we were able to get a representative sample for the first time ever, and, b, make sure that we are learning lessons and applying them immediately to the way we work in the future.”
Chin, for her part, said she was glad that the Community Foundation and Housing Department attempted the outreach.
“I think that what these surveys were trying to do was incredibly important for our community,” she said. “I’m glad they attempted it.”
But she was also glad that there are people in Jackson Hole who feel safe enough to give institutions “feedback on a very personal level.”
Andrews was not available for an interview by press time Tuesday.
What were the problems?
In a longer, English-language version of the housing survey, a question asking about people’s field of work gave respondents 17 potential answers to choose from, including health care, government, finance, real estate, nonprofit, recreation, restaurant and other industries.
In a separate, shorter Spanish-language version of the survey, people who filled it out had only eight categories to choose from: agriculture, restaurant, cleaning and custodial work, hotels, management, construction and gardening, recreation and “other.”
Some of those categories, like cleaning and agriculture, were absent from the English survey.
That question, among others, concerned Victor Hernandez, a long-time Jackson resident who is also the ACLU of Wyoming’s legal assistant for the Immigrants’ Rights Project.
“I couldn’t finish it just because I was really upset with that question,” Hernandez said.
“I think it just plays into the narrative in Jackson,” he said, pointing to newspaper classifieds, which usually feature Spanish-language job advertisements for back-of-house jobs and English-language advertisements for front-of-house roles.
“It perpetuates a stereotypical narrative that isn’t helpful,” said Rosie Read, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
Another question on the English version of the housing survey asks, “How do you feel about the issue of people who work in the region being able to find suitable housing they can afford?”
That question was wholly omitted from the Spanish survey.
Chin, for her part, laid out her problems with the Behavioral Health Needs Assessment in an email to Community Foundation President Andrews, focusing on questions about people’s gender, sexuality, and racial identity.
Other LGBTQIA folk and advocates also contacted the Community Foundation, offering ways to improve the wording of those questions.
One question asked people to identify as either “male” or “female.”
Another asked respondents to identify as “male,” “female” or “some other way.”
Chin felt the “some other way” wording was “dismissive of people who do not identify with the gender binary,” and that a question that only asked people if they were “straight or heterosexual,” “gay or lesbian” or “bisexual” did not leave an option for other identities.
She pointed to the LGBTQIA acronym, which broadly refers to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual.
“Two-thirds of those were left out,” she said. “It erased trans identities, nonbinary identities. You couldn’t be any of those things and participate.”
She also worried about a question that didn’t give people the opportunity to select multiple races. That, she feels, misses “a lot of nuance in racial differences.”
“Historically, the Spanish-speaking community, the immigrant community [and] a lot of marginalized communities have not been represented in larger scale, county-wide initiatives like this to collect information,” Read of the ACLU said.
That’s part of why she raised her and Hernandez’s concerns with the consultants who designed the housing survey.
“Using it as a learning opportunity was my immediate goal,” Read said. “We need solutions for our problems to be reflective of the makeup of our entire community and not just the Anglo, English-speaking community.”
How did it happen?
Both surveys were largely designed by consultants.
A firm of Boston-based consultants, FSG, helped the Community Foundation to design the survey, namely by working with a 19-member steering committee to figure out what questions people wanted to ask.
Abigail Ridgway, the head of FSG’s health practice, said PRC — another consulting firm with expertise in health assessments — wrote the actual questions.
“We said, ‘Hey, we want demographic information on all of these — we want gender, sexual orientation,” Ridgway said, adding that PRC then used its standard forms for those questions.
“Those are not questions that we wrote,” Ridgway said.
Ridgway and Miya Cain, a senior consultant at FSG, said they didn’t remember how many drafts went back and forth between the consultants and the steering committee.
And they didn’t remember anyone raising any questions with the wording.
PRC was unavailable for comment by press time Tuesday.
The housing survey was primarily designed by two people: Christine Walker, a former Jackson/Teton County Housing Authority director and board member at housing advocacy group Shelter JH, and Wendy Sullivan, principal of WSW Consulting Inc., which provides housing needs assessments, strategic housing action plans and other planning services.
They also received comments from a stakeholder group of about 20 people.
A local nonprofit of community mobilizers, Voices JH, recommended the Housing Department shorten the 37-question English form for Spanish speakers.
