The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 1, 2015

Reflections on Baltimore: Urban asks the tough questions of itself

June 1, 2015

If you have explored the relaunched urban.org, you know that the Urban Institute is embracing new digital tools to showcase insights from research. We are committed to sharing our findings and their implications with people and organizations that can put them into action. We also are pausing to reflect more on the challenging issues we study, and looking holistically at what we know across policy silos about how to solve big problems, drawing upon the breadth of evidence that Urban’s experts consume, unearth, and create. Periodically, I would like to share with you some of the conversations we are having—both within and outside Urban—and invite your thoughts.

We have been reflecting on what recent events in Baltimore and cities around the country mean for us, an institution founded in 1968 to address sadly similar circumstances of communities grappling with inequality and injustice.

These reflections took shape in a powerful conversation between Senator Cory Booker and Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, a blog series on evidence-based solutions for cities with concentrated poverty, a panel on promoting diversity at the nation’s think tanks, and a moving internal discussion about what Baltimore means for Urban’s staff as policy researchers and individuals. 

Offering evidence-based solutions for Baltimore and other US cities

Through a series of blog posts, Urban scholars offered ideas about promising programs and policies that could make a difference in combatting the stubborn persistence of inequalities and barriers to mobility facing people of color in urban America today. I invite you to see the whole series on Urban Wire.

Reflecting upon all these posts, my colleagues Marge Turner and Zach McDade conclude that, since public policy over decades contributed to isolated poverty and segregation that exacerbated other disparate outcomes, reversing the vicious cycle requires policy changes across multiple domains. We know more and more about effective piecemeal strategies, but comprehensive strategies must extend beyond neighborhoods of poverty and distress to tackle larger system failures and listen to the people whose lives are most affected.

Imagining a more promising future for boys and men of color

Urban’s Board of Trustees and guests heard Senator Cory Booker and Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in an extraordinary discussion on improving opportunities for boys and men of color. It was a unique privilege to sit in on the frank dialogue between the young African- American senator and the university president, who was jailed by Bull Conner at age 12 for participating in the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham. As much as their personal stories reflect progress, Freeman “worr[ies] that the life chances of a boy born in 1936 are better than a kid born in 2004.”  Yet they hopefully offered evidence-based ideas—from reducing mandatory sentencing, to expanding educational opportunities in math and science, to expanding and improving mentoring programs for at-risk youth.  

Strengthening Urban’s own diversity and inclusion

As the Baltimore indictments were being read, over 150 Urban staff gathered in a circle for a candid conversation about the meaning to us of the events that took place in Baltimore. The challenging discussion revealed that our own community has much work to do to become a place where everyone’s day-to-day experiences reflect our stated values. But it also reinforced our commitment to doing the uncomfortable but necessary work to make progress:

  • Recognizing shared struggles within our ranks. We heard that our colleagues of color still face race-based assumptions and implicit bias in their everyday lives, sometimes from within our own community. We are planning further conversations to heighten our understanding of hidden bias and injustices, both within Urban and in our communities.
  • Framing and conveying our research in sensitive, well-informed ways. To some, data, statistics, and findings fail to reflect fully the humanity of the people studied. When race is a simply a control variable, the language can carry demeaning or dehumanizing connotations. We are starting to develop guidance for Urban Institute products to improve how we communicate about race and ethnicity.
  • Fostering greater staff diversity at all levels. Staff and researchers of color expressed the desire to see more faces like theirs in leadership roles. Our Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee is completing a review of recruitment and hiring practices across the Institute, we are devoting more resources to outreach in recruiting excellent talent, and the Institute is launching a reexamination of career pathways, which we hope will yield greater clarity on how all staff can succeed and advance at Urban.
  • Giving greater voice to the people we study. There is great interest in expanding use of techniques that give voice to the subjects of research—in study designs, data gathering, interpretation, and explication. A group is working to strengthen our capacity to integrate qualitative and ethnographic data with quantitative data. And we will continue to work to bring research to life through narratives, videos, essays, and other media.  

As affirmed by a recent panel on improving diversity in think tanks, the Urban Institute—like many other research organizations, universities, businesses, and nonprofits—has far to go in its journey toward full diversity and inclusion. We believe that these efforts are essential to Urban’s excellence and mission of bringing evidence to bear on challenges facing an increasingly diverse country, where inequities and barriers to mobility persist.

Thanks for being part of the community that believes deeply in the power of evidence to elevate debate. I look forward to more opportunities to connect with you soon, and I welcome your thoughts on this topic, our new website, or other aspects of Urban’s work.

Photo by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute

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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.