Richmond Hill’s Tara Jennings has one of those jobs that’s hard to define.
As director of the Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition, a partnership between 22 area public and private organizations, Jennings sees her role as part mediator, part advocate, part “listening ear.” And that’s just scratching the surface.
“Engagement, empowerment and advocacy,” Jennings said, trying to sum it up in three words.
So maybe it’s kind of like being a mom. And that, as much as anything, seems to drive Jennings to do what she does.
“I’m a mother, and that’s very important to me,” said Jennings, who with her husband, Andy, has three daughters. “I really think, at the end of the day, I hope my kids will see that through my work, their lives were better, and so were the lives of other children. I really take that to heart. I hope they see that I speak on behalf of them, all of them.”
And so she does.
Jennings helped start Bryan County Family Connection in 2001 with a $25,000 budget. In 2008, she went to work for the United Way. Now, she helps communities figure out where they are and where they need to be by using data to ask
questions and find answers.
“What we bring to the table is having the data and being able to facilitate what I call those ‘courageous conversations,’” Jennings said, whose group recently held a forum in Richmond Hill.
Those conversations can be wide-ranging. Jennings can move from education to transportation to crime to water to mental health to jobs as she talks about the issues facing the four-county area under the Coastal Georgia Indicators Coalition’s statistical umbrella.
The data set itself is something new that came about out of necessity. While working for United Way of the Coastal Empire — which is still Jennings’ employer, though her job is something of a hybrid — there came a request for information as both Memorial Health and St. Joseph’s/Candler asked for data to help with strategic planning.
It wasn’t easy to compile, largely because there were few baselines on which to compare data.
“Say we’re comparing teen-pregnancy rates,” Jennings said. “One group would have x, another would have y, and that was because one is counting the rate for 15- to 17-year-olds while someone else is counting 17- to 19-year-olds.”
That’s when groups in Chatham County began to look for a way to begin putting together data that mattered. Jennings credits current Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott for being a driving force behind the indicators coalition.
“(Scott) wanted a strategic plan for the community so Chatham wasn’t continuing to throw money away on programs that weren’t working,” Jennings said.
By compiling local data on such issues as the high-school graduation rate, for example, and having it in one location, the people at coalition give local leaders and anyone else who is interested the tools to see what’s going on in Bryan, Chatham, Effingham and Liberty counties, and how programs are or are not working.
But it starts with everyone being on the same page, comparing apples to apples.
“The idea is, can we all agree to look at the same data and talk about the same data and use the same data when we’re making decisions that affect communities?” Jennings said.
Having accurate information also lets community leaders and others ask those hard questions, Jennings said, because there are pieces of the puzzle that don’t exist in sets of data.
“Even though we know the high-school graduation number is what it is, and we know it because it has to be reported, what happens to those who don’t graduate? Are they dropouts, are they transfers, what?” Jennings asked. “That’s the kind of missing piece that only comes from having those one-on-one conversations in the community.”
Other data also are sketchy because agencies have different reporting requirements, Jennings said.
“Law-enforcement data is not required on certain levels; mental-health data reporting is not required at certain levels. So you don’t have as much of that data when it’s not required at higher levels,” she said. “At the same time, if you have it locally and you can’t compare it to anything because no one else has a baseline, there’s no standard. That also makes it challenging.”
Jennings also refers to a comment she said was made by a local executive who claimed that less than 20 percent of the applicants for jobs at his company could pass drug screenings and background checks.
“If that number’s true, where is he speaking from? Where did he get that information from?” Jennings said. “That’s a really important question to answer.”
And there are others. The coalition’s website provides information on “indicators” in health, the economy, education and the environment and can range from the breast-cancer incidence rate in Bryan County — it’s 123.5 per 100,000 females, according to the latest available information — to the percentage of workers who drive alone to work.
In Bryan County, 82.67 percent of commuters drive alone, according to the website.
That stat can help transportation planners better understand what they’re facing.
But if providing data to those who make decisions is one reason for the CGIC, then Jennings also sees her job as being a conduit in both directions — from those who have power to those who need empowering.
“It’s translating and answering questions that the people have, too,” said Jennings, who spends time in both government meetings and in community forums.
“That’s where I think I have a great job,” she said. “I am able to listen to people, and then I have the opportunity to take what they have to say back to the elected people or the people they appoint and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing about this?’ and then taking that back to the community level.”
It’s hardly a 9-to-5 job, but it’s about the future and those young lives who will shape it, Jennings said.
“My kids would say, ‘Mom knows everybody, she talks to everybody, she’s constantly working,’” she said. “But my passion is really driven out of my love for them. That’s what drives me — and not just my biological children, but all the ones that can’t speak for themselves. I think that’s the prayer for every parent, and I’m just thankful I have the opportunity that a lot of parents don’t — to be the listening ear, to be the voice, to be the advocate that a lot of parents either don’t have time to be or don’t know how to be.’”