“Old habits die hard.”

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.”

“The path is made by walking.”

“It’s a routine procedure”

routinesNo matter which slogan you might identify with, they all point to the power of ROUTINE.  And by extension, how hard it can be to course-correct – if you’ve made a mistake, or you encounter new information, or your goals change.

Often, databases get built to fit the “lowest common denominator” which means a lot of compromises for people who don’t fit whatever the “norm” is.  Here’s an example – when I was helping my amazing synagogue select a database system to help keep track of our members, we outright rejected databases that insisted on a two-adult (married, straight) household where the man was the head of household and Official Synagogue Contact Person.  “No way!” we said.  “Well, that’s just the way the data architecture is!” they replied.  We made our requirements known, we requested changes, and eventually, we moved on to a system that could accommodate our needs (diverse family structures, and other needs too!).  These databases were build out of habit – and the end results are databases that just won’t work with a membership as queer and diverse and fabulous as ours!

Thinking outside the box

When I was first getting into data, I remember when my sister said “I don’t like databases because I don’t like the idea of reducing a person to data points and attributes.”  I think “old databases” are guilty of this, but new, more agile databases can accommodate LOTS of ways to represent a person and recognize their uniqueness.  Good database management isn’t about putting people into boxes – it’s about building better, more flexible buckets that can fit lots of different kinds of people!

I’ve written before about how good data management is a justice issue.  If you’re reading this, I might be preaching to the choir.  But when has that stopped me before?  We need good databases and data habits to respect people’s identities and preferences, whether that’s their gender pronoun, their honorific or title, or how they like to receive information (no voicemail please!).

Over a lovely meal of dumplings and bubble tea, Andy Kirshner (colleague and mentor from Interfaith Youth Corps) suggested that I expand my thinking of database justice to include interfaith solidarity.  This gave me SO much to think about.


Here are just a few of the ideas we came up with:

  1.  You can use databases to record the holidays of major faith traditions and tag your contacts with their affiliated religion (if known).  Then, don’t send them emails during major holidays for THEIR faith tradition (even if it’s just another day for you).  Or, send them holiday specific well wishes!  (This would take some work and configuration, but it’s definitely possible!  Why not dream big?)

    1a.  Try not to schedule major events that fall on major holidays, like Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.  Databases can be used to prompt you if you make a mistake, or you just don’t know when the holidays fall that year.

  2.  Everyone at your organization may not know the appropriate honorific title for clergy and faith leaders in different faith traditions.  You can use a database to capture that information and prompt your staff or volunteers to remember!
  3.  Sometimes there are faith-specific database uses that come up, for example, tracking the anniversary of the death of a loved one.  Lots of Jews rely on synagogue databases to help them remember “yartzeits” because the Hebrew calendar and Gregorian calendar are rarely in sync with each other.  What other religious or spiritual purposes can you think of for databases?
  4. Ah, the dreaded Holiday card debate.  Side-stepping the Merry Christmas/Seasons Greetings debate, why not send different messages to different people based on what you know about them?  It’s easy with a good database!

    “Season’s Greetings”
  5. Incorporate religious holiday or seasonal-specific greetings or well-wishes in your calls or emails.  You can accomplish this with a pretty simple mail merge that updates based on the person’s faith tradition, today’s date, and parameters you set for greetings.
  6. If you work for a faith-based or inter-faith organization, good data habits and good data architecture (good data in general!) can help you advance your mission by allowing you to communicate with the right people at the right time and spending less time wrangling spreadsheets and more time providing awesome, changemaker-friendly programming.

What’s the point of it all?

bb954c1a99ebf10f8268feeb9e9a2373Well, you might to make an appointment with a member of clergy to get an answer to that question… data can only get us so far!  But if you’re wondering, why go to all of this trouble to AUTOMATE interfaith solidarity instead of authentically prioritizing interfaith solidarity in all of our relationships and day-to-day communications?  Or, why can’t people just be ok with getting a generic or lowest-common-denominator greeting?  Here’s my answer:

Old habits die hard.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.
The path is made by walking.

Until we create a world that protects and celebrates people from religious minorities (and certainly there are lots of wonderful people and projects addressing this very goal), we need to train ourselves, build new systems, and develop habits that promote interfaith cooperation and solidarity.  Databases can easily foster the “old way” of doing things, but with a little bit of tweaking and configuration, they can also be used to convey the “world as it should be” or as close to it as we can get.

I’m trying out some new ideas here, and I’d love to hear from you about how they land.  Don’t be shy about writing a comment or sending me an email!  hello@thedataarealright.blog

And thank you to Andy for being a thought partner and inspiring this blog post!

Leave a Reply