For Dayna Bowen Matthew, Dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at GW Law, there is one concept at the root of nearly all the world’s most pressing issues: inequality. It’s the one issue, she said, that defines her academic mission.
”The responsibility of higher education is to create knowledge and equip students who will attack the problem of inequality in the world, even if we alone are not going to solve it,” she said. “We have to contribute to the solution.”
Addressing global disparities between people and populations feels like an overwhelmingly broad goal. But Matthew believes that achieving equity is a quest that has to start somewhere—or maybe everywhere, with many partners examining and addressing inequity’s small-scale manifestations in every walk of life and every area of study. That’s why, in 2021, Matthew and her team launched the Equity Institute Initiative (EII), soliciting faculty across George Washington University to share their research on social justice issues. So far, the initiative has provided seed funding to 10 projects on racial and socioeconomic justice from GW researchers and their community partners.
And grant recipients say the focused effort already is making a difference.
“The EII has already been transformational,” said GW Law Associate Professor Donald Braman, director of science and policy at the Justice Innovation Lab (JIL), which helps prosecutors nationwide use evidence-based practices to increase public safety while reducing unjust and untenable racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
With EII funding, Braman said, JIL was able to assemble a team of more than a dozen researchers whose work reviewing criminal codes and constructing a database of best practices has provided a foundation for prosecutorial reforms nationwide.
“Concretely there are already hundreds of people not incarcerated as a result of the work EII has supported, and we expect that number to grow rapidly as we onboard new jurisdictions,” Braman said. “This kind of work is incredibly energizing for students and faculty, and it shows how GW can take a leadership position in criminal justice reform and do the kind of work that no one else is doing.”
Thursday and Friday, Sept. 22 and 23, EII will host its first research showcase, “Collaborate To Create Change: Towards Racial and Socioeconomic Equity in our Scholarship, Research and Teaching.” More than 40 abstracts from GW researchers have been submitted.
Although the event will be an important opportunity for EII participants and equity researchers at GW to demonstrate their achievements, Matthew said, it’s also more than that. She hopes the showcase will also be an opportunity for researchers to connect with and be inspired by one another, and by the work they may not even know is being done in their own institution.
“Our students and faculty come to GW in order to engage in rigorous, cross-disciplinary work that tackles the complex problems of today,” said Provost Christopher Alan Bracey. “The work of the Equity Institute Initiative will continue to distinguish our scholars as thought leaders and put GW on the map as a central hub for innovative, transformational scholarship.”
For teachers and researchers with a strong sense of social justice, Matthew said, knowing they have colleagues who share their priorities is essential to creating a sense of strong, productive community. Researchers doing equity work in different fields can be energized by that connection, which also gives rise to opportunities for knowledge-sharing, risk-taking, experimentation and expansion.
“As a researcher in health care, for instance, I’m energized by the fact that I see colleagues across the campus—in sociology, in engineering, in law, in education—who are doing work that’s very different but that serves the same goals,” Matthew said. “Solidifying that community creates connections and partnerships that may result in the kind of teaching that will change the way our students do their research.”
Ivy Ken, an associate professor of sociology in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said the collaborative research coming through EII “is vital right now, as the country grapples with all the ways racial inequality is baked into our institutions and patterns of action.” Ken’s project, “Race, Immigration and Confinement in Rural Meatpacking: Decentering Whiteness and Mapping Injustices” tracks the ways structural inequalities in the meatpacking industry are produced and maintained—rendering an entire workforce essentially disposable.
“My research team has been able to use funds from the initiative to strengthen relationships with community partners in North Carolina and Minnesota, which are major rural meatpacking states,” Ken said. “Our community partners help workers who have immigrated from Mexico, Somalia, Laos and dozens of other countries understand what their rights are at work. We are assisting with those efforts and learning from workers themselves how the structural realities of racism, sexism and anti-immigrant sentiment shape their lives in the communities where they live and work.”
Matthew previously served as co-founder and inaugural director of The Equity Center at the University of Virginia School of Law. Since her arrival at GW in 2020, she said, she’s seen an institution with the resources and relationships—and, crucially, the location—to expand the model even further.
“One of the most exciting things about being the largest university and the oldest law school in D.C. is the impact that we can have on real life, because we sit in one of the most important policymaking cities in the world,” Matthew said.
And for many researchers, EII also provides an opportunity to reconnect with a city and community that is more than the sum of its legislative parts. Former D.C. Public Schools teacher Saniya LeBlanc, now an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, received EII funding for an upcoming project, Accessing Community Healthcare with Innovations in Electric Vehicles for Equity (ACHIEVE).
“This project allows partnerships between GW researchers (in engineering, social science and law), health care providers and, most importantly, community members to explore the ways new energy, transportation and health care technologies and processes can improve health outcomes,” LeBlanc said. “We are excited the EII is supporting community-based participatory work aimed at having impact, and I feel like I am returning home as this research project takes me out of my office and back into D.C.'s vibrant communities.”