What Does It Mean To Thrive Rather Than Survive?

Q&A with Cynthia Gonzalez

Cynthia Gonzalez, director of Pardee RAND Graduate School's Community-Partnered Policy and Action stream, talks about her passion and insights for the school and why it is time for a new approach to community well-being.

Cynthia Gonzalez

Cynthia Gonzalez, director of Pardee RAND Graduate School's Community-Partnered Policy and Action stream

What motivated you to pursue community-based and community action-oriented research in your own career?

My lived experience. As a first-generation Mexican-American born and raised in Watts, an inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles, CA and an epi-center of racial/ethnic and socio-economic inequities, I grew up believing that personal merit ensured success in the US. 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.

My parents made the most difficult decision to immigrate to the United States seeking an improved quality of life from the poverty and violence they encountered. Oftentimes this decision lies on the need to improve well-being. As recent immigrants and monolingual Spanish speakers, my parents built a gardening business and rooted our family to a home in Watts that they serviced, ignorant to the social conditions and history that preceded the area. Our home provided relative stability and safety compared to what my parents encountered in Mexico. But unlike immigrants from Europe my group has been stratified to a lower caste in a country that articulates equity. In my efforts to ensure community voice experience, and perspectives are at the table, my parents often remind me that I was born with the desire to help humanity.

My motivation is rooted in civil rights. No individual should struggle to access basic resources for human dignity, especially not on the basis of the social constructs of identity; this motivation is fed by a sense of urgency, responsibility, and accountability to my family, friends, people of Watts and those that share struggles that stem from inequities. I don’t think research is separate from that and should always be intentional to including the experiences of those impacts by the work.

I have to give you all of this context in transparency of what informs my work. There is an urgency, responsibility, and accountability that one inherits when working with communities to find ways to address the intersection of inequities and discrimination for improved well-being for all.

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.

What do you think are the most pressing challenges facing the intersection of policy analysis, systems analysis, and community research?

While in high school, I benefited from a summer research program, funded by the NIH-NIDDK. This first exposure to research led me to Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (CDU), where I assisted on community-engaged research and elevated my work in Watts. In this work, I was able to co-design a collaborative of 50+ partners representing various sectors (non-profit, faith-based, private, and government) to seek ways to improve quality of life in Watts (the neighborhood experiences the lowest life expectancy in the city). The collaborative received a $33.25M state-funded infrastructure grant under the Strategic Growth Council of the State of CA. I joined the Housing Authority of the City of LA (HACLA) to lead that collaborative, Watts Rising. During my time at HACLA, I was able to not only partner and witness first-hand the disconnect between policy and implementation (service), but I was working day-to-day on how to implement these projects, while significant community needs would continue to surface. Luckily, one of the most promising details of our proposal was that all of the projects were community-led, centered, and informed. But the issues of displacement, gentrification, and neighborhood cohesion came up. As the neighborhood improves, how will we ensure that current residents benefit from the added amenities that they have been advocating for? Policy research became the tool we needed to think critically about an answer to this question.

I have given the example of housing policies that happened without community research and had critical impacts on Watts long-term and to this day. The most effective policies have brought policy analysis and community research together. The most successful ones have been critical and considered a systems analysis in this integration because our various sources of study are attached to systems: housing, education, employment, etc.

I use Watts as my own case example, but this case is not isolated and unique. We can apply similar social experiences across populations identified as underserved, vulnerable, and marginalized.

Read more about Pardee RAND’s community-partnered policy and action stream.