George Washington University’s Institute for Racial, Ethnic and Socioeconomic Equity (Equity Institute) has named Wendy Ellis as its inaugural director. Ellis is an assistant professor of global health, and she directs the Center for Community Resilience (CCR) at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“Dr. Ellis is an outstanding choice to lead the Equity Institute because she is well known nationally and globally as a serious scholar who is gifted and dedicated to translating research into actionable systems change, and she is already an accomplished fundraiser—what a winning combination,” said Dayna Bowen Matthew, GW Law dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law and the Equity Institute’s founding director.
“Dr. Ellis is an exemplar of the Equity Institute’s commitment to fomenting actionable change. She has introduced impactful changes influencing local municipalities, leaders in our nation’s White House and a range of policymakers in between to adopt meaningful measures to reduce inequity. We are thrilled that she brings that expertise and credibility to guide GW in becoming a leader in the academic community with significant impact on addressing the problems we study.”
GW Provost Christopher Alan Bracey said that Ellis’s “mission-oriented, preeminent scholarship elevates the George Washington University’s global profile.”
“She has already contributed significantly to the Equity Institute in her faculty capacity, and we are now very fortunate to benefit from her leadership and experience in the context of the director role,” Bracey said. “I look forward to working alongside her as she leads the institute in this next phase.”
Ellis said she is “beyond thrilled for this opportunity and thankful for the visionary leadership of both Dean Matthew and Provost Bracey.”
“I’m so excited to work with colleagues from all disciplines here at GW and especially with our students, who are so eager to bite into this apple and apply what they learn in the classroom to develop solutions to global issues of inequity,” she said.
Ellis’s scholarly focus is on addressing the systemic inequities that promote and prolong social and health disparities between dominant and marginalized communities. Her past work includes a 2022 documentary, “America’s Truth: Cincinnati,” which contributed to a municipal apology from the city itself for the 1956 destruction of the Black, middle-class West End neighborhood.
“I am thrilled that Wendy Ellis will be leading the Equity Institute,” said Lynn R. Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute SPH. “As director of the Center for Community Resilience, Dr. Ellis has forged deep relationships with vulnerable communities nationwide. Her leadership will position the Equity Institute as a trusted voice in the fight to address systemic racism and the need to close equity gaps.”
Professor and Department of Global Health Chair James M. Tielsch said, “Working both domestically and internationally, her efforts have drawn support from a wide variety of public and private sector partners.”
As Equity Institute director, Ellis will identify strategies to carry out the institute’s mission of creating actionable new knowledge and educating citizen leaders who are dedicated to the eradication of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic inequality in the United States and worldwide. She will be responsible for helping to identify the interdisciplinary research and community engagement that will comprise the Equity Institute’s core projects. She also will shape the institute’s future direction and scope by attracting external funds, leading the design of Equity Institute courses and other potential academic offerings, assembling a board of directors and organizing future convenings.
“The mission and vision of the Equity Institute is perfectly aligned with the body of research I’ve built at the Center for Community Resilience (CCR) here at GW,” Ellis said. “The directorship of EI will allow me to continue to work with CCR partners across the globe—a body of work that demonstrates the translational power of research coupled with equitable community engagement to change policies and systems.”
Her purview includes development of the 13 projects already funded by the Equity Institute as well as potential new academic collaborations and community partnerships. On the whole, Ellis said, she sees immense potential in aggregating, connecting and uplifting work already underway at GW and with the University’s community partners.
“There is a lot of community-engaged research and advocacy work focused on closing equity gaps underway across the university but it’s disconnected,” Ellis said. “Being an aggregator allows us to harness this energy and use it to accelerate the application of our science-based and community-informed research to those who will most benefit from this work including policymakers. The opportunity to inspire and train the next generation of scholars and change agents who will endeavor to close equity gaps across the globe embodies the ‘Only at GW’ motto. Let’s activate the power that we are sitting upon here at the university and our great alumni network, and let’s tap it in a very strategic and intentional manner to close gaps in health, wealth and wellbeing.”
Ellis said the Equity Institute will use an interdisciplinary approach in its focus to develop systemic solutions to racial, ethnic and socioeconomic opportunity gaps. In her own work evaluating complex systems in public health, Ellis has drawn on expertise from the School of Engineering and Applied Science to gain a deeper understanding of technical concepts like dynamic systems modeling and group model building.
While the long-term academic goal is to create a minor in equity studies, in the interim the Equity Institute can help students connect with opportunities for translational research, Ellis said, by spotlighting research projects that combine a deep, community-informed understanding of the equity gaps at stake with advanced analytical methods that inform the path forward. Ultimately, this approach points to solutions that are co-created by affected communities. These same communities are more likely to advocate for solutions that they have created and therefore more likely to be active in creating the momentum and political will for systems change, she said.
In a moment characterized by pushback against the words “diversity, equity and inclusion,” Ellis said part of the Equity Institute’s work is to elevate scholarship above verbal hairsplitting around closing concrete socioeconomic, social and health gaps.
“There are people who would use language as a weapon to limit what we talk about, and I challenge us to push back against those type of knee-jerk reactions,” she said. “The Equity Institute can be an important platform to practice critical discourse and apply critical analysis and critical thinking. We have to be willing, particularly as an institution of higher learning, to hold space for difficult conversations about the reality of both our country’s history and our present day. Silence is not a solution for change.”