Jayanti Owens: Partnering with a Local School District to Address Health and Educational Disparities

Jayanti Owens is a sociologist and demographer by training who joined the sociology and public policy/international development groups at Brown University in fall 2015. Her knowledge exchange project focused on working with the Madison Metropolitan School District to address racial and socioeconomic disparities in education and health outcomes.

Do you remember your first reaction to the idea of doing a knowledge exchange project?

I was introduced to it during our interviews.

I think my first reaction was, “That’s a cool idea. I’m not sure how I’m going to implement it, and I sure don’t have any idea what my knowledge exchange project is going to be.”

Did you have any worries going into the knowledge exchange project?

I was very worried about it taking a lot of time. I had very concrete goals about the number of things I wanted to get under review. I had my dissertation stuff that I was really looking to get through the review process, and new projects using secondary data that were already collected that I could get to work analyzing. I knew this was going to be a great experience, but I was worried about it taking away from the deliverable goals that I had for myself going into the program.

It seemed like, as someone who studies education, as I do, and who cares a lot of about stratification along socioeconomic and racial, ethnic, and gender lines, it would be a loss to be in Madison and not at least be in conversation with people at the school district.

It’s also kind of a gamble, because it’s not like I had any guarantees that this project was going to lead to publication or frankly that it would even take off enough for it to become a real research project. It might have been something that was going to lead to intangible learning and knowledge exchange, but not to the concrete projects or papers that are incentivized and rewarded in an academic career, at least in regards to getting tenure.

How did you choose your project?

Dane County falls quite near the bottom in terms of its racial and socioeconomic disparities for a variety of health and education outcomes. So it seemed like, as someone who studies education, as I do, and who cares a lot of about stratification along socioeconomic and racial, ethnic, and gender lines, it would be a loss to be in Madison and not at least be in conversation with people at the school district. They’re on the ground grappling with a lot of issues around achievement gaps and disparities in health outcomes down the road. Also, they were in the process of revising their school interdisciplinary code and really wanted to try and get researchers more involved in using their data as a way to get mutual benefit. It would benefit us as researchers in terms of giving us great data, and it would benefit the school district in terms of having some potentially pretty real impacts in terms of the analysis that they’re able to do, using their data to understand some of the disparities that they were really concerned with from a policy level. It just seemed like a perfect marriage of timing and policy and research.

When you approached the school district about this project, how did it go?

People were really enthusiastic from the beginning. I think that in large part that was because I had an interlocutor who was very senior in the government before she came to the University of Wisconsin system. She facilitated the initial contact, so I was able to get a meeting right away with four key people within the school district to explain my research interests and my larger desire to lessen academic achievement disparities. I could just immediately start brainstorming with them: What are they interested in, what are they looking for, what data do they have, what kind of studies would they want to see, and where can we find a data overlap in that?

Then what happened?

Essentially what happened was that I spent several months, really much of the first year of my postdoc, in conversation with a few of the key people in the school district. In the first few meetings that we had, it was really easy to get excited about the general themes that we were both interested in, but once we moved beyond that conversation and started talking about the specifics, like what data we would use, how we would use the data, what research questions we would need to answer, how we would answer them, how long it would take to collect the data, what are the regulations that we would need to go through in order to carry out this project… Once all of those conversations started happening, it wasn’t obvious that this project was one that I would want to invest a good chunk of my Robert Wood Johnson Foundation time doing. Ultimately, with the help of mentors at UW-Madison, including the site directors and other mentors in my specific area of research, I decided that it made sense for me not to pursue this as a research project.

Do you feel like you took anything away from the project?

I realized the data weren’t intact for me to do the project that I really wanted to do, and given the limited amount of time that I had… and the other competing interests that I had… and the amount of upfront investment that would be necessary to even see if this project could have legs and take off, ultimately we decided that it didn’t make sense to pursue this as a research project.

One of the biggest things I learned from that experience was the importance of consulting a lot of people to explain to them, “This is the project, this is the traction that I’ve gotten on the school district front, this is what I think is going to be doable in the time frame available, and this is what I see all of the risks being in terms of potential dropoff points where the project might derail.” In the process of having these conversations with mentors, I realized the data weren’t intact for me to do the project that I really wanted to do, and given the limited amount of time that I had in the postdoc and the other competing interests that I had in terms of goals that I had for my time there and the amount of upfront investment that would be necessary to even see if this project could have legs and take off, ultimately we decided that it didn’t make sense to pursue this as a research project.

The way that I tried to exit the project was to leave the school district in contact with a number of other people who were going to be there more long term, people who would have the ability to actually do something that would benefit the school district and also lead to fruitful research projects and publications within a longer time horizon than what I had available. I think it ultimately ended up being beneficial for both parties, but not for the reasons that I had initially hoped.

I learned to try to speed up the conversations that are about the excitement and the general brainstorming, to get as quickly as possible to the conversations that are about the nitty-gritty, how will this actually work on the ground.

