Social policy for the public good: Introducing the Kohn Collaborative

November 2, 2021 0:17:24
Kaltura Video

Luke Shaefer and Celeste Watkins-Hayes describe the Ford School's new Kohn Collaborative for Social Policy and how the inclusion of marginalized populations in research and engagement creates powerful social policy change. November, 2021. Learn more about our strengths in social policy:


0:00:01.4 Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Luke Shaefer, I am so honored to be in conversation with you. Congratulations on being named the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy. Congratulations.

0:00:17.0 Luke Shaefer: Thank you, Celeste. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this and be here with me.

0:00:25.1 CW: Absolutely. So this professorship is part of a larger initiative called the Kohn Collaborative. Can you tell us more about it, its history and what it aims to do? 

0:00:35.9 LS: Absolutely. Absolutely. This comes out of a partnership with Hal and Carol Kohn who have connected with the Ford School on their interest in both rigorous research that really uses the cutting edge methods to learn more about the world, learn more about how policies work, and then to build on that knowledge by doing something about it and really impacting the work at the World in significant ways. So when I first got to know Hal and Carol early on, they're just incredibly wonderful people; very generous in so many ways, they talked about wanting to use this gift to help lift up the voice, the voices of the voiceless in so many ways. And in fact, my professorship, the Hermann and Amalie Kohn professorship, is named after Harold's grandparents who perished...

0:01:28.0 CW: Oh! Interesting. Okay.

0:01:30.2 LS: Yeah. Who perished during The Holocaust. And so wanting to honor them and wanting their legacy to live on, and through that to partner with the Ford School on a set of professorships that would really lift up the voices of those who often don't have voices at the table. So there'll be a set of professorships, there'll be a set of support for students, and then a set of resources through the Kohn Collaborative that'll be about policy impact and will be about trying to help bring the voices of our faculty and their knowledge into policy-making discussions. And when we think about this, a voice for the voiceless, so many times in policy-making discussions, those who are sort of being treated or impacted, they don't have any voice at the table...

0:02:26.8 CW: Right.

0:02:27.1 LS: Or not as much as they should. And Celeste, I've been thinking about your award-winning book, Remaking a Life, which is about the HIV safety net, and how that might be sort of a counterexample of sort of a safety net that was built that really did have elements of empowerment, and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that.

0:02:49.8 CW: Sure. Well, you spoke to one of the core elements of Remaking a Life and how this kind of work is connected to the work of the Kohn Collaborative, and that is the idea of hearing the voices of people who have often been historically silenced. And part of my work is studying the HIV epidemic. This is an epidemic that disproportionately affects marginalized communities, sexual minorities, LGBTQ populations, people of color, low-income individuals. And in order for us to build a response to the HIV epidemic that was so frightening and continues to be quite frightening, there had to be voices that were traditionally marginalized, that were brought in to talk about lived experience, to talk about what was important to be able to fight the HIV epidemic. What resources, what policy tools, what priorities would we need in order to effectively mount a response to this epidemic. So we had to listen to voices that, too often, we did not listen to, we did not seek counsel from. And when you look at the history of the HIV epidemic, you see the ways in which LGBTQ populations were heavily involved in creating the HIV response. And we also must know, and I talk about it in my book, that it was actually quite a diverse coalition who came to be the HIV community.

0:04:21.9 CW: People of color were involved, low-income folks were involved, and we often have one image of what HIV activism looks like, but in fact, it's quite multi-cultural and multi-faceted. And through those multitude of voices and ideas and experiences, the HIV community was able to politically mobilize and to talk to policy officials about what the needs were, and to build what I call one of the most effective safety nets that we've built in the last 40 years, and that's the HIV safety net. The amalgamation of healthcare resources for people living with HIV, including HIV drug assistance, access to economic assistance for those who need it.

0:05:11.1 CW: Social support, bringing people together of shared experiences to support each other, to share information, to share networks. And then finally to empower people to become political agents, to provide those on-ramps to civic engagement, to ask people living with HIV to tell their stories to inform the public, to inform political officials. And that proved to be quite important, that HIV community; that HIV safety net, for the women that I studied who were living with HIV. Women who often had been counted out, hadn't been given appropriate resources, had been underserved for so long, had been grappling with what it means to live under deep structural and institutional inequities. Finally, many of them, ironically, had access to a community and to resources through their work in the HIV safety net. By no means are we suggesting that HIV is a, "good diagnosis," as some people might be hearing what I'm saying.

0:06:19.4 CW: But instead what I'm saying is despite the difficulty of the diagnosis, the threat to one's health, the threat to one's social stability, the stigma that people grapple with, there was nevertheless a safety net that caught people and supported them and continues to support them in all kinds of different ways as they grapple with not only a very serious health diagnosis but also all of the inequities that led to the diagnosis in the first place. So what's amazing about this Kohn collaborative is the ways in which it centers the idea of thinking about social policy and social justice in intertwined ways, the way it centers hearing from and thinking about and including marginalized populations in how we formulate public policy, and also to think about how do we engage students, how do we engage faculty, and how do we engage the broader community in this work. So this is very exciting, Luke, and I can't think of a more appropriate person to be leading us in this initiative to have a named professorship as part of this initiative and to really be at the forefront of helping to visualize what the possibilities are and what this looks like and how we can be the most effective we can be with this very, very generous gift from the Kohn family.

