Interview w/ Stefanie A. DeLuca

CUSS Newsletter, Winter 2022, Vol. 35, No. 1

Stefanie A. DeLuca, James Coleman Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University, is one of 2021’s Publicly Engaged Scholar awardees. Over the course of her career, Stefanie has worked closely with local, state, and federal policymakers to enact meaningful change in the domains of housing accessibility and racial desegregation. Her dedication to publicly-engaged research is reflected in her service to several HUD federal housing commissions in addition to local community and non-profit agencies. More broadly, Stefanie’s scholarship has positively impacted countless households by shaping federal legislation on housing vouchers as well as local housing mobility programs across the country. Thalia Tom reached out to her to discuss her research, and we’re including her responses below. Thanks to Stefanie for participating in our interview series!

What inspired you to engage in public-facing research?

I’m from the South Side of Chicago, and back home, work that has no ground-level relevance or truth just doesn’t make sense to spend your time doing. I suppose I never found the reward of publishing solely for academic audiences to be satisfying or “enough” for me—I like being out and about in the world. What we do is (and should be!) hard. How do you wake up in the morning and work this hard without a bigger purpose? I also find that by studying policy interventions, working with practitioners, and engaging with many different non-academic audiences I can learn more about which societal questions need scientific answers, and which scientific questions are actually worth asking.

I feel strongly that one of the best ways to advocate for vulnerable people is through rigorous science, and the extra effort it takes to get that work into the hands of people who make policy, and those who have the power to make other consequential decisions about resources and narratives. We must also share what we have learned with the public in transparent and compelling ways. In particular, for me, I must say that I was lucky enough to start my academic career by working with James Rosenbaum and Greg Duncan at Northwestern on the long-term results of the Chicago Gautreaux fair housing case, which provided a chance for more than 7000 Black families in Chicago to move to less racially isolated communities with higher-performing schools. It became clear to me how legal advocacy and social science could result in real impacts for families.

What has been the most exciting/surprising moment in your career so far?

Whew this is tough—there have been many!! I would say it’s a tie between leading my first team in the field to collect data on residential instability and housing in Alabama, and meeting with Secretary Ben Carson.

I had my very first experience collecting qualitative data with Kathryn Edin, Susan Clampet-Lundquist and others back in 2003-2004, when we were examining the puzzling results of the MTO interim impacts results. I was new to Baltimore and simultaneously fell in love with my new city, and was forever changed as a scholar, when our study participants invited me into their homes to share their stories. By 2009, supported by a William T. Grant Faculty Scholars Award, I was leading my own team as we extended some of the lessons we learned in MTO and more with a sample of families in a region of the country where researchers rarely go. I learned a tremendous amount about fieldwork, mentoring and teamwork.

On the second: In 2019, Secretary Carson asked me meet with him and his senior advisers to discuss my research. In the meeting, he asked for guidance on some key policy directions. It was an unexpected opportunity to translate work in a bipartisan way, and communicate not just whether certain policies are effective, but whether they were also efficient and politically feasible.

What impact do you hope that your scholarship will have?

In the past few years, three pieces of federal legislation have been informed by my work with my team, which is wonderful.  In particular, we’ve seen bipartisan legislation passed by Congress to scale-up the some of the work we did with the Seattle and King County Housing Authorities, which is collaborative work I’m doing with Raj Chetty, Nathan Hendren, Larry Katz, Peter Bergman, Christopher Palmer and others at Opportunity Insights. The funding from that legislation is allowing public housing authorities across the country increase residential choices for families and support their moves into high-opportunity areas through the HUD Mobility and Community Choice Program. HUD launched this initiative in 2020, and now thirteen different public housing agencies in nine metropolitan areas can improve their subsidized housing programs, while participating in rigorous evaluation research. I am now working with Abt Associates and the Urban Institute on this incredible endeavor. I could never have imagined something like this ten years ago! So in these ways, I’m really happy with the impact of our scholarship.

But I also hope that my work can help on the individual, everyday level—to motivate people to think more carefully, more empathetically, and in a more informed way about others who live different, less advantaged lives than they do. These big small things are part of the hope. For example, a few years ago I received a letter from a local physician who had recently read our book. He wrote to me: “I literally wept…the beauty of the human spirit, which requires just a little opportunity and encouragement to flourish, is an underlying theme in your writing…I’ve started asking young people in my practice, ‘what are you passionate about? What are you doing to pursue that passion? Who helps you and supports you?’ Your writings inspired me to do more to strengthen and encourage them. I hope you’ll be happy with a clinical application of your academic concept.” I think about this letter all the time. These kinds of connections and the idea that one single person has reconsidered his efforts just a bit? This is how change can really happen.

Do you have any advice for sociologists who want to become more publicly engaged?

When I was a first year doctoral student, I remember asking one of my mentors, Greg Duncan, how to make a difference through our work—after all, he had done so much to affect policy and practice and still does! He basically said, “Do good research.” I remember being a bit unsatisfied by the answer, but like with most things, Greg was right. The arc of policy and public opinion is long and there are unexpected windows that open, most of which you will never have any control over at all. So your best bet is to do your best science, and when the windows open, you’re ready. I would also add that you need to be prepared to do the extra work to take your research to the next level—in the academy today the work of the ‘public sociologist’ is gaining traction, but is rarely rewarded without the academic products and service to back it up. I recommend having explicit discussions with department chairs, deans and others at your university to make the case for the space, time and recognition to do this important work, so you can also balance it with the other myriad demands on our time. It can’t hurt to ask, and increasingly, university administrators are being forced to ask themselves what the academy can do for the public good.

I would also recommend cultivating relationships with reporters who write in your area, who are careful, and whose science writing you respect—some may even welcome receiving a new paper of interest from you. Getting to know your university press office is helpful too. While not the easiest thing to do, writing a book alongside your articles can really help extend your public range because books can reach more people and have a life outside of the academy (and no firewall!)—this invites opportunities to engage with community associations, philanthropic organizations, educators, policy staff, churches, and practitioners’ interest groups.

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