Taking Culture Seriously in Social Science

As a species, we exist in culture like fish in water. When we want to explain something that humans say or do, we need to consider culture.  While omnipresent, culture is not static. Its influence ebbs and flows depending on context. Every person experiences a myriad of cultures depending on time and place as long as they are interacting with other people. Culture is also intersectional and layered. Given how complex and abstract it can be, it is tempting to overlook culture as a causal force of behavior in favor of more tangible and measurable variables. Yet, we ignore culture at the peril of making good inferences. In this blog, I will detail some of the innovative and creative ways social science has worked to avoid this error and take culture seriously.

Photo by Farzad Mohsenvand on Unsplash

Defining culture is a difficult task. For a great breakdown of the linguistic origins of the word, see my colleague Andrew Streight’s blog in this series. For the purposes of this piece, I will rely on the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition and define culture as, “the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization.” In other words, culture is a collection of the customs, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and values that a group of people share. A scientific study of culture requires the recognition of at least two critical traits from this definition. First, culture is shared. It is a phenomenon that exists beyond and outside of an individual at the group level. Second, culture is learned. When studying culture, we must be clear that it is distinct from genetic inheritance.

A lot of great qualitative research has used methods like ethnography, in-depth case studies, and participant observation to form the foundation of our knowledge of culture.  However, today I want to focus on quantitative methods that have been used in economics, psychology, political science, and sociology to study culture. The three most common quantitative approaches to studying culture have been survey data, experiments, and studies of second-generation immigrants.

Survey researchers often view the influence of culture simply as a nuisance that they need to control for when analyzing their data. Here, we need to move beyond simply accounting for differences in demographics and location, and move toward descriptive measurements of cultural phenomenon. To this end, survey research has made major progress with the advent of ambitious projects like the Generalized Social Survey and the World Values Survey. Since its inception in 1981, the World Values survey has tracked cultural beliefs through repeated representative surveys in over 100 countries. Accounting for around 90% of the world’s population, the project allows social scientists to analyze how the average beliefs of a country, on topics like secularism or self-expression, affect an individual’s attitudes and behaviors. Additionally, these cultural measures have allowed a robust debate about the relationship between economic development, values, and democratization to be tested empirically.

Next, experimental research has provided interesting insights on culture’s impact. Research has demonstrated that the propensity for individuals to cooperate in experimental games consistently mirrors patterns in an individual’s every-day environment. Subjects who live in societies with high levels of generalized trust are much more likely to cooperate in the lab than those who live in untrusting societies. Additionally, scholars have attributed interesting cross-national cheating patterns in tax compliance experiments to distinct cultural norms. These findings are a critical reminder of why it is important to include diverse participants in our experiments.

The final, and potentially most interesting, quantitative strategy for studying culture has been a focus on outcomes amongst first and second-generation immigrants. Focusing on individuals who move across countries, or whose parents have, is a great way to isolate the potential effects of culture from other important causes of behavior like laws and institutions. This strategy has yielded some fascinating results.

For example, immigrants tend to hold attitudes toward inequality and social policy that are consistent with the average beliefs of their country of origin. They are also likely to vote accordingly. Additionally, scholars claim a culture of honor came to the US with Anglo herders in the 18th century as these patterns of migration correlate with contemporary levels of reciprocal violence in the South. Finally, the detrimental effects of the transatlantic slave trade can be seen in immigrants with coastal African ancestry having lower levels of interpersonal trust, regardless of the current country they call home. Indeed, attitudes toward fertility, female labor market participation, and development all suggest a strong cultural influence passed from parents to children over generations.

While complex and often abstract, culture exerts a strong influence on a myriad of attitudes and behavior. As such, we must think critically about its influence whenever we are studying people. This review barely scratches the surface. Hopefully, the future will only bring more creative solutions to measuring and testing culture’s effect on various outcomes of interest. One place to look is the emergent field of cultural neuroscience. Here, fMRI research has confirmed what should be obvious from the above discussion. Various cultural tasks and routines yield distinct, observable patterns in our brains. Just one more reminder to take culture seriously.

Corona welcomes our newest Associate, Jim Pripusich

We are delighted to introduce our newest Associate, Jim Pripusich, PhD!

