What Communities Need to Thrive: Q&A with Anita Chandra


Mar 8, 2021

Anita Chandra speaking at an event, photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Anita Chandra speaking at a community resilience event at RAND's Santa Monica headquarters

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

How do we build back from a global pandemic? How do we answer for 400 years of racial injustice? How do we fight climate change, and prepare for the impacts we can no longer avoid?

At RAND, those questions fall to Anita Chandra and her research teams. As vice president and director of RAND Social and Economic Well-Being, she manages a research portfolio that ranges from community health and environmental policy to policing, drug policy, and civil justice. When RAND launched its Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy last year, it found a natural home in her research division.

Chandra's interests as a researcher are almost as varied. She has worked with local governments and nonprofit foundations to build community well-being and to evaluate the programs and policies needed to sustain it. Her research has explored how stress builds up in communities; how cities can make themselves more resilient; what children and their families need to thrive; and what it will take to create a “culture of health” in America.

What are some less-obvious social trends that you think will shape the next few years?

How we seek, define, and build community—that's really driving a lot of the major policy issues we're grappling with now. On the positive side, it's forcing conversations that we have papered over for far too long: How we think about racial and social equity, how we should take care of seniors and children. But some of that conversation has also, obviously, led people down a more divisive road. We have to address that now and think about how we design our communities, how we create social interaction and foster social connection, how we disrupt social isolation.

What's the role here for an organization like RAND?

We need to understand the “causes of the causes” of the problems we face. It's not just about using new, improved methodologies or using multidisciplinary approaches. RAND has the capacity to go deep and understand historically how we got here—particularly as we redefine this issue of finding community. We can offer innovative ways forward for policymakers, and make sure they aren't recreating the same policy solutions and defining problems the same way they did in the 20th century.

What research streams are you most excited about right now?

RAND Social and Economic Well-Being was designed around the convergence of four trends: changing demographics and the movement of people; the need to mitigate societal inequities; the changing environment; and the role and the disruption of technology.

Right now, with COVID: How do we not only respond to the pandemic but also think about an equitable recovery?

We're looking at the choices that communities are making to modernize but not leave populations behind. So, right now, with COVID: How do we not only respond to the pandemic but also think about an equitable recovery? How do we make sure that some populations don't get left behind? We've been conducting research for years on mental health, despair, hopelessness, division, and all of that is even more resonant in the COVID conversation. These are all threads that we've been following, but the work is on overdrive now because of everything that has happened in the past year.

What inspires you as a researcher?

I started my career working with children and families, particularly children with serious health issues. The structural and systemic issues were so daunting. I thought, if we are ever going to have demonstrable and lasting change, we have to do more to change those structures, those systems, and those policies.

I grew up with a lot of health issues as a kid, and I grew up in a context where issues of race were very present. So I was always searching for ways to address the needs of underserved and underrepresented youth and their families, particularly those that are dealing with health issues.

The language of research can sometimes be elitist. But that research language can be learned just like French or Spanish, if people have access. And having those who represent different perspectives use the language to effect real policy change, giving them a voice, is powerful. I feel a personal responsibility to take the tools of research and use them for structural and systemic change.

What are you working on right now?

I'm deeply focused on issues of health, well-being, and equity. We're looking at how to create a culture of health, how to develop systems and structures that work for everyone, how to address the pervasive inequities in our health system and health environment. I'm also working on disaster response and resilience, especially in the context of the pandemic. And I continue to do work in service of children—creating stronger and more equitable systems to advance the social and emotional well-being of children and their families.