Education, Government, and Health Care

Public health survey will cover county

Johnson Center at GVSU partners with Kent County Health Department to expand VoiceGR to VoiceKent.

June 23, 2017
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A 16-year-old survey that measures the health of Grand Rapids by collecting data on topics from poverty to public safety has expanded to encompass the whole county.

Jodi Petersen, director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University’s Community Research Institute, conducts the survey each year.

She said the Johnson Center is teaming with Kent County Health Department (KCHD) this year to collect data on Kent County’s 600,000-plus residents.

The larger data collection area means more information will be available to community partners seeking to learn about Kent County’s diverse populations, she said.

It also will assist nonprofits in writing applications for grants, which require evidence of need, and will help businesses, neighborhood associations, schools and local government with planning and programming.

“This year’s survey results will build upon previous years’ data,” Petersen said.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss said in March when the 2016 VoiceGR results came out that the survey continues to be “an important metric” for the city.

“It allows residents to share their opinions and tell us how we’re succeeding as a community, as well as where we are falling short,” she said. “It helps us understand how local government, businesses and nonprofits can work together to better serve the citizens of greater Grand Rapids.”

The 2017 survey at will collect responses from now to October. It covers the opinions, attitudes and perceptions of Kent County residents on topics such as employment, education, racism and discrimination, ability to meet basic needs, access to health care and neighborhood safety.

Petersen said teaming up with KCHD meant reducing duplication of efforts, since KCHD administers the countywide Community Health Needs Assessment every three years that covers many similar topics.

With VoiceGR also surveying Grand Rapids residents, Petersen said the Johnson Center was noticing “fatigue from all the surveys” and not seeing an ideal response rate. By working with KCHD to survey the whole county, the center hopes to hear from 6,000 respondents this year.

Additionally, the Johnson Center wanted the new survey to provide sub-county level data it could use to compare apples to apples.

“There’s data out there about food scarcity … but you can’t get any data about how Grand Rapids compares to rural areas,” she said. “Because Kent County is so diverse, we are not fully understanding the needs of either if we look at just Grand Rapids.”

Petersen said the health department had a hand in question development and now is helping to administer surveys by hosting Johnson Center employees in their lobby and by lending KCHD staff for the task.

She said KCHD also is pitching in with marketing and advertising and giving away grocery tote bags in a drawing when people take the survey.

Chelsey Saari, public health programs supervisor for the Kent County Health Department, described VoiceKent as a “large, community-wide effort that will involve the participation of many Kent County agencies.”

According to Petersen, partners include the Literacy Center of West Michigan, Kent County Essential Needs Taskforce and the YMCA — as well as Healthy Kent, a collaborative effort addressing public health issues.

“The KCHD and Healthy Kent are excited to partner with the Johnson Center on this project,” Saari said.

It’s too soon to tell what issues will rise to the top in the 2017 survey, but Petersen said race and place dominated the results in 2016.

There continue to be differences by demographics in how respondents rate Grand Rapids as a place to live, with white residents responding the most positively, followed by Asian, multiracial, American Indian, Hispanic/Latino and black/African American residents.

Tied in with that was the fact that “community cohesion,” i.e., feeling like you are welcome and belong in your community, was rated as a top community strength in several neighborhoods and rated as a top problem in others.

One neighborhood, Eastgate, which is south of Hall Street and north of Burton Street, was evenly split on whether cohesion was a problem or a strength.

“When we see something show up as both a strength and a problem, typically that means it’s an issue that’s very salient,” Petersen said. “This is something that has high value. ‘When it’s good, I see it as a strength. When it’s bad, I recognize it as a problem.’

“It’s this whole idea that we need to feel we belong in our neighborhood and we’re welcome. When you ask residents, that’s one of the things that makes or breaks it for people.”

She said she is interested in how the 2016 responses about cohesion might be related to respondents’ feelings about local racism.

“The racism question is interesting,” Petersen said. “What you see with that question is that people say that racism is definitely an issue in the U.S. and in Grand Rapids, but not in my specific neighborhood. It’s so interesting to put that alongside the question of, ‘Do I feel welcome in my neighborhood?’

“The (survey) question seems to result in externalizing. ‘It’s an issue for some people but just not me.’ It’s interesting to see how that’s related to cohesion. We don’t have any data on that, but it would be interesting to find out.”

Other findings in the 2016 VoiceGR survey:

  • The top community strengths identified by respondents were community cohesion, people and location.
  • The top problems identified by respondents were crime, infrastructure and lack of cohesion.

Petersen said the new VoiceKent survey was adjusted from exclusively multiple-choice format to include a few fill-in-the-blank questions:

  • What is the biggest strength or problem in your neighborhood?
  • If your neighborhood is safe, why?
  • If it is not safe, why?
  • If you want to move out of the area, why do you want move?

The 2017 VoiceKent survey results will be released in spring 2018. 

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