Jim is passionate about explaining the causes of human attitudes and behaviors in addition to the consequences of policy and institutional change. As a political scientist by training, he has expertise in thinking creatively about answering complex research questions with quantitative and qualitative data. Continuing reading in his bio…

Welcome, Jim!

What do we mean by “arts” and “culture?”

Photo source: Henry & Co., Unsplash.com

As a philosopher turned strategy consultant, sometimes I like to begin my analysis of the wide range of data we work with at Corona Insights by stepping back and digging deeper into the key words that tie a set of information together. Understanding the linguistic root of a word as well as the evolution of a word’s definition can help illuminate the underlying assumptions and philosophical perspectives that might otherwise hinder clarity and meaningful interpretation.

Deeply examining key conceptual language is also important to the group processes we run to help identify and clarify future-focused strategies for our clients. Establishing a common understanding of the conceptual language involved in a strategic process is crucial to ensuring alignment and enabling powerful decision-making. Otherwise, trying to make collective decisions without explicit recognition of a shared definition can be like two people playing a game by different rules without realizing it. There’s a reason why people take a moment to establish the rules first before playing a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” (2 out of 3, go on “shoot,” for example).

The interrelated words “arts” and “culture” (and the theme of our blog series this month!) serve as a prime example of what can happen when people use differing definitions for terms and don’t explicitly recognize these differences and the underlying assumptions behind them.

While a Google search of “arts” yields this definition, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination,” the evolution of the term suggests it encompasses a much wider range of meaning and interpretation. Original interpretations from the Old French art meaning “skill in scholarship and learning” and the Latin artem meaning “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft” suggest that the term didn’t always have the connotation related to human creativity but, instead, began as a way of indicating expertise or talent in a craft (Online Etymology Dictionary). The notion that there’s a rigid definition for what is art and what is not didn’t begin to take shape until the late 15th century, when the term was understood as meaning “system of rules and traditions for performing certain actions” until sometime in the 16th century when it was first used to mean “skill in creative arts.”

Anthropologist Susan Vogel, in Art/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections, highlights the damage that can be caused by culturally-conditioned assumptions concerning what constitutes “art” and what constitutes “artifact.” Namely, the impact is that those who discover an object like an African sculpture end up having as much or more influence than the original artist on determining whether it is, in fact, art. Vogel writes, “a central issue is our classification of certain objects of African material culture as art and others as artifacts. Our categories do not reflect African ones and have changed during this century…we may be misled into believing that we see African art for what it is.”  Without explicit recognition of an accepted definition of the word “art,” objects that should be understood as pieces of art end up being described as artifacts because of the underlying assumptions behind an unexamined conceptual definition.

That a complex conceptual term like “art” might have an intricate linguistic history that opens up its definition to broader interpretation and meaning also holds true for “culture.” Another Google search reveals the following definition for “culture” as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.” What this definition doesn’t include is the sense of active cultivation, of tending to and promoting the growth of culture as one would a crop (Online Etymology Dictionary). The origination of the term in the 15th century from the Latin cultura meaning “a cultivating, agriculture” and the stem colere meaning “to tend, guard; to till, cultivate” suggests that culture need not be as strictly defined as our Google definitions might be, as it includes the aspect of being “regarded collectively” as human intellectual achievement. A more conceptually encompassing definition such as this one from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy allows for a broader range of human activities to fit since “culture is the product of human activity, particularly those things that are socially transmitted, including beliefs, practices, objects, etc. (Appiah 1994: 111–112; Scheffler 2007: 107).” This less confining definition would make better sense of the trend towards an evolving definition of “culture” noted in the 2017 CultureTrack report.

Photo source: Ruslan Bardash, Unsplash.com

In a 2017 national survey of cultural audiences across the United States, La Placa Cohen notes that people are beginning to define culture so broadly the term may not even apply anymore, with the implication being that audiences are both open to new experiences and vary in terms of which activities they define as “cultural.” The report states, “for today’s audiences, the definition of culture has democratized even further, possibly to the point of extinction. Activities that have traditionally been considered culture and those that haven’t are now on a level playing field…audiences were more likely to consider a street fair or food and drink experience culture than an opera or ballet.” For cultural organizations, assuming everyone has the same definition of “culture” as they did even 5-10 years ago potentially means inadequately responding to the dynamic needs of those you serve.

