Announcement Urban Institute Launches Office of Race and Equity Research
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WASHINGTON, DC, June 8, 2022 – The Urban Institute announced today the launch of its Office of Race and Equity Research, part of an ongoing organizational effort to advance equity. Through innovation in data analytics and research methods, the office will deliver evidence-based solutions and actionable policy to address structural racism and other entrenched inequities. 

“We know more needs to be done to root out the racism entrenched in our systems and address the everyday harms it causes people and society at large,” Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell said. “With the Office of Race and Equity Research, Urban is expanding our capacity to analyze data, build evidence, and share insights to advance racial justice and equity in health care, housing, jobs, and so many other areas that affect people’s well-being.” 

The office aims to strengthen race- and equity-focused policy research and practice both within and outside Urban. In addition to developing new research, the office will advise and build capacity for leaders in philanthropy and local, state, and federal government. The office is home to Urban’s Racial Equity Analytics Lab, which equips change agents with data and analyses to advance pressing policy needs, the Equity Scoring Initiative, a partnership with Policy Link to score legislative proposals for their potential impact on equity, and the Equity Scholars Program, a two-year program where emerging and established scholars deepen their own policy-oriented research on measuring equity and ways to address structural racism.  

“To truly confront systemic inequities, the way we as researchers approach and conduct our work needs to change.” said Rekha Balu, director of federal equity initiatives and co–vice president of the Office of Race and Equity Research. “We want to go beyond identifying disparities. We aim to understand how structural racism works, how it affects people and communities, and what policy solutions could improve lives.”  

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the long-standing structural inequities that have led to such disparate experiences and outcomes for people across our country,” said Celina Barrios-Millner, the office’s co–vice president. “I look forward to developing tools and sharing best practices that will help changemakers design programs and policies that build equity in from the point of inception.”   

In addition to vice presidents Balu and Barrios-Millner, the Office of Race and Equity Research team includes current Urban scholars, welcomes new hires, and is expanding its team:  

  • Rita Ko, a new hire, chief data officer and director of the Racial Equity Analytics Lab 

  • Rejane Frederick, a new hire and associate director  

  • Danielle DeRuiter-Williams, a new hire and associate director for racial equity in Urban’s Research to Action Lab 

  • Carla Willis, a new hire and principal research associate in Urban’s Health Policy Center 

  • Ofronama Biu, a new hire and senior research associate in Urban’s Income and Benefits Policy Center 

  • LesLeigh Ford, associate director 

  • Alena Stern, associate director of data science and technology 

Meet some of the new hires below.  

 

Rita Ko, chief data officer and director of the Racial Equity Analytics Lab 

A global data strategy and social impact executive with 15 years of experience as a trusted leader, Ko joins Urban from The Hive an innovation lab at USA for UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency), where she was director. Her leadership is based in taking missions and visions to execution by leading multidisciplinary teams, designing technical road maps that build capacity, and operationalizing initiatives across organizations. 

Ko founded the USA for UNHCR Data Advisory Board and is a member of the Harvard Data Science Review Advisory Board. She received a bachelor of economics degree from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Cornell University. 

 

Rejane Frederick, associate director of the Office of Race and Equity Research  

Frederick focuses on connecting and advancing equity research, initiatives, and practitioners at the local, state, and federal levels. Her areas of expertise include community-based participatory research, policy analysis and policymaking, knowledge and capacity-building technical assistance, and multisectoral collaboration.  

Frederick earned a BA in public health and comparative politics from Juniata College and an MPH in health equity, systems thinking/modeling, and social epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. 

 

Danielle DeRuiter-Williams, associate director for racial equity in the Research to Action Lab 

DeRuiter-Williams stewards the Lab’s racial equity and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and contributes to several Lab projects. She also contributes to the Office of Race and Equity Research to manage funder relationships and support implementation activities. 

Before joining Urban, DeRuiter-Williams was founder and head of growth and expansion for a Bay Area–based consulting firm specializing in equity-centered organizational development services. Her work with nearly 100 clients spanned all sectors and focused on addressing organizational culture, processes, and policies in service of more equitable programmatic and policy outcomes. She brings an extensive background in advancing racial equity in a government context, having initiated and managed projects for the City of San Francisco Urban Planning Department’s Racial and Social Equity Initiative. 

DeRuiter-Williams holds a BA in liberal studies from Grand Valley State University and completed her graduate studies in urban and regional planning and Afro-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, before earning her MBA from Mills College with a concentration in organizational equity, diversity, and inclusion. 

 

Carla Willis, principal research associate in the Health Policy Center 

Willis previously served as director of performance, quality, and outcomes within the Georgia Medicaid program, overseeing multidisciplinary teams focused on predictive analytics, quality measurement, and performance improvement. Most recently, Willis designed two value-based purchasing programs for Medicaid members receiving managed care while working to define and operationalize improvement for the state’s 2021 Quality Strategy. 

Willis serves on multiple committees, including the National Committee for Quality Assurance Technical Measurement Advisory Panel and the Georgia Maternal Mortality Review Committee. She is a member of the 2021–22 Emerging Leaders Program funded by the Milbank Memorial Fund. She has recent publications in Contraception and Maternal and Child Health Journal. Much of her interests involve using health policy levers to improve maternal and child health outcomes and reducing the rate of maternal mortality, particularly for women of color in Medicaid programs. 

Before joining Georgia Medicaid, Willis was an associate project director at the Georgia Health Policy Center (GHPC), where she led both the Medicaid Policy and Business Team and GHPC’s Health Reform Work Group. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Office of the Associate Director for Policy and Strategy at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and worked as a health policy analyst at the Government Accountability Office. 

 

Ofronama Biu, senior research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center  

Ofronama Biu is a senior research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where she is a member of the Building America’s Workforce cross-center initiative and is affiliated with the Racial Equity Analytics Lab. 

Biu has spent the past five years in senior research roles, using both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore racial and gender stratification in the economy, including occupational crowding and alternative work, race and gender disparities in workplace experiences, and workforce development. 

Biu has extensive experience in project management, partnership building, employer engagement, and direct service to youth and young adults and college students. She is a research affiliate with the Institute on Race, Power, and Political Economy at The New School. She was previously a nonteaching adjunct with the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies and an adjunct with the City College of New York. 

Biu has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from New York University, a master of public administration degree in public and nonprofit management and policy from New York University, and a doctoral degree in public and urban policy from The New School. 

 

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About the Urban Institute 

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit research organization that provides data and evidence to help advance upward mobility and equity. We are a trusted source for changemakers who seek to strengthen decisionmaking, create inclusive economic growth, and improve the well-being of families and communities. For more than 50 years, Urban has delivered facts that inspire solutions—and this remains our charge today. 

Research Areas Race and equity
Policy Centers Office of Race and Equity Research