Research Through an Equity Lens

Q&A with Peter Nguyen and Jhacova Williams

What does it mean to apply an equity lens to research and analysis? RAND education policy researcher Peter Nguyen and economist Jhacova Williams offer their perspectives.

Peter Nguyen and Jhacova Williams

There is a lot of focus on having an equity lens in research lately. What does that mean to you and your work?

Jhacova: Having an equity lens means intentionally examining how my work, hypotheses, and findings could affect groups differently. In understanding these different effects, I consider what potential barriers could be driving forces of inequity and consider policy recommendations to ensure that each group has the amount of resources needed.

Peter: For me it means centering the principle of equity in my work. In other words, equity is not a feature that we add to our projects; equity should be at the core of them. I do this by interrogating the assumptions that undergird my research questions, locating my questions within broader histories of inequality, and making methodological choices that reflect the realities and needs or concerns of participants in my studies—for example, drawing on critical theories to define variables and relationships, building meaningful rapport with research sites so that we don't amplify unequal power dynamics, and assembling diverse teams or teams that are most appropriate for a given topic.

What do you think are some of the biggest missteps when people pursue an equity lens, particularly in policy analysis?

J: The biggest misstep is not including people in the conversation who may be affected differently by the policy. Policies and the assumptions we make when conducting analyses aren't race-neutral and can have detrimental consequences that affect millions of people. We must be intentional when recommending or advocating for policies and consider how our recommendations may affect groups differently. If we are unaware of the harms our policy analysis and recommendations may cause, we must invite people who look different and who have different lived experiences to the table to get a better understanding.

P: I think folks don’t take the time to think through what equity actually means for them and their work. We get so caught up with equity as a buzzword—“equity this or that”—that it can often lose meaning in policy analysis and discussion. Laying that groundwork early on in a project can prevent a great deal of confusion and enhance the direction and precision of the project’s objective and analysis.

What are you pursuing at RAND that is applying this equity lens? What are you learning from the work and from your colleagues?

J: The project I believe is applying this lens the most is the reparations project. Our reparations report is currently examining the extent to which historical policies have inflicted harms against Black Americans and how these policies have lingering effects seen in the racial wealth gap today. In this work, I am working with a diverse set of colleagues in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and educational training. Working with economists, operations researchers, engineers, and policy graduate students to document harms and model policies geared towards reducing harms has helped me understand the various ways in which we all view equity. While I am learning much economic history in this project, I have mostly learned that equity can and should be studied by all.

P: Among other things, I am part of the RAND evaluation team for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Network for School Improvement. A big component of the project is to understand how networks and network participants (e.g., schools or districts) define and enact equity in their efforts to improve outcomes for Black, Latinx and low-income students. We are learning how varied equity is understood and practiced, and how local context shapes what is or is not equity. It's fascinating since all the networks, generally, have the same goals but are approaching the work very differently.

Read more about RAND's ongoing work in educational equity, and RAND's work in economic policy.