Spotlight Exclusives

Facts Matter; They Have Never Mattered More

Dr. Kimberlyn Leary Dr. Kimberlyn Leary, posted on

Dr. Kimberlyn Leary became the Urban Institute’s senior vice president on July 1, managing research and program development across the organization. Leary comes to Urban from Harvard University, where she had posts at both the Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, as well as a cross-posting at the Harvard Kennedy School. Before Harvard, she served as chief psychologist of the Cambridge Health Alliance and was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Fellow and advisor to the White House Council on Women and Girls during the Obama administration. Leary spoke to Spotlight recently about joining the Urban Institute and the role of research and fact-based analysis during this time of pandemic and clamor for racial equity. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Congratulations on your still very new post. Let’s start with what attracted you to the Urban Institute?

I’m really thrilled to be at the Urban Institute. I’ve spent much of my career, and I’m originally trained as a clinical psychologist, at the intersection of policy and practice. What I have learned over the course of my career, whether it’s working at an academic health center or working in the Obama administration or working in nonprofits, is that large scale is needed to tackle some of the big problems. Significant change requires you to have the right partners engaged in conversation and people who agree, at least enough, on the issues we are collectively facing. That change can’t happen until political and cultural systems are really ripe for change. And what’s exciting to me is that’s where we are right now. There’s a lot going on right now and I couldn’t think of a better place to be than the Urban Institute. With our 12 policy centers, we have experts who are deeply engrossed in questions about housing, transportation, healthcare, job mobility – touching issues at the heart of the pandemic as it has unfolded from a public health crisis to becoming an economic crisis to becoming a much larger reckoning with structural racism and even our democratic values, which are solely being tested at this point.

Has Urban had to pivot as the pandemic has unfolded? Or are you more doubling down on what the organization has always done?

I would say both, and more. Because we have multiple concurrent crises and because the complexities of the problems at hand can’t be overstated and overlap, we need solutions that reflect the complexities of those challenges. We have to be able to diagnose and understand the scope of problems. Urban has always done that very, very well. As we look at the impact of the pandemic on different communities, we must pinpoint where the need is greatest and tailor our solutions to the places and people where they are most urgently needed. And that’s where Urban has done some very important, quick-strike work. We developed tools, for example, to help local leaders prioritize where emergency rental assistance is needed, so the people can stay in their homes. We’ve been able to use the Household Pulse Survey data to track COVID-19’s impact by race and ethnicity knowing that communities of color disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. We’ve also been able to identify where low-income jobs have been lost to COVID so that foundations, local governments and nonprofits can target their intervention. Because so much of the impact of COVID is in the employment sector and affects our economic vitality, our new collaborative network, WorkRise brings together multi-sector partners to work on equitable and resilient labor market practices that will support leaders in the months ahead. We’re drawing on our capacity and our many years of work on structural racism to explore what will be needed to dismantle it as we go forward and build back not only better but more innovatively than we were before.

Are there new programs that are growing out of that? Urban was founded more than 50 years ago with combatting racism in all its forms as a key part of its original charter. Are there new ideas that have sprung up from this summer of unrest that we’ve gone through?

I wouldn’t say that they have sprung up from the summer. As you mentioned, the most important thing about Urban is that it’s been in a space of continuous innovation over the years. We began talking about structural racism before this summer. And we’ve been working to bring in community voices, lived experience and expertise of people in communities, through our Community Engaged Methods group. We are using our top-notch data science skills to think about racial equity and designing the analytics that are needed to make sure  that solutions are equitable. So, it’s both, and. Urban has the capacity and the talent to move nimbly and that has allowed us to provide evidence to change makers and city leaders as quickly as possible so they could act on it.

You have a deep background in health, as you’ve mentioned. Does that bring any new focus to Urban in your position? Do you bring a new lens?

I’m a clinical psychologist by training. I’ve also been a clinician for many years as well as leading departments in health care systems. Urban has a very rich and sophisticated health policy center, but mental health is something that’s found throughout our policy units because it’s a part of the sectors in which people live their lives. Think about the pressures on a family facing eviction. We may not think of eviction as a mental health issue, but one certainly recognizes it will have mental health impacts. Think also about the tension in so many families right now as adults who can work from home are trying to do so while serving as teachers for their little ones. With remote learning, mental health issues may surface due to the long-term impact of collective stress on individuals, on families and on communities. So yes, I hope very much, given my particular background in mental health that over time, Urban will be able to convene some new conversations as we think about both mental health and emotional thriving in a post-COVID world.

Let me go back to this idea of facts. There are few institutions that are more associated with fact-based and evidence-based analysis than Urban at a time when facts seem to be losing currency in large parts of our culture. How does Urban combat that contradiction?

You are asking an important question. Facts, data and evidence are at the heart of what the Urban Institute stands for and our values and practices. And that’s not going to change. You can’t accurately diagnose a problem or know where greatest need exists, for eviction relief for example, if you don’t have facts. You can’t tailor solutions unless you have evidence, and good evidence, that allows you to compare and contrast ideas that a researcher may have, or a community may have, or other partners may bring to the table. In order to create a recovery that’s inclusive, that will improve the lives of real people, we need data-driven solutions and evidence that’s actionable. Not evidence that stays in the ivory tower, but evidence that can be made practically accessible and available to change makers, policy makers and to leaders.

What are some of the ways you make that actionable? Urban has an extensive social media presence; is that one example?

Having a social media presence is an important way of speaking with people directly. We are committed to democratizing data and putting it directly in the hands of people who seek it. Our communications staff tell us that our output of social media, webinars, and reports has  accelerated since the start of the pandemic. I think that also speaks to your previous question about the importance of facts. Facts matter; they have never mattered more. Right now, people are hungry for information and they’re looking for information that’s timely – not only about what happened five years ago, though historical comparison is important. People are looking to know what is the state of play now based on evidence we can aggregate and analyze quickly so that they can make sensible decisions going forward. Whether you’re a city leader, a community-based organization, or a foundation, our aim to provide high-level solutions, ideas, and insights to help people solve problems and connect with other communities.

And do you feel that Urban’s bipartisan, nonpartisan orientation can still be effective in such polarized times?

Absolutely. It’s also important at a moment like this one, when we’re facing concurrent crises, to remember that crises don’t stop to ask us about our political persuasion. Solutions are going to require collaboration and they’re going to require partnership. We will be that much more effective at those partnerships when we can examine what the facts tell us. Places like Urban can cut through the noise, and help separate fact from rhetoric.

What’s surprised you most about Urban in the three months you’ve been there?

It’s not exactly been a surprise but the talent at Urban is extensive. My new colleagues have been incredibly generous in onboarding me remotely, but even more I’ve been able to see their passion for the work that they’re doing.  Seeing that passion in action and also being in a community that takes its own learning very, very seriously – even when that learning is taking place under less than ideal circumstances – has been quite wonderful.

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