Service and Advocacy Organization Leaders Share Insights for an Applied Research Agenda on Black Children and Families

Research BriefBlack Children & FamiliesJun 9 2022

To inform our ongoing work developing Child Trends’ new applied research agenda on Black children and families, we interviewed or surveyed leaders at 15 direct service and advocacy organizations that operate in the areas of youth development, education, health and wellness, racial equity, law and justice, and community safety; and whose work includes a focus on Black children and families.[*] We asked these leaders about the status of the Black children and families with whom they work; which factors either inhibit or facilitate their organizations’ efforts; their perceptions of critical issues facing the Black children and families they serve, either locally or nationally; and the ways in which research can advance their efforts on behalf of Black children and families. In this brief, we describe the participating leaders’ responses and discuss their implications for Child Trends’ new research agenda.

In summary, our respondents reported that:

  • Their organizations’ values and dedicated staff help address inadequate funding and other challenges.
  • Many of the Black children and families with whom (and for whom) they work face significant hardships resulting from systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Public and school safety are critical issues of concern facing Black children and families.
  • Research can advance their organizations’ efforts if it is intersectional, meaning that it reflects ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, and other dimensions of social diversity among Black children and families; strengths-based; and culturally relevant, centering Black children’s and families’ voices and experiences.
  • Studies are needed to inform and evaluate programs and policies that promote Black child and family well-being.

While not representative of the views of all organizations that seek to advance the well-being of Black children and families, these responses provide valuable insights into the ways in which Child Trends’ applied research agenda can contribute to such efforts.

Local and National Leaders Report Funding Challenges but Continue to Forge Change.

Respondents identified challenges that their organizations face in achieving their missions. These challenges included a lack of sufficient funding—attributed in part to the nation’s historically short attention span to issues of racial equity and its funding preferences that disadvantage community-based organizations.

For some leaders, the lack of funding has affected their capacity to meet children and families’ increased needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. For others, inadequate funding has limited the scale, pace, and impact of their work. These sentiments are expressed in the survey and interview excerpts below:

Our biggest challenge is insufficient funding to reach all eligible communities and the failure of feds to reinvest in community-based, community-driven programs rather than continue increased funding to brick and mortar public health approaches.

The reason that this work is taking as long as it is to achieve is because it’s been truly underfunded. We’ve never truly funded this work at the scale that it needs to be to get to the point that we’re all trying to get to. And I think we must be really clear we’re talking about Black folks and most of the country just are not in a place where they truly want to invest. Folks don’t outright say it, but they don’t do it.

Respondents have nevertheless been able to effect positive change.

Despite these challenges, most of the participating organizations (14 of 15) have successfully engaged in service and advocacy for 10 or more years, working with or on behalf of Black children and families to improve their well-being and promote racial equity. Respondents attributed this success to their organizations’ values, dedicated staff, and long-term funders. Survey responses to the question “What factors facilitate your organization’s work?” included the following:

  • Our philosophy and strengths-based approach to understanding and embracing developmental touchpoints
  • Compassion, concern, and intentionality
  • Great partnerships and passionate staff

Participating Organizations

Black Youth Leadership Project—Creates and implements educational programs to promote youth development, leadership, and civic engagement

Brazelton Touchpoints Center—Develops and applies knowledge of early childhood development to practice and policy through professional and organizational development, research, evaluation, advocacy, and awareness

Children’s Defense Fund—Envisions a nation where marginalized children flourish, leaders prioritize their well-being, and communities wield the power to ensure they thrive

CHOICE Program—Provides engaging programming, connection to resources, and holistic case management to promote positive outcomes for youth in Maryland

Cities United—Works with mayors—and with community and young leaders—to reimagine and redefine public safety, with a mission to reduce homicides and shootings of young Black men and boys ages 14-24 by half by 2025

Communities for Just Schools Fund—Connects philanthropic efforts at a national level and local grassroots efforts to promote public education and school safety

