Urban Wire Elevating Asian American youth in research and evaluation: A Q&A with Neel Saxena, executive director of AALEAD
Charmaine Runes, Michael Katz, Yuju Park
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Neel Saxena wants to shift the narrative around Asian American youth. As the executive director of Asian American Youth Leadership Empowerment and Development (AALEAD), Saxena aims to help the youth in his programs grow into their identities as Asian Americans, shake off the stereotype of the model minority, and feel empowered to lead their communities.

AALEAD is a local community organization that provides after-school, summer, and mentoring programs for underserved, low-income Asian American youth in the greater DC area. In October 2017, our team of Urban Institute researchers began working with AALEAD to analyze their program data and draft an evaluation design for their after-school program. Urban uses a collaborative, community-based approach of incorporating consistent feedback from AALEAD to plan and design the evaluation.

We recently spoke with Saxena about the importance of research specific to the needs, assets, and diversity of Asian American youth; his experience collaborating with Urban; and how other researchers and practitioners can benefit from similar partnerships.

Can you tell us about your background and how you became interested in research on, for, and by Asian Americans?

Diversity within the Asian American community is something that is undervalued in research. There are significant discrepancies in outcomes within communities, but there is also a lack of disaggregated data. The stereotypical talking points lean heavily towards Asian American populations that came during the ’60s or earlier times, but they don’t reflect newer immigrants’ experiences. 

I think this always ties back to the model minority myth, which lends itself to looking at Asian Americans through only certain data points, especially around academics. I think that at Asian American LEAD, the conversation around data and evaluation is a very personal one.

At Asian American LEAD, the conversation around data and evaluation is a very personal one.

I grew up in Montgomery County [in Maryland]. I went to some of the best elementary schools, middle and high schools. When you look at the statistics around those schools, the graduation rates were very high. I went to college. I had all these benefits. When you looked at statistics that are typically measured about who I was, it looked great, but those other social and emotional pieces were not really captured. I never learned about my own Asian American history. I never felt like I belonged. I always felt like I was an outsider.

What was the genesis of this project on data analysis and evaluation design?

Our push to evaluation was figuring out how we operationalize those missing pieces of information: How do we measure confidence? What does it look like to be successful? How do we collect that, and how do we provide data points within the infrastructure of a data-driven society? This had never been done before—at least, nothing on Asian American youth around the outcomes we were looking at.


What kind of research partner were you looking for?

In research—or any of these projects—a lot of times, leadership is guiding the work, but it’s also important for the organization and the board and the staff to have that buy-in. And I think having the messaging and research done by individuals who reflect the communities we serve contributes to that. It adds value in terms of their connection to the research and their approach to how they would communicate that research. I think it deconstructs some of [the board and staff’s] notions of what research is, because they’ll look at research or researchers that they’ve seen in the past as not reflective of who they are. So, on both sides of the table, they are reflections of each other.

One of our core values is that our staff and our board of directors reflect the youth that we support—and that plays into who we contract and collaborate with. One of our initial requests for working on this project is that the research team at Urban also reflect the youth that they would be researching.

One of our core values is that our staff and our board of directors reflect the youth that we support—and that plays into who we contract and collaborate with.

Another factor was that we support a very small population of Asian Americans. The goal was to find a reputable organization that had a reach and the backing of the industry, so that if they took this kind of research on, it would add more legitimacy to the research we were doing.

What’s next for AALEAD after this evaluation plan?

AALEAD youth are involved in putting together our theory of change and logic models; we always try to incorporate youth voice in these traditional research and data pieces. We’ve had Urban look—from a research angle—at what we’re doing, and now, having the youth provide input as well so that we can have both of those pieces of information moving forward.

What advice would you give to researchers who are interested in collaborating with local community-based organizations?

From a practitioner’s perspective, randomized controlled trials are the gold standard, but for researchers, primary data should be the gold standard. And as practitioners, we have access to that. I think seeing the value in—and having internal, institutional conversations around—primary data and data collection should motivate researchers to build relationships with local organizations. If collecting and analyzing primary data becomes part of the value system in a research organization, it’s something that can be pushed as grants come along.

And on the flip side, what encouragement would you give to other practitioners who are thinking about or considering evaluation but aren’t sure where to start?

One of the most interesting things about this experience is that I didn’t know Charmaine really. I just sent a direct message on Twitter and was like, “We’re thinking about this research.”

I didn’t even know if Charmaine was the right person to contact for the research that we were doing. You don’t have to have all of this information before you enter a relationship with an organization—just contact anyone.

It’s about being in the spaces where research occurs. It’s attending different events, voicing your opinion, speaking up.

I think it’s about being in the spaces where research occurs. It’s attending different events, voicing your opinion, speaking up. Sometimes, it looks like challenging the organization and the systems that are out there for research, so that you become a part of that narrative on their end—for them to say, “Oh, maybe we should start thinking about these things.”


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted 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 Greater DC
Tags Race, gender, class, and ethnicity
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV