Evidence and Ideas for Change What Does It Take to Ensure Policies Truly Advance Equity?
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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I’m excited to introduce you to the Urban Institute’s Office of Race and Equity Research, our interdisciplinary hub that aims to advance standards of excellence around equitable research methods both at Urban and in the social science field. We envision the office as a locus of innovation that will not only support Urban’s work across the diverse issues we study but also serve as a partner to changemakers seeking evidence-informed expertise to help them design solutions to long-standing inequities in our country.

Our Office of Race and Equity Research debuts during a dynamic new era in social policy research: the social science field is increasingly moving away from simply analyzing racial disparities to identifying and examining the at-times invisible structural factors that drive inequities. Researchers, including my Urban colleagues, are applying a range of innovative methodologies, including data science and community engagement, to better reveal the lingering consequences of historic racist policies and practices and their still-too-frequent modern-day equivalents. And they are using these fresh approaches to pinpoint potential solutions for dismantling structural barriers so policies and programs truly advance equity—and equitable opportunity for all people.

Urban’s Office of Race and Equity Research serves as the center of this expertise—and continuous knowledge building—in equitable research practices and policy innovation. Establishing the office is just the latest step in a year-long journey, formerly under the leadership of Shena Ashley, to develop the techniques and approaches the office will champion.

Co-led by Rekha Balu and Celina Barrios-Millner, with a dynamic team of great Urban colleagues, the office will cultivate and nurture innovation in race and equity research and analytics across our institution, enhance the capacity of Urban staff to engage in such work, and, we hope, join a growing community of others seeking to establish this evolving discipline. It will also serve as a resource and thought partner to practitioners, advocates, philanthropic leaders, and local, state, and federal government officials seeking strategic advice on their equity-focused agendas.  

The office will house and support other equity-oriented research and staff development efforts across Urban, including the following:

  • Urban’s Racial Equity Analytics Lab, a partnership of our Tech and Data Office and the Office of Race and Equity Research, equips today’s change agents with data and analyses to better understand and measure equitable outcomes. It is led by Urban’s incoming chief data officer, Rita Ko
  • Urban’s Equity Scholars Program, which provides eight emerging and established scholars the opportunity to deepen their own policy-oriented research on equity and structural racism. 
  • Urban’s community engaged methods group, which seeks to strengthen our capacity for authentically engaging communities in the research process and preventing community harm.
  • Other projects, such as the ongoing development and maintenance of a collection of reference guides for staff to ensure they are creating respectful and inclusive research, products, and events, like our recent guide to applying an equity lens in data visualization.

This work is critical now if we are to realize the ambitions and commitments to root out the consequences of racism that continue to mar our society. Every day, policy and programmatic decisionmakers make choices that may exacerbate inequities, often unknowingly, or at least without explicit consideration of these consequences. By empowering leaders with equity analytics and evidence from lived experience and arming influential decisionmakers with insight on the consequences for equity, their choices can be more transparent and intentional. And we can better hold institutions and their leaders accountable for achieving the change they claim to seek. 

Our own institution and I myself have much to learn from this work. Certainly, we do not have all the answers. But I am proud of the entrepreneurialism of my long-standing and new colleagues to forge a new path, strengthen an evolving discipline, and contribute to a more equitable future.  

Ours is hardly the only institution on this journey, and we are as eager to learn from others as we are to share what we learn. Please reach out and share your work and ideas.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


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