In both cases, the mistake lies in the assumption that everyone shares a single, fixed definition of a complex concept like “art” or “culture.” Definitions of terms such as these are not only subject to individual philosophical assumptions and perspectives, they are also constantly evolving.

The importance of stepping back and discussing definitions for terms like “arts” and “culture” lies not so much in the need to necessarily arrive at a strict, fixed definition, but in the collective experience of taking the time and effort to collaboratively examine the unique philosophical perspectives and assumptions all of us carry, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously. When we try to combine the words “arts and culture” as they are so often presented, the need for focused, ongoing discussions of how we—both as individuals and as parts of larger societal groups–are defining these concepts becomes even more evident. By “arts and culture,” do we mean the expressions of human creative skill under the umbrella of collectively-regarded human intellectual achievement? Or do we mean something broader, like the vast range of human activities that indicate a particular skill set and capture the general beliefs, practices, traditions, values, etc. of a group of people?

I don’t have the answer and I don’t think there should ever be a final, “right” answer to this question of how we should define “arts and culture.” What does matter, though, is that we make the time, effort, and space we need to have ongoing discussions of evolving concepts like these—to till, to tend, to cultivate them. For concepts that capture so much of what it means to be a human being as the terms “arts” and “culture” do, we can learn a lot about each other and, perhaps, come to understand each other on a deeper level when we do.

Disrupting the membership machine: An interview with Rosie Siemer

Membership programs are ubiquitous. From credit card companies to professional associations and cultural institutions, it seems like everyone is vying for our loyalty, engagement, and money. In a society based in consumerism, the ways we engage members are looking more and more alike across sectors and fields. That consolidation is quickening as consumer expectations shape when, where and how we engage.

So, how might arts organizations differentiate their programs and offer compelling reasons to join?

To gain a bit of perspective I sat down with Rosie Siemer, Founder and CEO of FIVESEED. Rosie consults with museums, arts, and conservation organizations worldwide to engage new and diverse audiences. An expert in museum audience engagement and membership innovation, Rosie has consulted internationally for leading organizations, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Museum of Science, Boston, Saint Louis Art Museum, Desert Botanical Garden, and Space Center Houston.

This blog is a compilation of my interview with Rosie.

Online engagement circa 2011

It is difficult to remember what it was like before we could swipe, hover, or press for fingerprint recognition. Rosie reminded me what it was like in the early days of member engagement using online tools. When Rosie started in membership engagement in 2011 online and social media were new, and especially new to those running marketing and membership programs for arts nonprofits. She got to see the earliest application of social media – and saw first-hand what worked well and what didn’t. It’s difficult to believe that the early adopters of 2011 were beginning to use email and social media for donor outreach. (Can we imagine our membership programs without these marketing channels today?)

Rosie reminded me, “Just remember, Facebook didn’t have a sophisticated advertising platform back then. This was back in the time of fan gates and page tabs—before the advent of Facebook’s social graph and mobile ads.”  She went on to note, “Algorithms weren’t dominate in the early days of social media. You had a lot more control over the timing and placement of your membership program marketing. Plus, you could get in front of your audience much more easily.”

Membership managers have less control over placing their messages online now that algorithms rule the world. When you have less control over what your audience sees it becomes harder to break through the flood of messages and engage authentically with them.

In essence, social media is a customer service channel today. It is the channel through which members reach out 24/7 with questions, complaints, and suggestions. Membership programs increasingly function as customer service. Wait, what? I thought guest services was responsible for customer service.

Social media is typically run out of the marketing department, which means that member input and comments go there first when in fact they may need to be addressed by the membership department. As Rosie has observed, “In some cases marketing is the middle-man between membership and the member. This situation can be very challenging for members if the social media manager is not responsive.”

The shift to member-centric models

The classic membership model has fallen short of meeting the needs of different types of members. While the classic program may be relatively easier for the organization to manage it can feel static and off the shelf. Too frequently a member finds themselves saying, “I guess I’ll take that even if it isn’t what I need.”

Rosie pointed out that arts organizations have lagged in product development when compared to other offerings in the leisure and entertainment industry. Since they have limited budgets and limited staff to dedicate to member engagement they haven’t been able to keep up with broader consumer trends.

