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Alicia Sasser Modestino named Dukakis Center Director of Research

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01/14/20 - BOSTON, MA. -Alicia Sasser Modestino poses for a portrait on Jan. 14, 2020. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

The Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy is pleased to announce the appointment of Prof. Alicia Sasser Modestino as Director of Research for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 academic years. In this new role, Prof. Modestino will take the helm of the Dukakis Center’s “think-and-do” tank research model, helping to maintain existing and establish new city, regional, and national partnerships. Additionally, she will spearhead new research initiatives that address issues and challenges that face urban communities, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

“Alicia’s contributions to housing analysis, youth job training, summer jobs assessments, and employment forecasting have been exceptional for more than a decade, and her appointment to tenure honors her talent and hard work,” said Ted Landsmark, director of the Dukakis Center. “The Dukakis Center is fortunate to have her as Director of Research, and I anticipate that her work will continue to drive important policy choices on employment and training across New England in the crucial years ahead.”

Prof. Modestino is also a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and a faculty affiliate at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at MIT. Previously, she was a Senior Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston where she led numerous research projects on regional economic and policy issues. Her current research focuses on labor and health economics including changing skill requirements, youth development, healthcare, housing.

The Dukakis Center recently checked in with Prof. Modestino to discuss her vision for the role and how her past work and research will inform future directions.

Describe a few short-term and long-term goals for your new role.

First off, I’m really excited to be stepping into the Research Director role for the center at this moment. As we all know, it’s an unprecedented time and there is a lot of good policy work that needs to be done to address the critical needs of Greater Boston and the Commonwealth during this pandemic. In the short-term, my goal is to use the strengths of the Dukakis Center by providing data analysis, multidisciplinary research and evaluation techniques, and a policy-driven perspective to assist local leaders and community-based organizations in addressing the critical challenges facing the region as we continue to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis. As always, we will adopt a social justice lens in working with policymakers and practitioners to integrate thought and action into policy solutions that aim to move us “back to better” rather than “back to normal.”

In the long-term, my goal is to build on the experience, expertise, and convening power of the Dukakis Center to make it a central hub for state and local policy research, both at Northeastern and across the region. We have over a decade of experience working with policymakers and practitioners to produce collaborative data-driven analysis and practice in many key areas including housing, health care, transportation, and workforce development. More importantly, our collaborative research model can be applied to many more policy areas by helping to facilitate researcher-practitioner partnerships between faculty across the university and policymakers across the Commonwealth and beyond. As both a producer and convener of translational data-driven policy research, the Dukakis Center is uniquely poised to bridge the gap between academia and policy and have an even greater impact on our communities.

As always, we will adopt a social justice lens in working with policymakers and practitioners to integrate thought and action into policy solutions that aim to move us “back to better” rather than “back to normal.”

What are some of the most crucial research areas that you foresee right now?

Clearly the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in so many ways by exposing pre-existing vulnerabilities and exacerbating long-standing inequalities—including the need to address combatting the racial injustice that pervades throughout all of our public and private systems. It’s an exciting and also overwhelming time to be teaching in a school of public policy and leading the kinds of applied research that the Dukakis Center is known for.

We are currently working on several COVID-19-related projects as well as other ongoing research that touch on a variety of issues affected by the pandemic. In terms of specific COVID-19 research, the Dukakis Center was awarded funding by both CSSH and the Provost’s office to study the childcare crisis that has been amplified by the pandemic, which has already been used to inform policy at both the national and regional level through a white paper, a policy brief, an op-ed, and numerous media citations. As a mother of four, I cannot talk about the childcare crisis enough these days, and the situation will only get worse in the coming months with so many schools opening on a hybrid or fully remote schedule.

We have also received a rapid response grant from the William T. Grant Foundation to work with the City of Boston to develop alternative programming for the city’s summer youth employment program. In partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, we participated in bi-weekly meetings with key stakeholders to present evidence from our ongoing evaluation about which skills youth acquire over the summer and how they lead to longer-term impacts on a variety of academic, criminal justice, and employment outcomes for youth. We also helped conduct a survey of employers and community based partners to inform the city about how many jobs might be lost under in-person, hybrid, and fully remote scenarios. As a result of our efforts, Mayor Walsh invested an additional $4.1 million in Boston to fund four new tracks including “earn and learn” opportunities where youth take college courses for credit, virtual internships using an established platform and ready-made projects, a peer-to-peer COVID-19 campaign to educate youth about COVID-19 and safe practices, and a new public works program to engage youth in helping to maintain parks and other outdoor recreational spaces. This meant that 8,000 low-income youth would be employed this summer for 20-25 hours per week and paid the state minimum wage for their time—income that our survey shows is used to help pay a household bill among at least half of the program’s participants.

