Q: What motivated you to pursue community-based and community action-oriented research in your own career?
A: My lived experience. As a first-generation Mexican-American born and raised in Watts, an inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles, CA, and an epicenter of racial/ethnic and socio-economic inequities, I grew up believing that personal merit ensured success in the United States. However, my upbringing taught me that the reality of a meritocracy was far from the truth for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). I have learned that the status quo has benefited one population group over others, leading to an unjust reduction in well-being: poverty, chronic health outcomes, housing insecurity, limited education, and violence (COVID-19 has shed light onto these inequities and is raising clear and critical concerns about the future of our humanity. We cannot do the same work and expect different outcomes).
Growing up in Watts is a major blessing and my biggest life lesson. I can detail the many deaths I witnessed at such a young age and the bullets that went through my house because we lived at the intersection of two gang boundaries. However, sharing a deficit approach negates the power of perseverance in communities like Watts. We grow up believing We Are Taught To Survive (WATTS) and honor the legacies that have brought the few resources we have.
My passion to work with community and identify local solutions to local problems is “motivated” by how society taught me that the various social identities I was born into were different, other, and less than. My rich cultural identity makes me a proud daughter of Mexican immigrants, first generation citizen of this country, and product of Watts, but my academic journey taught me that inequities, discrimination, and biases produced a lot of what I experienced in Watts. In my institutions of higher learning, I met people from different backgrounds and learned that lived experience varied and that many had assumptions about my neighborhood. It is the paradox of the US where for people of color the dream is only to survive. This kaleidoscope of identities has grounded me in applied research methods to understand behavior and policy implications associated to well-being for BIPOC low-income populations.
What does the new Pardee RAND Graduate School Community-Partnered Policy and Action focus seek to do? Why is this distinct?
In order to answer this, I have to give you some examples. I am a storyteller by nature, very transparent, and have thought critically about my own lived experience through an academic and equity lens. My biggest learning was when I found a few answers to the question: Why are we taught to survive while others are taught to thrive?
Survival includes numerous stressors that we study in the academic world. In my course of study, I learned about many policies that influenced the physical and social structure of my neighborhood and its residents: redlining, racial covenants, and housing policies, to name a few. Watts is a 2.12 square mile neighborhood hanging at the edge of the City of Los Angeles, a place which has been influenced by these policies. As I continued, my course of study drew attention to the need and value of moving beyond community participation to community action, with the community at the decision-making table, co-leading. I find the community-partnered stream to do exactly this.
Through the community-partnered stream, we expect to bridge, to connect what is going on in communities of interest with the research skills and tools available to assist with identifying solutions: all in partnership. Our students engage in a course of study that includes rigorous courses across disciplines, experiential learning via externships and residencies, and dissertation completion that values community knowledge with specific commitments to community partners.
This holistic curriculum is what makes the learning under the stream distinct. The Pardee RAND curriculum already includes significant research training with the OJT (on the job training) led by RAND researchers, which remains a large part of the curriculum. But the added requirements under the stream will expose and prepare our students to be future scholars that are mindful of how social dynamics impact research. There is no time like the present to design these types of academic experiences.
Read more from Cynthia, including the most pressing challenges facing policy analysis and community research »