More arts organizations are recognizing that their members are whole people with expectations, needs and demands that extend beyond membership. The expectations they have for their Amazon Prime membership inform their expectations as a museum member.  Rosie  is seeing arts organizations implement a distributed management approach to member engagement. This, in turn, is disrupting the way organizations are structured.

“Membership has historically been a stand-alone division or housed within the Development department. Membership is now being rolled up under marketing or under a division with guest services, which makes a lot of sense. You miss the opportunity to cultivate members and donors over the long-term when organizations have silos. I’m seeing that organizational structures are changing; they are becoming more integrated and holistic in how they steward the customer journey and member lifecycle.”

Increasingly, consumers across generations – from Gen Z to Boomers – share the same expectations. Rosie noted that “in many ways millennials are exhibiting the early indicators of what older generations want too. It is a lifestyle issue, and membership is increasingly about convenience, cost and customization.” This trend is expected to continue.

What is on the horizon?

Rosie’s new book is expected to be published by 2020. She is focusing on membership innovation and audience development. As she wraps up her research she’s wondering if some initial shifts will become major trends. Will cultural organizations extend their service offerings to include transportation and cohort experiences for groups? As loneliness becomes a bigger and bigger issue, along with lack of access, might museums radically reinvent the way they design their experiences and meet people where they are at? Might we envision a membership program that addresses those barriers? Rosie can.


If you want to learn more check out:

Membership Marketing in the Digital Age: A Handbook for Museums and Libraries – Rosie is a co-author of this go-to resource for membership programs.

Realizing Denver’s dreams for arts and culture: An interview with Kent Rice

In mid-October, Denver announced the retirement of Kent Rice the Executive Director of Denver Arts & Venues. Kent came into city government as an appointee under Mayor John Hickenlooper. What he thought might be a short-term gig turned into a career-defining 8-year journey.

I had the pleasure of working with Kent and his wonderful team on IMAGINE 2020: Denver’s Cultural Plan. His announcement provided an opportunity to gather his observations on Denver’s thriving arts scene and his wish list for the future.

During our 30-minute phone conversation we landed on a set of critical success factors that are evident across Denver – invest, innovate, listen to the public, collaborate, and committed long-term leadership. I’ll come back to those factors in just a bit.

It’s important to recall that in 2011 Denver had two different agencies working in the arts – the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs and Denver Theater & Arenas. Kent’s initial task was realizing the synergies from the merger of the two into what is now known as Denver Arts & Venues. Those synergies have been notable. Kent shared with me that the business side of Denver Arts & Venues has grown from $21 Million to $54 Million through expanded offerings at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre and other city-owned facilities. That increased funding  has fueled more arts and cultural programs across the city as well as two significant renovations of McNichols Civic Center. We are leveraging our assets to invest more in cultural programs and amenities for the public.

You may recall that the McNichols Building was a built as a Carnegie Library in 1909 and over the years had served as remote office space for city employees before it was shuttered for a period of time. When Arts & Venues took over the space they laid out a plan to revitalize the building as a cultural hub – and that dream has been realized. You can wander into the building today and find yourself practicing yoga accompanied by the Colorado Symphony or enjoying the artistry of tattoo art as you consider the beauty of religious art. That investment has realized tremendous returns for Denver.

City staff are inspired to imagine what might be possible and then bring their visions to life. As the public’s desire for arts and culture becomes less traditional the opportunities to innovate manifest in new combination and unexpected offerings. The recent Street Art Ink Runway Show is a case in point. The show was the brainchild of Arts & Venues staff who sought to bring tattoo art into the mainstream – and there is no more mainstream venue than a city-owned facility. The fashion show was a big hit.

A strong public response demonstrates the value of listening. When you listen to the public you can deliver programs that resonate. Kent noted that Denver residents share several traits with cultural consumers nationally as revealed in CultureTrack ‘17. Denver residents seek authentic experiences. They also want to record their experiences digitally and pair them with food and beverage options. They also crave broad experiences. Fortunately, Denver has variety in spades. Our restaurant scene is amazing; so too are our beverages.

Denver is known as a city that believes you have to collaborate to bring unique cultural offerings to the city. Case in point: CRUSH. CRUSH is an annual mural arts exhibition featuring the creation of approximately 100 murals for one week each year. CRUSH relies on a diverse array of collaborators ranging from local to international artists, arts organizations, landlords, civic organizations, businesses and the City.

