How Can We Move Beyond “Closing the Gaps” To Refocus on Inclusive and Equitable Solutions?

Q&A with Rhianna Rogers

Jack Riley

Rhianna Rogers, inaugural director of RAND’s Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy, shares her insights about the future of the center.

What motivated you to lead the RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy?

When I originally reached out to RAND in August of 2020, I had just learned that it was in the process of formalizing a center for racial equity. In my initial communication to RAND I wrote, “I believe now, more than ever, these types of initiatives need to move quickly to support changes in current public policy.” As inaugural Director of the Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy, I still feel that urgency. We are at a critical point in history, where enacting real policy change is not only important, but a central part of creating an equitable society for all. I believe combining RAND’s history of rigorous research with racial equity studies well-positions us to be leaders in public policy conversations in this arena. Through our joint research and inclusive programmatic efforts, I believe we can highlight racial equity issues in innovative ways which lead to meaningful policy development, broader access, and change.

What does racial equity mean to you?

Applying a racial equity lens, to me, means we are not interested in just “closing the gaps” between racialized groups, but that we are striving to equalize “the playing field” through inclusive research and data-driven policy reforms. When systems and structures are not working well, they are often not working well across the board. Advancing racial equity moves us beyond just focusing on disparities and refocuses us on developing inclusive and equitable solutions. Systems that are failing marginalized populations are failing all of us. Research shows that deeply racialized systems depress life outcomes and are costly. Thus, advancing a racial equity lens enables us to increase our collective success and improve society overall.

What brings you to this work on racial equity?

As a multiracial woman of two multiracial parents (i.e., my mother identifies predominantly as American, English, and German and my father identifies as American, Black, and Creole) my racial and cultural positionalities are an inherent part of my identity. My parents stressed to me that learning about all of my racial and ethnic backgrounds were important. The racially pluralistic frame that my parents instilled in me allowed me to develop emotional and cultural competencies around diversity and race that were quite different than my peers around me. They encouraged me to learn the “hard truths” about history (e.g., racism, sexism, and cultural and gender biases), which allowed me to confront difficult concepts like why some of my ancestors enslaved others and why some of my ancestors were enslaved. Confronting difficult topics like this growing up allowed me to look deeper at myself, society, and reflect on the development of racialized behaviors around me. Looking back, I can see just how this upbringing influenced me to be curious about cultures and pursue interdisciplinary research in Latin American history, anthropological-archaeology, United States and indigenous history, cultural and ethnic studies, linguistics and, ultimately, racial equity studies.

What do you see as the most critical opportunities in racial equity policy going forward?

Given increased federal support to move forward actionable policy reforms in the area of racial equity, and, more specifically, with underserved populations, there are many opportunities to advance racial equity policy in and out of RAND. However, dealing with the aftermath of a racialized pandemic has left us with the dual responsibility to address the frayed social fabric of the US and its polarization of racial policy development. To move racial equity policy forward, public policy research will need to take a joint, nonpartisan look at diverse perspectives while, at the same time, giving space to voices that have been historically underrepresented. This is a complex process that requires us to recognize that we all struggle to address equity, inclusion and justice; however, in juxtaposition, we must also acknowledge the legacy of unfulfilled policy promises within marginalized communities. Since the center will focus on solving racial equity problems, developing equity-minded policy leaders, and strengthening RAND’s collaborations with other organizations dedicated to advancing racial equity, we must consider the diversity of opinions and methodological approaches carefully within our work. I truly believe if we are to move forward, one of the first steps is to build a common racial equity framework which includes diverse perspectives and nonpartisan viewpoints. This is why one of my first tasks will be to develop a repository of RAND research related to racial equity. Creating a centralized space showcasing the great work of RAND researchers is one way to systematically highlight the work already being done and showcase the diverse perspectives and methods currently employed within our organization.

How do you envision racial equity impacting work at RAND?

Reaffirming RAND’s commitment to establish a common racial equity agenda is one way to illustrate our “collective impact.” However, achieving racial equity by “closing the gaps,” in public policy is only part of this process; being truly equitable also requires us to strategically integrate inclusive practices into every level of our communal, social, and research work at RAND. To do so, we have to rethink our processes in order to transform policy development and implementation through a more inclusive, racially conscious lens. My goal is that the center will be at the forefront of enacting these collective changes. This will be an on-going process. Through our joint efforts, I believe racial equity research at RAND will help expand our research agenda across new, exciting, and previous underexplored areas. In my mind, one’s analysis of institutional racial equity is never “complete.“ This is what makes this research so important. Every time a new member joins RAND, whether as an internal or external stakeholder, more communication and institutional learning is required. We need to be nimble enough to recognize shifts in cultural changes, be open to hearing what stakeholders need to deal with said changes, and be willing to implement new policies to support those changes. It is my hope that the center will be able to communicate the importance of this work with urgency and create a motivation-driven climate that encourages RAND-ites to pursue the very ambitious, challenging, and long-term goal of a truly racially equitable society.

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