From meatpacking to policing, GW researchers are bridging disciplines to tackle inequality | Today

For Dayna Bowen Matthew, Dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at GW Law, there is a concept behind almost all of the world’s most pressing issues: inequality. It is the one question, she says, that defines her academic mission.

“The responsibility of higher education is to create knowledge and equip students who will tackle the problem of inequality in the world, even if we are not going to solve it alone,” she said. “We must contribute to the solution.”

Addressing global disparities between people and populations seems like an extremely broad goal. But Matthew believes that achieving equity is a quest that must start somewhere, or perhaps everywhere, with many partners examining and addressing small-scale manifestations of inequity in all areas of life and in all areas of study. That’s why, in 2021, Matthew and his team launched the Equity Institute Initiative (EII), calling on George Washington University professors to share their research on social justice issues. So far, the initiative has provided seed funding to 10 racial and socio-economic justice projects by GW researchers and their community partners.

And grant recipients say the targeted effort is already making a difference.

“IIA has already been transformational,” said GW Law Associate Professor Donald Braman, director of science and policy at the Justice Innovation Lab (JIL), which helps prosecutors across the country use evidence-based practices to increase public safety while reducing unjust and untenable racial discrimination. disparities in the criminal justice system.

With funding from the EII, Braman said, JIL was able to assemble a team of more than a dozen researchers whose work reviewing criminal codes and building a database of best practices provided insight. basis for nationwide prosecution reforms.

“In practical terms, there are already hundreds of people out of jail as a result of IIA-supported work, and we expect that number to grow rapidly as we move into new jurisdictions,” Braman said. “This type of work is incredibly energizing for students and faculty, and it shows how GW can take a leadership position in criminal justice reform and do the kind of work no one else is doing.”

On Thursday and Friday, September 22 and 23, EII will host its first research showcase, “Collaborating to Create Change: Towards Racial and Socioeconomic Equity in Our Scholarship, Research, and Teaching.” Over 40 abstracts from GW researchers were submitted.

While the event is an important opportunity for IIE participants and GW equity researchers to demonstrate their achievements, Matthew said, it is also more than that. She hopes the showcase will also be an opportunity for scholars to connect and be inspired by each other, and by work they may not even know is being done at their own institution.

“Our students and faculty come to GW to engage in rigorous, interdisciplinary work that tackles today’s complex issues,” said Provost Christopher Alan Bracey. “The work of the Equity Institute Initiative will continue to distinguish our scholars as thought leaders and put GW on the map as a central hub for innovative and transformational research.”

For teachers and researchers with a strong sense of social justice, Matthew said, knowing they have colleagues who share their priorities is key to creating a sense of strong and productive community. Researchers working on equity in different fields can be energized by this connection, which also gives rise to opportunities for knowledge sharing, risk-taking, experimentation and expansion.

“As a health care researcher, for example, I’m energized by seeing colleagues across campus – in sociology, in engineering, in law, in education – doing very different but serving the same goals,” Matthew said. “Strengthening this community creates connections and partnerships that can lead to the kind of teaching that will change the way our students do their research.

Ivy Ken, associate professor of sociology at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said the collaborative research conducted by EII “is vital right now, as the country grapples with all the ways racial inequality is embedded in our institutions and modes of action.” Ken’s project, “Race, Immigration and Confinement in Rural Meatpacking: Decentering Whiteness and Mapping Injustices” tracks how structural inequalities in the meatpacking industry are produced and maintained, making an entire workforce essentially disposable.

“My research team was able to use initiative funds to strengthen relationships with community partners in North Carolina and Minnesota, which are major rural meatpacking states,” Ken said. “Our community partners help workers who have immigrated from Mexico, Somalia, Laos and dozens of other countries understand their rights at work. We contribute to these efforts and learn from workers themselves how the structural realities of racism, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiment shape their lives in the communities where they live and work.

Matthew previously served as co-founder and first director of The Equity Center at the University of Virginia School of Law. Since joining GW in 2020, she said, she has seen an institution with the resources and connections — and, most importantly, the location — to expand the model even further.

“One of the most exciting things about being the largest university and oldest law school in DC is the impact we can have on real life, as we sit in one of the cities most important policies in the world,” said Matthew.

And for many scholars, EII also offers an opportunity to reconnect with a city and community that is more than the sum of its legislative parts. Former DC public school teacher Saniya LeBlanc, now an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has received EII funding for an upcoming project, Accessing Community Healthcare with Innovations in Electric Vehicles for Equity (ACHIEVE).

“This project enables partnerships between GW researchers (in engineering, social sciences and law), healthcare providers and, most importantly, community members to explore ways in which new technologies and processes of energy, transportation and health care can improve health outcomes,” LeBlanc said. . “We are thrilled that EII is supporting community participatory work aimed at impact, and I feel like I’m coming home as this research project takes me out of my office and back into the vibrant communities of DC.”


To learn more about EII and current Seed Grant recipients, please visit equityinstitute.gwu.edu.

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