July 6, 2021

What Might an Asset-Based Postdoctoral Fellowship Look Like? Lessons Learned from the First Year of the Equitable Futures Innovation Network

Categories: Equity, Research
Lush Green Trees

Junior scholars on academic pathways have a notoriously difficult climb. The old “publish or perish” adage is alive and kicking, putting pressure on even the most promising individuals graduating from doctoral programs to focus on how to get ahead in a highly competitive professional context. Many young scholars concerned with educational equity are additionally committed to conducting research that serves practical aims for minoritized communities. What options are there for young scholars to balance their intellectual goals with the demands of academic career advancement while directly confronting social injustice?

In 2020, with funding from the Gates Foundation, we launched a new postdoctoral fellowship program centered on research in the service of organizations seeking to expand workforce opportunities for minoritized youth. Like many postdoctoral fellowship programs, the Equitable Futures Postdoctoral Fellowships (EFPF) offers financial support and professional development during a critical transition between scholars getting their PhD and a faculty position. Unlike many postdoctoral fellowships and positions, however, it is designed through an asset-based lens, aiming to both study and embody more equitable futures in the academy as well as in youth-serving programs.

Here we describe three asset-based guiding principles for equity in the design of EFPF, and some reflections on lessons learned as these principles have been tested in the first year of the program. Asset-based approaches, in the simplest terms, focus on strengths of minoritized communities and individuals. These approaches foreground the cultural, familial, analytic, and social wealth that people use in navigating their worlds.

Lived Experience as Essential

Unlike most fellowships, we did not ask applicants to submit a research proposal. Instead, we asked them to tell us about their lives, providing a personal statement that described their connection to the needs and assets of marginalized youth, a commitment to equity, and interest in career equity programs. And rather than slotting the young scholars into supporting roles for senior research leads on the project, our intent was to center them in the research processes.

We were surprised by the degree to which many candidates were equally committed to engaged scholarship as they were to their academic research. Drs. Janiece Mackey and Miguel Abad, the fellowship recipients, chosen from a field of over 50 applicants, each had actually built youth-serving programs based on community needs they identified and reflective of their personal histories. Dr. Mackey’s program focuses on civic engagement for youth of color and Dr. Abad’s program facilitated internship pathways across diverse professional sectors for transitional aged youth. Their insider’s sensitivity has given them special capacity to build relationships with program partners aligned with both the partners’ organizational goals and values of the communities they engage.

Centering on Equitable Practice

We recently attended a week-long session bringing together educational researchers and practitioners for a meeting of the minds. The session ended with the practitioners saying “No!” when asked to consider whether the goal to meaningfully speak across the research-practice divide had been met. How is it that scholars with the best of intentions and assiduous planning can miss the mark as often as not when seeking to partner symmetrically with educators in schools and community sites? The reality is that most research, even when explicitly about research in the service of equitable practice, prioritizes the needs of faculty and graduate students to build their research reputations.

For several of the seven program partners in the Equitable Futures Innovation Network, working with researchers (again) was an iffy proposition. They’d done so before, and it had not always worked out. For the new fellows, this has meant relationship building takes priority over other considerations, a process which, as they note, requires “going slow to go fast.” As one program educator said, this research partnership “feels different” from the others, and the difference lies in no small part in the care taken in understanding the rhythms and nuances of programming at the partner organizations, especially with the Covid-era changes at hand.

Reverse Mentoring

Faculty at colleges and universities in the U.S. remain overwhelmingly white at all levels. Black scholars account for only 4% of full professors, 7% at the assistant level, and 5% among lecturers; the percentages are similar for Latinx scholars [1]. Moreover, academics skew older than U.S. workers in other jobs, often working beyond retirement ages leading to low rates of turnover [2]. The “research” side of most research-practice partnerships comes from some of the most senior and successful academics in the field.

How funding flows and projects are led reflects an assumption in the field that research-practice partnerships require seasoned researchers, and there is a limited pool of talent for these roles, particularly talent that reflects the communities being studied and served. We challenged this assumption by recruiting emerging scholars with connections to minoritized communities as leaders of the project’s research-practice partnerships. What we found, as we reviewed the applicant pool, was an abundance of riches—young scholars with exceptional life trajectories exemplifying their mobilization of cultural and community assets to succeed in the exclusionary academic system.

We structured the fellowship so that senior scholars supported the fellows, rather than having them “supervise” the research in a more traditional, top-down way. Our intent was to move, as much as possible, to the side while still arranging logistical matters and being available as thought partners. The fellows also were invited to choose their own mentors from any institution they wished to consult with them on their efforts and were free to locate anywhere in the U.S. Just as important as senior-to-junior support and mentorship in this design is the hope that the postdoctoral fellows will infuse their own perspectives into the viewpoints and practices of senior scholars.

The participatory spirit of the fellowship also characterizes the youth programs the postdoctoral fellows have run since early 2021. They have prioritized relationship building: caretaking through responsiveness to youth needs, appreciating the details of daily life together, and being attentive both to additional opportunities for connection as well as the burdens of youth being “Zoomed out” during pandemic times. These priorities have centered the voices of youth and provided them a safe space to explore their career identities in relation to their goals for personal success and social justice.

It Takes a Network

This work is neither easy nor expedient. It has meant creating freedom from more typical pressures in academia and centering research-practice partnerships that allow the fellows to explore, experiment, and innovate towards the future. But with this structure come new types of burdens on the fellows—the burden of charting new ground as well as building a unique type of research-practice relationship. More than anything, we are learning together, and trying to embody the spirit of a fellowship not in the sense of individual fellows, but as real “fellowship” in creating the surround of a supportive network.