Grantee Spotlight: The RISER Network is Shifting the Narrative About Black Children

A new network of scholars is working to change the narrative about Black children in research. Specifically, a group of researchers is working to promote and utilize a strengths-based approach in studies about Black children’s development, families, education, health, and well-being. Their work aims to promote the assets of Black children and their families and dismantle the education and health disparities experienced by Black children as a result of systemic racism and discrimination. The scholars in the Researchers Investigating Sociocultural Equity and Race (RISER) Network are committed to building this knowledge base to engage researchers and early care and education policymakers in the undoing of inequitable, racist systems and approaches in research, policy, and practice.

In 2019, the Foundation for Child Development awarded a grant to the HighScope Educational Research Foundation to establish a small collaborative network of Black mid-career researchers. This funding afforded co-founders Dr. Iheoma Iruka at UNC-Chapel Hill and Dr. Stephanie Curenton at Boston University the opportunity to develop and officially launch the RISER Network. It also allowed them to imagine the true potential of RISER, share in thought leadership, and expand the network to include a diverse set of scholars dedicated to researching the well-being of Black children.

“I was grateful for the CEED [Center on the Ecology of Early Development] grant from the Foundation because that small CEED grant was enough to make us a thing,” said Dr. Curenton. “That allowed us to create an identity. I was able to go and leverage that identity to other funders. And now people are really interested in this.”

A fundamental shift is taking place in research as the RISER Network employs this strengths-based approach in its exploration of topics such as program/classroom quality, workforce, family support and stability, health and well-being, academic achievement, and socio-emotional development. This shift is unfolding at a time when a health pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color. In addition, a rise in the movement for racial justice has sparked conversation about the need for interdisciplinary work on equity and greater insight into the legacy of systemic racism.

“I think that there’s finally a push in the field for research teams to understand that in order to study Black children, you need to have Black voices on the research team,” said Dr. Jacqueline Sims who is a research scientist at RISER. “So, I think that this is just a really unique time for this opportunity to really take off.”

The RISER Network also provides an infrastructure that is intentional about fostering a safe space for professional mentorship for its scholars. Now, senior, mid-level, and junior scholars are engaged and building genuine relationships through this work.

“I think that this is so valuable because we don’t have these safe spaces,” explained Dr. Curenton. “The other thing that I think is interesting and valuable about RISER and that sets us apart is that it’s not just about emotional support. It’s really about what we would call instrumental support. The whole network is set up so that people can form writing groups. People are actually working together so that they can write papers together, go for grants together, do things together.”

“I think that if you’re in a space where you’re working with professors who don’t always look like you, it can be daunting,” explained Dr. Nneka Ibekwe-Okafor, the first post-doctoral fellow at RISER. “It can seem unattainable. But as a part of the network, I am part of a group of Black excellence, professors across the U.S. who have similar research interests, and it’s helpful to hear about the goals and challenges that they’re facing and I am fortunate that they are taking time to educate me through their experience.”

This network’s collaborative, mentorship culture promotes scholarship and career advancement for its researchers and practitioners. It recognizes that mid-career researchers of color experience unique challenges as they progress professionally. RISER is leveraging co-authorship as a crucial advantage for professional development. There is a system in place so that they “are all working together to publish so that we are all moving towards tenure professorship or even into policy and getting that credibility,” said Dr. Ibekwe-Okafor. “I think you can’t ignore the fact that you have to have publications at the end of the day. And as a junior rising in this area, it has been really helpful to have that structure.”

Researchers within the RISER network are taking a fresh look at research questions, methodological approaches, and data interpretation as they study Black children’s growth and development.

“Many people don’t look at the nuance within the Black culture,” said Dr. Ibekwe-Okafor. “So, oftentimes in research, they control for race instead of looking at the nuances within race and the complexities of how we might understand the Black family.”

RISER’s scholars are pursuing work that fills gaps in knowledge and can strengthen future outcomes for Black children. They are working to provide context concerning the lived experiences of marginalized Black children and unveil bias in early care and education at a time when the appetite for actionable, evidence-based research regarding this population is at the forefront of current priorities. This important work will also shed light on how to evaluate and be responsive to the needs of Black children and their families, and how to develop and demonstrate an appreciation for their resilience.

Building from the Foundation’s initial grant, the network is currently funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more information about RISER, click here.