The goal, program director Jordan Rich said, was to make it easier to fill out in person — one of the primary ways Voices collected responses — the goal being to get “as many voices as possible included.”
“We felt like, to do so, we needed a shorter survey,” Rich said. “We needed to make the survey as approachable and accessible to a community that is, one, short on time, two, depending on the individuals, may have lower literacy or lower technology skills, and three, we had just seen struggle to complete an already shorter survey with the mental health needs assessment.”
The consultants shortened the Spanish survey, and Sullivan shortened the question about employment to keep the Spanish-language survey to two physical pages.
“I needed to cut out some categories and some questions to allow that to happen,” she said.
She added that the chosen categories reflected the most common professions among the Spanish-speaking Jacksonites in 2014, when she last administered the survey.
“It wasn’t intended to say anything about the community in general,” Sullivan said. “It was just looking at data from the past and seeing that OK, the bulk are in here. Let’s minimize our work by focusing on core categories.”
Were Sullivan able to go back and do things over again, she said, she would increase the number of possible responses in that question.
“I would include everything,” she said.
She and Walker also said that if they were to decide to shorten one survey in the future, they’d shorten both.
In any case, Sullivan and Walker’s eyes were not the last to see the survey before it went out to the public. Norton reviewed the surveys.
She told the News&Guide she was relying on the survey professionals.
“I don’t say that to shirk my responsibility,” she said. “I tried to access the experts, the people who are actually doing the survey, to find out how we should be doing it.
“And then we followed their advice.”
Where to from here?
Concerns about the Behavioral Health Needs Assessment were raised early in the process, and some questions about identity were changed midway through.
Questions about the Housing Needs Assessment, by contrast, weren’t raised until the survey had more or less concluded. So it was too late for changes.
Norton said one of her biggest concerns was about whether the data was OK, since there were two separate and differently worded surveys for English and Spanish speakers.
“Are we somehow going to miss information from this group of people, this segment of our population?” Norton said. “And if we are, that’s really concerning.”
But the consultants are confident that the data is sound.
“From the technical side, I understand how the surveys fit together and even though they may appear really different, they’re actually not that different on the other end,” Sullivan said. “But looking at it through a technician’s lens, you definitely lose the community sensitivity lens.”
On the behavioral health needs assessment, Ridgway said there was some “real hesitation” from PRC to change the demographic questions.
“They told me that in the history of their work, they’ve never changed a survey in the field,” Ridgway said.
But her firm pushed for the change, aiming to “lift up the voices” of those communities and do so “in a way that recognizes the full diversity of identities within them.”
In a statement the DEI Collective, a group of community members who work with organizations and individuals to make Jackson more “equitable, inclusive, and racially just,” said that Teton County has people with the know-how and resources to achieve that aim.
But they feel the community is lacking something.
“Our community has the capacity, skills and abilities to address issues like these when they arise,” the collective wrote in a statement. “What we do not yet have are the structures, systems, and related resources. This could be an opportunity to generate and test such systems and structures. This would, ideally, involve embracing that this is hard, complex work, that every effort to be more equitable and inclusive is one to learn from and build upon, and that working together our community can grow and learn to be a place where more and more people experience belonging.”
Norton, for her part, acknowledged that the community as a whole hasn’t succeeded in reaching everybody who lives here in past surveys. And she saw room for improvement.
“We don’t have a great track record as an entire community of doing purposeful outreach to all segments of our population,” Norton said. “As we start to do that work, we’re going to always be learning.”
Others said having people from the communities officials want to reach in the room, or in positions of power, would be key to avoiding similar situations in the future.
Norton has already made some changes to her process, bringing in the Teton Literacy Center — its employees also had questions about the survey — as a stakeholder for the housing assessment.
And she said she’d recommend continuing to work with Voices JH.
The nonprofit and its mobilizers were key to bringing in over 300 responses from the Spanish-speaking community on the housing survey, compared with about 2,000 in total.
“We thought we were doing everything right,” Norton said.
Still, she said, she’s learned something.
“It just goes to show that we didn’t have all the people involved,” Norton said.
Likewise, Chin sees the most meaningful data coming from surveys that invite people of marginalized identities to help with the design, giving them a chance to point out flaws before a survey circulates throughout the community.
“They should be consulting and being in community with people who can point these things out before the survey leaves the room,” Chin said.