Source: crushwalls.org

A longtime partner in CRUSH is Denver Urban Arts Fund, a program of Denver Arts & Venues. The Fund facilitates the creation of new murals in perpetually vandalized areas throughout the City and County of Denver. Since its inception the program has facilitated the creation of nearly 250 murals with local artists.

CRUSH is a terrific example of the importance of committed long-term leadership. Another example can be found at the Clyfford Still Museum. You may not recall that the City and County of Denver is the legal owner of Still’s art. (Talk about a public art collection.) In 2016 Denver lent a number of paintings for a European exhibition. As the Museum reported, it was “the first comprehensive survey of the eponymous American postwar movement to be mounted in Europe in more than 50 years.”

“As a city, Denver pursued and received the honor of creating the Clyfford Still Museum and becoming home to the world’s most intact public collection of an American artist—placing us in an elite position within the art world. The loan of these nine works will turn a global spotlight on Denver’s reputation as an international cultural destination.” (Source: Clyfford Still Museum)

Kent noted how proud Denver residents would be to know that the placards under each painting on exhibit stated that they were lent by the City and County of Denver. The Clyfford Still Museum wouldn’t be in Denver if it weren’t for committed long-term leadership across city government, arts organizations, philanthropists, civic organizations and the private sector.

As I wrapped up my interview with Kent I lent him my magic wand and asked him, “What one thing would you wish for Denver’s future arts scene?”

Of course, Kent came back with a list of things.

Kent’s 3 wishes for Denver

  1. Elected officials who support arts, culture and the creative sector – Kent stated that the continuity of commitment across Denver Mayors over the past several decades has made a big difference. So too is support from City Council. “It makes a huge difference,” he said.
  2. Cultural leaders who innovate and collaborate – The other area of critical leadership, according to Kent, is in the cultural sector. Fortunately, Denver has an abundance of cultural leaders who innovate and collaborate. There is evidence of this across the City, from commissions for new works of art, to first-ever exhibitions and one-of-a-kind productions.
  3. Voters who continue to support the SCFD – The Scientific and Facilities District is a special taxing district approved by the voters that devotes 1 cent on every $10 to arts, cultural and scientific offerings in the metro Denver area. The district raises over $50 Million annually. It will sunset in 2030 unless reauthorized by the voters. SCFD funding is vital to over 270 arts, cultural and scientific organizations across the region.

To see Kent’s wish list in action one only has to think back to Yo-Yo Ma’s concert in Denver on August 1st. He selected our city to kick-off a two-year international journey to six continents. His stop illustrated the power of collective leadership, collaboration and innovation. The day started with a performance at Civic Center Park, with student musicians from Hamilton Middle School and Isaac Slade of the Fray. He also stopped by Youth on Record to perform with students. His day ended in a sold-out Bach concert with Colorado Symphony at Red Rocs Amphitheatre.

All together Kent’s three wishes align with an insight that Corona developed through its cultural planning work, namely the importance of collective will and community leadership. “You can’t make real progress without it. There has been a continuous stream of it,” Kent remarked.

Kent wrapped up by saying that serving as Executive Director of Denver Arts & Venues “has been a thrill and privilege. I am very very lucky.”

Thanks to Kent and countless others we have the critical success factors down in spades.

  • Invest
  • Innovate
  • Listen
  • Collaborate
  • Committed long-term Leadership

We are the lucky ones, Kent. Thank you!

The Impact of Arts and Culture

Photo by Jordan McDonald on Unsplash. Link to full credit below.

Measuring the impact that arts and culture has on a community can be difficult; however, it is something that funders and researchers have become quite interested in. Sometimes it might be difficult to measure the impact because the results happen so far down the road. For example, research funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) showed that adults who had participated in any type of art education as children were more likely to participate in the arts as adults. Additionally, it might be difficult to measure because there might be multiple different kinds of impacts. For example, Animating Democracy spent a significant amount of time creating a rubric to help communities evaluate the impact of public art.

To kick off our fourth quarter blog series on arts and culture, I thought it might be fun to take a look at how some communities and organizations have measured the impact of arts and culture. While there has been a lot of focus on the economic impact of arts and culture (and we are, as always, very excited for CBCA’s new report), I thought it might be interesting to review some non-economic impacts.

