The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 12, 2016

Diversifying policy research

February 12, 2016

Later this year, Urban will be welcoming two new researchers from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s program sponsoring historically underrepresented minority scholars. Partnering with the Leaders in Equitable Evaluation and Diversity (LEEAD) program is important, but it’s far from the only step Urban is taking to ensure it is representing a wide range of viewpoints, backgrounds, and identities, both on our staff and in our research.

Institute Fellow Kilolo Kijakazi, who is spearheading the effort to ensure Urban’s staff and research better represent the country’s diversity, discusses Urban’s plans and why inclusion should be top-of-mind for any research organization.

AT: Why are you excited about the LEEAD program and this partnership?

KK: Casey is investing in a curriculum for scholars who have doctorates and multiple years of experience but may want additional expertise in particular areas of research. Urban is able to work with two scholars and provide them with experience and training, but also to learn from them. That’s the other part that’s exciting: to be able to learn from them about their perspectives on the research and how their approach can enlighten the work that we do. They may ask very different research questions than we would have thought of otherwise. They may have new ideas about what would be the most effective data collection methods for particular communities that we might not have considered. They may have very different takes on the findings and the ways to interpret them and, consequently, may offer very insightful solutions to the issues being studied that we might not otherwise have considered. So it’s exciting because we have the opportunity to partner and lend our expertise, but also what we get back form these scholars can really benefit the work that we do.

AT: You have said it’s important for Urban to look more like the country. Why is that important both to Urban and to other institutions in the social and economic policy space?

KK: The issues that Urban studies disproportionately affect people of color, and this will be even more true as the US population becomes more racially and ethnically diverse. Urban’s goal is to provide a sound body of evidence upon which members of society can make decisions about effective solutions. The soundness of this information depends, in part, on the ability of the researchers and policy analysts to know and understand the people and communities they are studying. It’s critical that the perspective of these communities is reflected in the research. If Urban is not more inclusive of researchers of color when we’re studying issues that disproportionately affect communities of color, we’re not going to know what critical factors we may be missing, what we’re failing to ask about, what we’re failing to take into consideration when we interpret the findings. An inclusive staff enhances our ability to produce sound evidence and achieve the most effective policy solutions.

AT: Speaking of research, I know your vision for Urban is not just to diversify the staff but also to make sure our research better represents the diversity of the country. A casual visitor to Urban’s site might observe that a lot of this research is already about people of color, but I think your idea is getting at something different. Can you explain?

KK: It’s the difference between someone picking up a document and seeing a population written about by researchers who are clearly not from that population and someone picking up a document and seeing themselves in how the researchers have written about that community. They should feel like there are people who are writing about the issue who have insight into what the nature of the problem is, the larger context in which these issues occur, and real insight into what effective solutions might be. It is necessary to understand a community’s strengths and assets, not just its challenges and deficits, to form comprehensive solutions.

AT: How do we start to do that kind of research given the makeup of the staff we have now? How can all researchers contribute to that kind of research?

KK: One way to speed up that process is by partnering with well-respected researchers of color from other institutions, and we’re beginning to do this. That kind of jumpstarts what we can do, because it brings in the perspectives of these highly regarded scholars of color on issues that we can jointly research. Increasing the number and share of researchers of color, especially at senior levels, may take a little time, but these collaborations can be created right away.

AT: You have also talked about the need to diversify our audience. Why is it important that our research reach a more diverse audience and what can we do to make sure that happens?

KK: Urban’s mission is to make a change: to make a change through policy but have that policy grounded in evidence. If we’re going to affect change, people have to know about the work that we’re doing. The research can’t just sit on the shelf. It needs to be broadly disseminated. We’re very effective at getting the research to policymakers, but policymakers are influenced by their constituents. Their constituents need to be familiar with our research in order to move their policymakers to act on it. We need to be able to reach an audience that looks like the nation, because that’s who the constituents of these policymakers are. We want them to be well informed in part because it is good for people to have information about their communities and themselves and what might be effective solutions, but also because they can move policy.

AT: How do we get that research to them?

KK: People need to be able to see themselves in it, so it needs to not be offensive. We need to be thoughtful about how we’re talking about people in communities. And that doesn’t mean we’re not still absolutely accurate in terms of the data we’re presenting, but we can talk about people and communities in non-offensive ways. We can also keep in mind that different audiences take in information in different ways. We can continue to write the very academic pieces that would go to other researchers, other think tanks, and clients, but we can also translate some of that work in ways that make it more accessible to a larger audience.

AT: Can you give an example of when our work has been, perhaps unintentionally, offensive?

KK: Too often, researchers talk about young black men like they’re an accident waiting to happen, like they are necessarily going to be a problem in society and get into trouble. They are discussed in ways that white youth typically are not. Research can be written in a way that absolutely preserves factual accuracy without being unintentionally offensive.  

AT: To get back to the bigger picture: looking both at Urban and at research institutions more generally, what’s the most important next step?

KK: We need to engage researchers here on issues that are of great concern to communities of color, but to ask them to do this in a way that may be more comprehensive than the approaches they have used before. The research needs to take a look at structural and systemic barriers to these communities, as opposed to focusing on a problem being solely within the individual. We need to focus on the context in which people live, the systems impacting them that may prevent them from achieving economic and social mobility, and the structural changes that are needed to eliminate these barriers. So, it’s engaging researchers in issues that are of paramount importance to communities of color, but taking a systems approach, and encouraging researchers to address structural change, not just behavioral change within individuals.

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.