In terms of ongoing research projects, the Dukakis Center has continued its 16-year tradition of partnering with the Boston Foundation to produce the Greater Boston Housing Report Card. This year’s report card on transit oriented development, in partnership with the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and the UMass Donahue Institute, was completed in mid-March just as the pandemic hit. While there is a lot of rich data on our region’s need for TOD, along with recommendations for policy change, we chose to hold onto that report for now and pivot to produce short policy-relevent pieces for TBF on housing stability, housing inequality, and the future outlook for the housing market (forthcoming September). Each piece is featured in a webinar accompanied by a panel of practitioners offering their insights on what needs to be done to support our most vulnerable renters, especially those in black and brown communities that have been hit especially hard by COVID-19 as well as the economic disruption caused by the pandemic.

How do you hope to inspire young researchers?

I really enjoy working with young researchers at any stage of their training—undergrad, master’s, and Ph.D. students—and often find it rewarding to create multi-generational research teams where everyone has a chance to grow. For example, last summer we had a team working on our multi-year evaluation of the Boston summer jobs program that consisted of one Ph.D., one master’s, and four undergraduate students. During that time we were busy colelcting pre- and post-program survey data from the roughly 10,000 program applicants that involved a combination of online and paper surveys. The Ph.D. student helped design the data entry system and the ultimate analysis that was reported back to the City of Boston. She worked closely with the master’s student who oversaw the data entry among the undergraduates and performed systematic data quality checks throughout the summer, trouble shooting questions and problems as they arose. The undergrads not only did the data entry along with the master’s student but also had the opportunity to work with the Ph.D. student on the analysis to learn how to code in stata and generate the tables and figures that each of the City’s intermediaries use to report back to their agencies and funders. It was my first experience engaging a true “research lab” and we had a lot of fun working together.

I’ve also found that students are eager to get hands-on experience and are inspired by translational research that aims to have a policy impact. For example, one of my Ph.D. students worked with me on a project to evaluate the Boston Youth Credit Building Initiative. Rather than follow the traditional research assistantship model, we chose to structure it as an experiential Ph.D. engagement so that the student could work more closely with the staff in the Mayor’s Office of Financial Empowerment, which helped facilitate the random assignment process, inform the data collection and analysis, contextualize the interpretation of the results, and put some of the findings into practice. I think the more that students can have these real-world research experiences, the more they will be inspired to pursue a degree in public policy or a related field.

How has some of your own work and research shaped the role’s vision?

A few years back, I was very fortunate to receive generous funding from the William T. Grant Foundation to conduct a multi-year evaluation of Boston’s summer youth employment program. In the beginning, I was mostly focused on the research design and implementation and getting the results. Little did I know that I was about to embark upon a researcher-practitioner partnership that would transform the way I approach my entire research agenda. This partnership with the Boston Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development grew under the guidance of my program officer and other staff at William T. Grant through their annual convenings, which highlighted examples of academics and government agencies working together and provided the opportunity for meaningful feedback on my own project.

What I learned over time through my work evaluating the Boston summer jobs program was that involving practitioners was vitally important to ensuring that the research findings were interpreted correctly and put to use appropriately to be able to make a impact on policy.  Researcher-practitioner partnerships are long-term, mutually beneficial collaborations that promote the production and use of rigorous and relevant research evidence. The partnership creates a dynamic feedback loop where researchers understand the local context, learn about policymakers’ and practitioners’ needs and questions, and provide insights that facilitate ground breaking research. On the other side, policymakers and practitioners gain access to existing research, contribute to research that is relevant to their context, and receive assistance with their efforts to use research. Yet, too often researchers lack incentives to undertake research to inform policy and practice and policymakers’ and practitioners’ ideas fail to shape research agendas. Researcher-practitioner partnership can help bridge that gap but often the capacity is lacking on both sides. My vision is that the Dukakis Center will help build that capacity at Northeastern University by operating as a hub that brings together researchers on our campus and state/local policymakers in our backyard with the goal of pursuing joint research projects that can serve as a vehicle for building a sustained partnership. We’ve already started doing this work by developing partnerships with other researchers on campus at NU-PEL and BARI and hosting an on-campus training for researchers to inform policy through the Scholars Strategy Network. I see this new endeavor as a natural extension of the center’s mission as a “think and do” tank and one that will live up to the ideals of Governor Michael Dukakis for whom the center is named.    

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