It was still a really good lesson for me. When I do get to a place that I will be more long term, if these sorts of projects and questions are still timely and relevant and up my alley in regard to where I am in my own research, I will have a better idea of how to get started. I learned that finding an interlocutor who is well connected and who believes in you and who is willing to use their name to help you get the initial contacts that you need and to back you up is hugely important. And I learned to try to speed up the conversations that are about the excitement and the general brainstorming, to get as quickly as possible to the conversations that are about the nitty-gritty, how will this actually work on the ground. To save yourself the research time but also to save time for the school district, or whatever the group is that you’re working with in the community, because their time is also really scarce and valuable.

So you feel the project was successful in some ways?

It was a success to me for the reasons I just described. It was also beneficial for me because if I do, down the road, decide that doing a project makes sense, I have the initial contacts in place to know who to go back to to pursue the project further, so that’s really good.

The reasons I think it was beneficial for the school district is that they were in early stages of having conversations on this issue of bringing researchers on board to look at racial disproportionality in school discipline. This wasn’t an area they had engaged with researchers on that frequently prior to me getting involved with them. They’d had many, many researchers working with them and for them in the past, but not on this very specific issue related to the school disciplinary code. Our interactions left them with a better understanding of what some of the things are that researchers really need to make this worth their time and how they might structure their future relationships with researchers who are interested in some of these areas of research in order to, off the bat, structure a deal that would be both beneficial for the researcher and the school district.

What was the most important thing you learned about communicating with nonacademics?

Learning the terms that they use, trying to use those terms as much as possible. For a lot of the concepts that we were talking about, I had my research-oriented terms and quickly realized they had their practitioner-oriented terms. In most cases, they were either the exact same thing or close enough to the exact same thing that we could have one brief interaction where I would explain “When I say this, what I really mean is what you call this other thing, plus this small difference.” Or it was an exact translation, and I just needed to assimilate their terms into my dictionary very quickly so as to not lose people’s interest just because I’m using some jargon research term.

What were your best and worst experiences?

The best experience I had was a day when I went into the office of the senior administrator in charge of school discipline policies for what I thought was going to be a 30-minute meeting. What happened was I spent 5 hours in the office with him taking out all of these different records and going through all of these on-the-ground, very revealing, important, relevant sources. We ended up spending the entire afternoon just talking through the nitty-gritty, and that was the turning point for the project. That was the meeting that I left thinking that this would just be the coolest project ever if we could get it to work, but I wasn’t convinced we could get it to work.

We were both just people who cared about this issue, and we were putting our heads together and using all of the knowledge and resources that we had available to us in order to think through this.

Despite the fact that it ultimately led to a decision that was not the one that I was hoping for, that meeting was hugely inspiring in terms of his generosity with his time, his resources, his willingness to engage with me and think through a lot of the stuff as it was coming up together, free-form, and just the trust that he placed in me. In that meeting, a lot of walls came down between him, the senior administrator, and me, the young researcher. We were both just people who cared about this issue, and we were putting our heads together and using all of the knowledge and resources that we had available to us in order to think through this. That was one of those things that really changed my outlook on working with schools and finding key people who you just click with and who believe in you and who you trust to help move a project forward if that is ultimately where the project goes.

Worst memory, just the sadness of having to let the project go.

Do you think your initial worries about this being a time drain were founded?

John and Steph and Dave [the site directors] were very clear with me that they weren’t using rigid parameters for what counted as a knowledge exchange project. They were like, “You take this as far as you need to take this and can take this for it to be beneficial to you. That could mean anything from meeting with the school district two or three times to having this turn into a full-blown research project that you pursue wholeheartedly for the next 2 years.”

By giving us that flexibility, they put a lot of trust in us, and usefully so. It would have been a shame if I’d had a lot more meetings than I needed just to check some box. I think in a lot of ways it would have constricted the learning exchange that took place, because I would have been more focused on checking a box than on thinking globally about what made the most sense for me and for them and the project. So I don’t think it took up more time than it should have, except for that it probably took me longer to decide to cut the cord on the project than it would have had I not liked the people and the project as much as I did.

Do you see this kind of project being part of your future career?

It’s really hard for me to say right now. I think it will depend a lot on what I learn about the context of Providence, Rhode Island, which is where I’m going to be moving, and what their school district is like: what the dynamics of the personnel running their schools are, how they view researcher interaction with the school district, what kind of barriers are there. I’ll just need to learn a lot of that stuff over the course of the next few years, and it will also depend on how my own publications unfold. If I have some success getting my current research published, that would open up the door for me to be able to focus on new projects. If it takes me a lot longer to get the stuff that I already have going published, I might start getting into time crunches in regard to the tenure clock and not be able to involve myself in a new endeavor prior to tenure. So it might be something that I end up coming back to after tenure, down the road.

What type of scholars do you think should engage in knowledge exchange?

My initial take is that it’s got to be for people who are really creative and truly passionate and committed to their topic. If you don’t have enough of a sense of your area of expertise, I think it could be really paralyzing and overwhelming.