Dr. Sumie Okazaki’s Partnership Advice

Dr. Sumie Okazaki’s Partnership Advice

Contrary to the popular portrait of Asian American students as the model minority high achievers, a sizable segment of Asian American students who attend NYC public high schools are not bound for elite colleges and experience challenges in college access. Through support from the IHDSC Seed Award program, Drs. Sumie Okazaki, Stella Flores, and Sebastian Cherng partnered to examine college access and persistence among urban Asian American students. Working closely with a community partner, the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF), the team has conducted interviews with New York City-based high school and college students to better understand the students’ decision making process, their transitions to college, and factors that facilitate or impede their adjustment in college. A true mixed method study, the team accesses and analyzes administrative data from the NYC Partnership for College Readiness and Success and The Research Alliance for New York City Schools to examine patterns of high school to college transition among New York City public school students. Dr. Okazaki spoke to On the Ground about her work with CACF and what to consider before engaging partnered research. The conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Tell us about your partner organization, the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.

The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) is a local pan-Asian American advocacy organization that has historically been very important to the community. I had sought out opportunities to work with them because I feel like they have their finger on the pulse of what’s important to local Asian American kids and families. Because of the youth leadership program that they’ve been running since 2004, their staff has a lot of on-the-ground knowledge about what’s going on, what’s important, and what are the things that the youth think are important. The youth leaders formulate their own advocacy projects and that’s been a valuable part of the partnership. Some of the research questions that I eventually incorporated into the IHDSC seed award project really came from spending time working with the CACF youth and their staff.

Do you have a sense of how much CACF used research in the past or now how it integrates into another programming or planning?

In terms of use of research evidence, that was one of the things I was actually curious about when I did the William T. Grant Foundation Distinguished Fellowship in 2014 and 2015. This fellowship enables mid-career researchers to immerse themselves in practice or policy settings and learn first-hand the everyday work of those organizations, with the idea that such hands-on experience would help the researchers better understand how to conduct research whose results are more immediately useful to practitioners and policymakers. I spent the first year immersed in the NYC Department of Education’s Research and Policy Support Group, and I spent the second year working with CACF staff and saw what kind of research evidence they’re needing, wanting, and how it was used. There is still not enough research on Asian American children and families, so they’re hungry for any additional evidence that can be marshaled to support the community.

During my fellowship, I helped CACF write policy briefs, helped the staff prepare to testify in front of the city council, and attended partner meetings with the New York Immigration Coalition’s education taskforce as well as immigrant parent workshops and youth leadership meetings. I tagged along with the staff on lot of these interactions between their organization and the policy makers or decision-makers, and I helped the staff and decision-makers understand what data were available as well as limits to those data. My work there was not about collecting research evidence, but really about using data — available data — and translating that into forms that can be used by partners in recommending policy.

It sounds as if you played an important role in translating research evidence for your partner. In that same regard, what vocabulary, set of skills, or perspective did you learn from working with CACF?

Being part of their work exposed me to questions. How does the city work? How do school systems work? Being educated about how New York City and how the Department of Education worked was extremely valuable, and in my case in learning how they are structured and what are the points of intervention in terms of being able to speak with policy makers, decision makers, or administrators about issues facing Asian American students and families.

The lesson that I took away was that understanding a little bit more about how people in nonprofits try to interact with a “big machine” such as the NYC Department of Education is critical to knowing what kind of research is likely to be helpful to the community.

What advice would you offer to researchers before starting a partnership?

There is a body of literature on successful research-community partnerships and a lot of it is coming out of the principles of community based participatory research (CBPR) or similar genres. There is a body of scholarship that gives both the evidence for what makes for successful partnership, but also how-to guides. However, university-based researchers are more often than not rewarded for engaging deeply with the community because it takes time to build relationships and for that partnership to produce the kinds of results that are valued in academia, such as publications and other academic products. Community partnerships can also be difficult to sustain because there are natural turnovers in the leadership at community partner organizations. That is something that I experienced during my fellowship at both NYCDOE and CACF.

Partnership is not easy. I think researchers who are thinking about engaging in research partnership can look to the literature and learn the basic principles of equity, fairness, shared mission, and building trust that are critical to productive partnerships. You want to be mindful that you don’t want to just go there, do your research, and get out. I think that sometimes academic institutions sometimes receive a bad reputation for being takers and not really giving back to the community and in sustaining a relationship. It’s challenging for both academic and community partners, but it is also very rewarding and meaningful.


Dr. Sumie Okazaki is a Professor of Applied Psychology at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Visit our Seed Award site to learn more about other IHDSC-funded projects.