Shining a Light on Tough Social Issues

    • May 2, 2013

Political scientist Cathy Cohen, PhD, has always been drawn to tough social issues. Her research encompasses race, politics, power, sex, gender, religion, and culture—usually involving young African Americans and Latinos, and often addressing political activism.

"Shining a light on the intersection of social issues" offers an opportunity to disentangle the problems that young people face and to find solutions, says Cohen, a professor in the political science department at the University of Chicago. "It's in all of our interests to think about complicated issues....We want to open up those spaces so that people can contribute to their lives, their neighborhoods, and their country."

Fitting her interests into health policy research. Cohen's ability to think about the broader social context made her a natural fit for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research program, where she was a Scholar at Yale University from 1996 to 1998. The Scholars program provides newly minted PhDs in economics, political science, and sociology with two-year fellowships to bring their disciplines into the field of health policy research. The program is based on the belief that engaging talented young people from these disciplines in debate about health policy will result in better health policy, and ultimately in better health. See Program Results Report for more information about Scholars in Health Policy Research.

The Scholars program "was the classic idea of taking people who have something interesting to say and giving them some training in the field of health policy," Cohen says. "Spending two years with economists and sociologists teaches you to think more broadly with regard to research questions....It expanded and framed my work."

That work began during the 1990s, while Cohen was a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, with a dissertation study of HIV/AIDS among Blacks in New York City. Cohen found that the White gay community was mobilizing against AIDS but that Blacks viewed it as something they didn't need to respond to. Because of the stigma attached to AIDS and homosexuality, she explains, "It wasn't just a health issue. It was a political issue."

Cohen says that in her years in the Scholars program, "I had a chance to really step back from the dissertation and re-think what I wanted to say about AIDS and the Black community."

The book that resulted from Cohen's study, The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics, explored not only the health dimensions of the disease but the political environment that produces social and biological epidemics. In 1999, it won the top award from the American Political Science Association's Section on Race, Ethnicity, and Politics for books on race relations and public policy.

On to another fellowship. After a stint teaching at Yale, Cohen joined the University of Chicago faculty in 2002. There, she turned her research to race, politics, and adolescent health with a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Investigator Award in Health Policy Research grant in 2004. The study, based on a survey of young people ages 15–25, explored the attitudes, decision-making, and behaviors of African-American youth with a special focus on how health behaviors are tied to issues of economic inequality and political power. That research informed a second book, Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, published in 2010.

Cohen found that her survey respondents wanted many of the things associated with the American Dream—safe neighborhoods, a good education for their children—and were willing to take responsibility for their own choices but had few opportunities to make their voices heard. So she created the Black Youth Project, an online resource with three goals: producing knowledge about young Blacks and Latinos that accurately represents them; giving young people a place to speak for themselves without censorship; and leveraging their voice and knowledge into action to improve young lives.

Social media and political engagement. The Black Youth Project has grown into a powerful tool. When 15-year-old honors student Hadiya Pendleton was fatally shot in Chicago just days after performing at President Barack Obama's second inauguration, the Black Youth Project mounted an online petition to persuade Obama to speak in Chicago against gun violence. Within 13 days, the petition had collected nearly 50,000 signatures and the president had agreed to speak.

Cohen expanded her interests to include how new media can help young people rethink how they exert voice and influence on health and other political issues. With colleague Joseph Kahne of Mills College, Cohen heads a national survey of more than 2,500 young people ages 15–25 for the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics.

Cohen and Kahne reported in 2012 that 41 percent of the surveyed youth engage in at least one form of participatory politics (defined as "interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern"), which suggests that participatory politics may have potential to "reinvigorate" political life. The researchers also found that new media have potential to distribute political participation more equitably among young people from different racial and ethnic groups.

Investigating how young Blacks view their world has given Cohen a deeper understanding of political science. Starting out, she says, "Much of what I thought about was the structural limitations on their world. But they insisted I also factor in their agency, and sometimes their bad decisions. My analysis now is more textured."

The rising political engagement of Black youth makes Cohen optimistic about the future. It is something she thinks about every day—as a researcher, as the mother of a young daughter, and as a concerned citizen who lives just two blocks from the spot where Hadiya Pendleton died. "My work is about investing in those communities that I think hold great potential for contributions to the nation," Cohen says.

RWJF perspective. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research program is designed to foster a new generation of creative thinkers in health policy research within the disciplines of economics, political science, and sociology. The fellowship program, established in 1991, annually selects a total of nine recent PhD graduates from among those three disciplines to spend two years studying at one of three participating sites (currently Harvard University, University of California, Berkeley/San Francisco, and University of Michigan).

Participants learn about health and health policy, gain exposure to the perspectives of the other two disciplines through seminars with peers, receive mentoring from prominent scholars, develop research ideas, and conduct research while receiving a stipend and benefits that free them from other professional obligations. "We're looking for people who aren't too far along in pursuing a specific research agenda. Our goal is to catch people early and tempt them into the field of health policy," says Lori Melichar, PhD, RWJF director for the program.

While in the Scholars program, participants have conducted research on issues and policies related to individual health, public health, social and economic determinants of health and health care, health care financing, and health care systems and institutions. After completing the program, alumni stay connected to their peers through a network facilitated by the Boston University Health Policy Institute, which serves as the national program office.

Scholars from the Health Policy Research Program have made significant contributions to their disciplines and to the field of health policy research. The program's 200-plus alumni, many of whom hold faculty appointments at universities and colleges, have authored hundreds of widely cited books and articles; held editorial posts at top scholarly journals; sat on scientific advisory panels; served as senior advisers to presidential, Congressional, federal agency, and national scientific councils; and received numerous professional awards for their research.

Although the original purpose of the program—to increase the number of economists, sociologists, and political scientists conducting health policy research—remains important, RWJF's focus has expanded to include "building the community" of health policy researchers and supporting them at institutions nationwide. "Now it's more about creating a critical mass so that we have a self-sustaining community [of researchers]," Melichar says.