The Picture of an “Excellent” Community – What the Data Tells Us

By Board Member and Former Kruse Scholar Autumn Chmielewski

How do you define an “excellent” community? What does it look like? The best explanations usually come in the form of a story or real-life example, so let’s start there.

One of the communities that the Communities of Excellence 2026 (COE2026) team is considering for inclusion in our pilot demonstration to test the community quality framework is a perennial winner in “best of” lists for a wide variety of measures. They consistently rank at or near the top in the key focus areas of community performance that the COE2026 framework is built around: educational attainment, economic vitality, health status, and safety.

Evidence of this can be found in verified community data and is highlighted by some of the accolades this community has won in recent years include the following:

  • 3rd highest % of adults with at least a high school diploma
  • Top 10 ranking for most educated place in America
  • America’s top place for business
  • Top 10 ranking for healthiest community in America
  • Top 10 ranking for safest community in the nation
  • And #1 best place to raise a child in the country

From all appearances this is a high performing community and is clearly doing something (or many things) right.

Let’s compare this to another community that the COE2026 team is considering for inclusion in the pilot demonstration. This community has many great assets, but it’s struggling in the majority of key focus areas. Some of the struggles of this community are seen in data reported in recent years including the following:

  • High rates of high school dropouts with 27% of the population having less than a high school diploma
  • Widespread racial stratification in schools with 70%+ of K-12 public, charter school students attending virtually segregated schools (the modern day version of “separate but equal”)
  • Widespread poverty with 65% of the community living at or near federal poverty levels
  • Chronic unemployment with 40% of the community unemployed or not in the labor force
  • Worst health disparities in the country
  • And criminal justice disparities rated 2x the national average

This is a community that is hurting. The major systems and policies that are supposed to create opportunities and pathways to better lives are clearly not working here.

In comparing and contrasting these examples, it seems obvious that the first community might be how we define and picture a “community of excellence.” Where is this community? It’s the state of Minnesota.

And what about the second example? Where is that community and what is happening there to create such a bleak picture? Believe it or not, that is also the state of Minnesota.

The first example is the dominant narrative of the North Star state - a state where everyone has an opportunity to learn, to work, to grow and to thrive. But it’s a false narrative. Because behind the high rankings and “best of” lists lay the silent struggles of the growing minority populations in the state. And the second example above is their narrative.

The overwhelming majority of people who live in Minnesota, 82%, are white. And they have benefited from systems that were built by them and for them creating routine advantages enjoyed for generations. The overall health and wellness enjoyed by Minnesotans is largely limited to the white population. The “best of” lists and high accolades enjoyed by the state are based on a skewed sample. The lesson here is that averages do not tell the whole story.

We can’t afford to be blinded by averages and surface level success stories when deciding which measurements to use in setting our community priorities and measuring success. We have to work together in an authentic and reconciling collaboration to build the communities of tomorrow. Using inclusive data, an expanded understanding of existing inequities, and a shared vision for the future, we can write a new chapter for the next generation and paint a better picture of an “excellent” community for everyone.

Read more about Autumn Chmielewski here

One thought on “The Picture of an “Excellent” Community – What the Data Tells Us

  1. Steve Wenger

    As the saying goes, “we will be better off when we are all better off”. However, our market segmentation methods usually carve out struggling communities and neighborhoods because they contain more challenges and work. So advantaged areas continue to improve while disadvantaged areas decline. Thus the skewing of the average gets more distorted and meaningless. Our American sense of dignity and justice has been trumped by the power of exclusion and market segmentation. That said, there are examples and exemplar communities that learn, lead and improve and we need more of them to succeed. Communities of Excellence 2026 provides a framework to follow if citizen leaders are willing to act.

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