Research has shown that arts and culture can significantly impact our quality of life. Newer research in New York has found that having cultural resources in lower-income neighborhoods is related to a variety of better health outcomes for residents of those neighborhoods. Additionally, those neighborhoods also had lower crime rates and better academic outcomes for their kids.

There has been significant research on the impact of arts and culture on children. For example, kids who participate in arts education feel more optimistic, are more attached to their school, and show greater long-term academic performance. Arts can also improve social and emotional learning for kids when they are young. Some of the greatest impact of arts and culture occurs for kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

There has been some interesting research showing that greater arts participation is associated with other pro-social behaviors, such as voting, volunteering, and making donations. People United, a group in the UK, has been collecting some experimental data that has shown that arts participation increases empathy, increases intentions to be kind, increases connections within a community, reduces bias, and increases people’s belief that they can effect change.

Obviously, this is just a small sample of some of the research being done on the impact of arts and culture. It is exciting to see researchers come up with creative ways to capture in numbers the impact of something that often feels amorphous and difficult to measure. Throughout this quarter we hope to share interesting tidbits from our work about trends in arts and culture and share stories about the impact that arts and culture is having in communities.

Above photo by: Jordan McDonald

Human Services Blog Series Recap

As September winds down, we’re wrapping up our quarterly blog series on Human Services here at Corona Insights.  When we got together to plot out this series we had a lot of discussion around themes and patterns that we’ve seen in our work with human services organizations as we’re providing evaluation, research, and strategic consulting. The three themes that felt the most compelling and drove our writing for this quarter were these:

We’ve really enjoyed taking a step back to think about common themes among all our human service projects. We hope you have too.

To stay on top of everything we cover, sign up for our quarterly newsletter, The Corona Observer.

Be sure to stay tuned to the Radiance Blog next quarter for our next blog series topic!

Colorado Housing Affordability: Challenges and Solutions

Ensuring that people can access adequate housing has long been a core concern for human service agencies and providers. Stable housing helps people stay healthy, remain connected to the community, and have peace of mind. With the advent of evidence-based approaches, such as Housing First, human service organizations have invested even more resources into this issue.

Yet lately, this topic has become even more urgent throughout Colorado. Increasing housing prices for both renting and buying creates more difficult hurdles. From the Great Plains to the Front Range and on through the Western Slope, communities are experiencing tougher and broader housing challenges. Some of our recent research has helped these communities understand housing challenges to prioritize ways to overcome them.


In a recent survey, we found that the affordable housing situation has gotten worse in most of Colorado’s cities and towns over the past three years. A lack of affordable housing has steadily become a more common challenge for communities since 2012, when the economy began to recover after the Great Recession.

A shortage of accessible housing begets other human service issues. Indeed, most communities in Colorado have had a difficult time recruiting and retaining a workforce due to affordable housing challenges, and many communities have seen local worker commute times increase because of a lack of local affordable housing.

Almost all medium and large cities in Colorado have witnessed a rise in people experiencing homelessness over the past three years. Even though that increase is not entirely caused by a lack of affordable housing, an increase in homeless people does frequently affect local law enforcement and parks and recreation departments, demanding more resources. Homelessness effect on police and parks was true regardless of community size or region in the state.


Our research has found that many communities are rising to meet the challenges of affordable housing. Most midsized to large communities either currently have a housing affordability plan or intend to create one soon; most also have a plan to address homelessness. However, other potential solutions, such as subsidizing workforce housing or creating a dedicated tax, are uncommon. Maybe these solutions, or other innovative ideas, can help communities address their challenges.

If your community is facing these issues, consider conducting a housing needs assessment. Needs assessments can range from simple analysis of existing demographic data to extensive engagements, including hearing from people who are most affected by housing. If you are interested in learning more about how a needs assessment could help you identify housing needs and gaps in your community, give us a call; we are happy to chat.

Solidarity, Not Charity: An Approach to Dealing with Food Insecurity

In our work, we often encounter non-profits and other human services organizations that are utilizing creative and innovative solutions to problems that affect the community. As noted in previous blogs, human services needs are often interconnected and as such, organizations are increasingly having to expand their scope of work to better serve their communities. A quick review of the Colorado Department of Human Services’ webpage highlights how opioid treatment, SNAP enrollment, childhood wellness, and homelessness weave together to create the complex social challenges of our modern era. Rarely does an individual experience a singular human services need. One organization, Metro Caring, has fearlessly approached the issue of food insecurity in the Denver area, while also activating their community to address other needs of their participants.

