Help Us Learn How Public Policy Can Advance Racial Equity

Oct 28, 2020, 12:30 PM, Posted by

We’re announcing $2 million in grants for policy research. Send us your ideas for studying the impact of local, state, and national policies designed to promote racial equity.

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When Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion bond to pay for more than 500 local flood-control projects, it seemed like a sound response to Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, the storm dropped 50 inches of rain in the Houston region, flooding some 166,000 homes. Based on a traditional return-on-investment analysis, it might also have appeared reasonable to spend that bond money in neighborhoods with the most expensive properties.

But county officials understood what that would mean—little protection for communities living with the most inadequate social, physical, and economic resources—many of whom are communities of color. And so, they chose a different policy approach. They gave preference to projects that ranked higher on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, which uses socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic status, household composition, housing, access to transportation, and other metrics to uncover potential vulnerability. The result: funds for flood control prioritized towards low-income communities and communities of color, those least able to recover from disasters.

An Opportunity to Gather and Share Evidence

Actively confronting assumptions that allow public investments to favor wealthier and whiter communities can help dismantle the legacy of racism. In a new call for proposals, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and its Policies for Action (P4A) program are inviting researchers to study the impact of local, state, and federal policies intended to promote racial equity in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. You will be helping us gather and share evidence in support of racial justice.

The Urgent Need to Dismantle Racism

We already know a lot about the harm public policy can do. The legacy of housing discrimination is but one example. Early in the 20th century, the Federal Housing Administration redlined neighborhoods with majority Black populations, refusing to insure mortgages there. Fast forward a century and racial disparities in home ownership rates continue, diminishing the ability of families to build wealth across generations. Discriminatory housing practices and health-damaging segregation also persist, as RWJF CEO and President, Richard Besser, MD, highlighted in his 2019 annual message.

Less is understood about solutions that will root out racism, but many policy experiments are underway. California recently began requiring that levels of COVID-19 infection be reduced in the hardest-hit communities before allowing the entire county in which they are located to proceed with reopening. Elsewhere, bold policies advancing racial justice are being tested and implemented in early childhood education, housing, health care, and public health. Promising mechanisms to propel racial justice include Medicaid waivers, equity principles, and wealth-generating strategies.

Through this funding opportunity, RWJF will support impact studies in these and other areas to determine what works. These grants recognize that intentionally applying a racial equity lens can uncover structural barriers that might otherwise remain hidden. Whether it is expanding a transit system, developing affordable housing plans, or implementing a plan to distribute a new vaccine, analyzing the impact of policies on people of color can detect harms that a broader population-level approach might miss. To identify such consequences, some cities like Seattle require that a “racial equity audit” be conducted before any new policy is finalized.

Research Criteria to Keep in Mind

We expect that researchers gathering actionable evidence under this initiative will engage community representatives. We cannot do this without voices from communities of color and the organizations that represent them. Whether ideas are solicited from a housing justice group, an NAACP chapter, community organizers, or other advocates, explicit interactions and partnerships will reassure us that the questions you are asking matter to those who can benefit from the answers. We also want to know how your findings can be translated into messages that resonate with affected communities and shared with legislators and policymakers to inform policies that create equitable communities.

We are flexible about methodology. While randomized clinical trials are valuable, we honor the power of interviews, surveys, focus groups, and other qualitative methods that can also generate rigorous data. And just as researchers expect economic and professional rewards from their work, we think those who allow their data to be collected should be compensated in some way, and we’ll be looking for that commitment in your research design.

Attracting a new crop of investigators is important to understanding policy impacts. We encourage applications from young and early-career researchers, especially from communities of color because they bring fresh perspectives and innovative ways of thinking to the work.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the inequities it has laid bare, coupled with the racial reckoning triggered by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, the imperative of dismantling structural racism is clear. Until we act, the vision of a just society that offers everyone the opportunity to be healthy cannot be realized.

Learn more about what our Policies for Action research program has funded in the past.

 

About the Author

Headshot of Mona Shah

Mona Shah, a senior program officer in the Research-Evaluation-Learning unit, joined RWJF in 2014. Drawing on her expertise in research and policy, she is committed to making research more equity-focused and accessible to the public, advocates, and policymakers.