0:07:51.5 LS: Celeste, I love some... You've just... In your discussion of Remaking a Life, you just mentioned so many of the things that I think are important to the Kohn's and that I have been trying to live out in my own work, of really starting with listening, bringing the folks who are vulnerable and who are being treated by policy or healthcare system to the table, and then bringing evidence to the table, and then really sort of grounding us in the fact that when we do that, we can make a difference, we can create... We create... Can create systems that really enhance lives and empower people to live healthy and productive lives. And I remember our mutual friend and colleague, Kathy Eden...

0:08:37.4 CW: Yes, yes.

0:08:38.8 LS: When I first started working with her on $2 a Day, it really took me in a different... A path on my research trajectory of... I had been doing a lot of work primarily with data in my office, and I think that was really important work. But when I got to know Kathy, and her research technology was to go out and talk to people, I really found that having those two types of research in conversation with one other can be extremely powerful, and I feel like I can learn more about what I'm exploring than I ever could else... Otherwise. So one example is I got to know families who were extremely poor, were really, really poor, particularly had no cash. We would see this little divot on the inside crease of the elbow of the moms. And as we started to talk to them about how they made ends meet, what did they do to survive when they didn't have any money, they might have food assistance but no cash coming in, we learned that those divots were scars from selling their blood plasma so often. And so that was something where I've been named in the press as a poverty expert before that, but I had...

0:10:00.7 LS: I didn't know anything about selling blood plasma. And then it turns out... As we go back to the data, at that point, we'd had a... Seen a tripling in the number of people selling their blood plasma. We've now learned that plasma centers target very vulnerable communities, and that it's a very large industry. And so just grappling with that and sort of deepening the understanding of what the world looks like just really enriched my ability to do any sort of research. And then bringing that forward to Poverty Solutions, our model at Poverty Solutions is really to start with listening, and then bring evidence to try to find solutions. And that means we often end up studying things we might never have expected that we would have studied in the first place.

0:10:53.3 LS: So it's well known that affordable housing is a major challenge that people have in finding stable, decent housing. In Detroit, that really takes the form of tax foreclosure, where we've seen a huge part of the housing stock lost to tax foreclosure. So getting into the nuts and bolts of that we only started to do when we started working deeply in the community and starting with listening, finding out how were people losing their homes, what was... How were they being impacted. And then we've even studied things like auto insurance. Again, when I started this work, I never would... That wouldn't have been in my 100 top things trying to help people succeed. But it was really a concern that was incredibly deep in the city, because it has the highest auto insurance rates in the country. So I've found that this type of work that I think your book really embodies can take us in directions we might never have expected to go and can help us learn and then create systems that can work better, that can really empower families.

0:12:08.9 CW: Right. I think that's so important, Luke. And I just wanna underscore your point about listening first, because I think that that is such a critical and underutilized tool in research, but also in philanthropy. I think people often decide, "Well, here's what's necessary," and kinda charge in. And what's so beautiful about the work that you do in your research and the work that I do in terms of listening to women living with HIV and really trying to understand both the struggles that they're describing but also the importance of the HIV safety net in their lives and their really strong assertions about its importance and being able to hold both things in one's hand at the same time, so on the one hand, through listening we're able to uncover really important details about the social world. And your work on blood plasma.

0:13:07.2 CW: We are co-advising you and I, are graduate student and Analidis Ochoa, who is now working on that topic, and it's so critically important in terms of how far it stretches and the ways in which it operates in many ways invisible to so many of us, but it's so critical to others of us. But that ability to listen and then use that to guide the inquiry is so important, and then you see it in philanthropy and you see the way in which for the Kohn Collaborative, this deep listening in terms of how do we best think about policy influence and using scholarship for policy influence, and how do we build something that is really going to make a difference, and then working collaboratively with the members of the Ford School community to imagine together to think about what this would look like. I think it's very interesting in terms of the parallel process that happens that's grounded in listening, and to really lift that up as an important principle and an important value in all of the work that's happening, both the larger Kohn Collaborative, but also the individual research that we do as scholars.

0:14:25.4 LS: Well Celeste this was a treat and...

0:14:30.5 CW: Yes, yes, yes. And I have to say, Luke, whenever we talk, I always learn something. I always leave inspired and encouraged, and you are doing from the work on blood plasma to auto insurance, to tax foreclosures, the work that you are doing is so impactful for people, and what I love about it is, when we were trained in graduate school, there were certain topics that graduate students were encouraged to focus on, and there wasn't often a lot of creativity involved, and there wasn't sometimes a lot of listening involved, it was always, "This is what we do as scholars interested in inequality", and what you have done throughout your career is to flip that to think about the unanswered questions, the topics that seem off the beaten path, but end up being integral to the day-to-day lives of marginalized populations, and that really are often policy areas that are unspoken, but that nevertheless have huge impacts on the day-to-day lives of individuals. So someone just writing a check for auto insurance and lamenting the cost, turns out it tells us a lot about how inequality is operating within a particular urban context, so thank you for the creativity that you bring as one of the key values of your work as well and congratulations again on your work with the Kohn Collaborative, and congratulations on being the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy. I'm so so, so proud of you.

0:16:22.1 LS: Oh, Celeste. You've really just made my day, made my week, I really appreciate that, and it was just a wonderful day for the Ford School when you joined us. I'm so delighted to be your colleague and feel exactly the same way that I learn things every time and then I'm inspired by your creativity and your thoughtfulness and just so glad to be your colleague and Hal and Carol just taking a second to say thank you, thank you for your partnership. I feel, personally, I feel so energized by your partnership and so supported by it, and I know the Ford School does, and I think together we're all gonna really build something very, very exciting.