Photo by Dana DeVolk on Unsplash.com

We’ve all heard the tropes and clichés about “American” food portions.  In 2018, we are eating more and more, yet as much as 40% of food produced goes to waste. Compared to dinner plates in 1960, today’s dinner plates have increased 36%. Given these known facts, why are more and more people struggling with hunger? In Colorado alone, 1 in 10 Coloradans struggle with hunger–meaning they do not always have enough money to buy food. A local Denver non-profit, Metro Caring, has vowed to help local residents tackle the issue of food insecurity.

Unlike many food service programs, Metro Caring focuses on providing its participants with healthy, nutritious, and fresh food and produce. Historically, emergency food programs have distributed non-perishable food items and participants have not had much, or any, choice in what food they receive. This exacerbates the food waste problem and does not enable people living with food insecurity to have access to healthy food. According to Sisi Dong Brinn, Chief Impact Officer at Metro Caring, access to healthy food options is a human right.

Participants schedule an appointment time at Metro Caring and are able to shop the shelves and refrigerators, selecting their own food items with dignity. The non-profit has also successfully partnered with local grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to ensure all participants who walk through the doors of Metro Caring can feed themselves and their families with nutritious items.

Metro Caring serves a diverse audience, including immigrants and refugees from as far away as China or the Middle East. As their participant base diversifies, the organization has instituted several programs to ensure the cultural diversity of our Denver community is embraced and shared. Above the grocery market, Metro Caring has a fully operational kitchen. On different days and times, the kitchen is utilized for cooking classes, with participants and volunteers leading cooking classes that highlight different cultural foods. The non-profit has also been able to form partnerships with corporations and local restaurants to create community gardens that supply Metro Caring with specialized produce items such as bok choy, eggplant, and chilis. Highlighting cultural differences in a positive way builds empathy and encourages community-driven connections.

Sisi Dong Brinn used the phrase “solidarity, not charity” to describe the work done at Metro Caring. Many people do not understand that empowering people to exert their own agency over food production and consumption has a more lasting impact than simply providing food. In line with the solidarity, not charity sentiment, Metro Caring offers a plethora of other human services to participants. In addition to the food services, the non-profit offers courses on financial literacy, citizenship test resources, a diabetes self-management program, and document services such as identification cards and birth certificates. Metro Caring frequently reaches out to its participants to evaluate and conduct research on which services and programs they would like to see added, augmented, or removed. Through focus groups, formal evaluation, and participant conversations, Metro Caring is consistently looking for ways to better their current and future participants. At times, Metro Caring has taken on an advocacy role. After RTD closed a nearby bus stop, Metro Caring and its participants worked together to petition for the stop to be reopened, ensuring Metro Caring participants have easy access to the organization and public transportation.

One organization cannot solve all the problems facing the Denver metro area. However, the scope of the programs and services offered at Metro Caring highlights how hunger and food insecurity are often interconnected with other systemic issues like affordable housing, employment, poverty, and mental health and well-being. Providing human services through the lens of “solidarity, not charity” ensures greater impact and enables participants to realize their own agency.

DU’s Keystone Strategic Plan leads to action


The 20th century model of delivering a liberal and creative arts education is inadequate to the task of developing graduates who can think broadly and critically in and out of their chosen fields.

—From the Keystone Strategic Plan 2018-2025


We are thrilled to celebrate the creation of the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Denver.

The creation of the College is a direct result of their strategic planning process. The exciting Keystone Strategic Plan commits the college to nothing less than the transformation of the liberal and creative arts education in alignment with the University’s transformation under DU IMPACT 2025.


What role will the social sciences, arts, and humanities play in a world that increasingly operates through artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and big data? A very important one. The careers and lives of tomorrow will be defined by distinctly human qualities such as ethical judgment, creativity, adaptability, agility, and storytelling.

—From the Keystone Strategic Plan 2018-2025


“This plan represents the best of our strategy work at Corona. We are thrilled with the resulting plan and look forward to the momentum and positive changes it creates for the students, staff, faculty, and alumni of the college,” said Karla Raines.

Read the full press release here. See the video that DU produced about the plan below.