A photo of a smiling woman with her arms crossed against her chest.
Nakeina E. Douglas-Glenn, Ph.D., an associate professor in VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, serves as director of the Research Institute for Social Equity. (L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs)

VCU’s Nakeina E. Douglas-Glenn connects equity and outcomes as a ‘pracademic’ – a practitioner-academic

Leading the Wilder School’s Research Institute for Social Equity, she looks to ensure that government services and public encounters embrace the full community.

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When Nakeina E. Douglas-Glenn, Ph.D., became director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Research Institute for Social Equity, it was the culmination of years of translating research into engagement with the community.

Her research has focused on “trying to understand the public service and the public good and how people interact with different organizations and institutions so that they can live in a society where they can thrive,” she said.

Having served as director of the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute where she developed current and emerging leaders in academic institutions, nonprofits, public and private organizations and communities, she had years of experience putting those principles into action. Now at RISE, Douglas-Glenn, an associate professor in VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, and her team are exploring racial and social equity research and public engagement. They seek to gauge the fairness and impartiality of procedures, processes, policies and services offered at the individual, community and institutional levels.

Douglas-Glenn spoke with VCU News about the institute, what her team has done so far and what’s next.

How do you define equity?

We’re advancing the definition that’s put forth by the National Academy for Public Administration: Equity is really about the impartial and fair distribution of public services, fair and just management of public institutions, and public policies that promote justice and equity. It is ensuring that, in the provision of government services, in the provision of our public encounters, there are no distinguishable differences between the way that one individual encounters those services or receives benefits by any aspect of their being.

How do you describe your research focus?

I’m trained as what is called a  “pracademic,” so practitioner-academic. The work that I’ve done over the last 16 years was focused on opening up the narrative of leadership, particularly for groups who are traditionally outside of the majority narrative. I’ve run a women’s leadership program. I’ve run an institute for individuals interested in issues important to minority communities. When I think about my research, it all really meets at the nexus of public administration and social work – trying to understand the public service and the public good and how people interact with different organizations and institutions so that they can live in a society where they can thrive.

It’s not just about having the access and opportunity; it’s also about the outcomes. What are the results of this access and opportunity as well? What do the processes look like? What do the procedures, the distribution of services, look like as well? And then how does that translate into the outcomes that people experience?

What research is underway at RISE that helps society solve problems and sheds light on challenges through the lens of social equity?

In terms of the particular projects that we’re working on, one that we’re looking at is equity and housing programs and really trying to understand how individuals are impacted by different housing programs, particularly around eviction. And so, the RVA Eviction Lab, for example, which is now under the Research Institute for Social Equity – a lot of the work that’s coming out of that space will inform our progress here. We’re also examining equity in the processes and practices around particular housing programs – whether or not they’re accessible to different communities.

The other one I would point out is our hazard risk reduction. That project – under our emergency management facet – is integrating community engagement around understanding community resilience and hazard mitigation. We’re focused on Richmond city, Charles City County and the city of Emporia to partner with the communities to scale up while understanding the resources and assets that they have in their communities. How do they prioritize the most vulnerable in those communities to ensure that everyone, when it comes time for these natural disasters, has access to the resources that they need to come out whole on the other side?

What has been the impact of RISE projects so far?

In the beginning, we developed the equity strategy for the governor’s office for Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and we also wrote Virginia’s language access report, which helped to identify the need for our state institutions to really ramp up their ability to deliver services, resources and information to citizens of Virginia in multiple languages other than English, resources for people with low literacy and individuals with disabilities. That’s really important because, when we think about language access, we tend to limit it to English as a second language, as opposed to all the inclusion of all other communities impacted by language access. So those are primarily where most of our outcomes have come so far. Many of the studies that we have in the pipeline are longitudinal studies right now, so we’re not going to have significant outcomes in the immediate future. 

We’ve hosted a symposium this year for entrepreneurship in Richmond for Black and Hispanic businesses. We highlighted a number of researchers and a number of entrepreneurs to set the stage for them to have conversations on the needs of entrepreneurs and the researchers’ findings so that we can begin to help push that information out to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Dr. Elsie Harper-Anderson is the leader in this space within the Wilder School in entrepreneurial research, and she’ll be hosting a number of these kinds of convenings as well, as more research develops.

What else is the RISE team working on that you want to highlight?

We are extremely excited about our work on the digitization of the Governor Wilder Library Collection in partnership with Virginia Union University. There are a lot of documents that are in paper form, so we are digitizing, cataloging and putting them into a digital system to make sure that it’s accessible worldwide. We’re creating a library of sorts so that people can search those documents. We think this will be great for research purposes. It’ll also provide tremendous curriculum value for K-12 students, for college-age students and anyone wanting to learn about the history of “what it means to have been the nation’s first Black governor.” We hear a lot about L. Douglas Wilder being the first Black governor of Virginia in a very statewide context. His governorship also was a pivotal moment in our country’s history. Focusing on this digitization project will help to continue to advance the narrative of his legacy beyond Virginia.

The last project is the Lived Experiences of Black Girls report in Richmond. For us, this is really important to embark on because there are many “State of the Girl” and “State of the Black Girl” reports nationally. Most of them – probably all but one – take a deficit approach in that narrative and talk about some of the things that generally plague youth in cities. And what we wanted to do, because we have a very thriving Black girl community here in Richmond, is to tell their story. And we’re telling that story from an asset-based framework to highlight the strengths that come from the girls, the strengths that they identified in the communities, and the supports that are really helping them to succeed.

When you watch the news and see the problems within our own city over the last few years, there’s been a lot of discussion about problems with youth, and the solutions have been male-oriented. We really want to make sure that our young Black girls specifically aren’t left out of these conversations when we’re talking about resources. There’s a story about that model to be told, and we think it’s going to come from right here in Richmond.