Crittenton Services of Greater Washington—Empowers teen girls to overcome obstacles, make positive choices, and achieve their goals through programs in schools throughout the Greater Washington, DC area

Dignity in Schools Campaign—Challenges the systemic problem of pushout (factors or practices that lead students to prematurely leave school) in our nation’s schools and works to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline

The Education Trust—Works to close educational opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families

National Black Child Development Institute—Engages leaders, policymakers, professionals, and parents around critical and timely issues that directly impact Black children and their families

National Black Women’s Justice Institute—Conducts research and disseminates information on innovative, community-led solutions to address the criminalization of Black women and girls

National Center for Youth Law—Uses impact litigation, policy advocacy, collaboration, and research to transform our nation’s approach to education, health, immigration, foster care, and youth justice

National Healthy Start Organization—Provides advocacy, training, and technical assistance to make a positive difference in the health, happiness, and lives of babies, moms, dads, and families

National Urban League—Collaborates at the national, state, and local levels with community leaders, policymakers, and corporate partners to elevate the standards of living for African Americans and other historically underserved groups

Racial Justice NOW!—Works to dismantle structural and institutional anti-Black racism in all areas of people’s lives activity with a primary focus on the institution of education

Organizational Leaders are Concerned About the Cumulative Impacts of Systemic Racism and the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Survey respondents were asked to rate the overall condition of the populations with whom they work, on a scale from 1 (extremely bad) to 10 (excellent): The average rating for those who responded was 4.

While respondents acknowledged diverse circumstances among the Black people with and for whom they work, they also described consistent challenges presented by systemic racism and the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (see Figure). Respondents’ explanations for their ratings included the following:

  • The society they [Black children and families] live in has been set up to make life difficult for them (Scale rating: 3)
  • Many inequities still persist, but also much excellence! (Scale rating: 3)
  • Youth and families are doing slightly better than surviving (Scale rating: 6)
  • Our population is a mixed bag across the country and within every program … There are overlapping issues of low income/poverty, high rates of health disparities and the usual contributing social determinants but a small few participants join our program for assistance … and over the 2-3 year enrollment period, move the needle or trajectory in their lives. (Scale rating: 6)

One respondent reflected on the multiple challenges currently facing many Black children and families:

Covid, racial injustice, and ongoing and ever-changing mental health challenges—children, families, staff, and communities are hanging on by a thread at times—trying to find joy, wanting to make a difference, wanting to be present and authentic, trying to balance and integrate it all in an unknown space—we haven’t been in all these spaces at the same time.

The Organizational Leaders We Interviewed Support a Reimagining of Safe, Healthy, and Hopeful Communities and Schools.

We asked respondents about critical issues facing the Black children and families with and for whom they work; most highlighted racial inequities in housing, employment, education, health care, and freedom from violence—all elements of an expanded definition of public safety.

Respondents described these elements as intersecting systems that converge to disadvantage Black people and diminish their power and agency. They also discussed the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on key elements of public safety and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the children and families they serve. Respondents noted the following overlapping barriers to public safety for many Black children and families:

  • Inequities in education, health, employment opportunities, and increased violence in the communities in which they [children and families served] live
  • Lack of voice, hope, and employment opportunities with benefits, and the need for continuing education, safer communities, and housing
  • The population that we serve is severely impacted by the pandemic. Due to the inequitable recovery rate for the population, they are falling further behind in school, employment opportunities, [and] access to mental health, and [are] more subject to violence in their communities.

One respondent underscored the need to address public safety within the broader context of economic, social, and educational opportunities and justice:

When we talk about public safety in most places, you’re thinking about jails, law enforcement, detention centers. We want to change that. We want folks to think about affordable housing, quality education, mental and physical health, access to public transit that will help you move through the city, and jobs that pay a wage where you can take care of yourself and your family … We must change the conversation about what it means to have safe, healthy, and hopeful communities.

More About Black Children, Families, and Public Safety

Systemic inequities were exacerbated in Black communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to increased mortality and job loss, mental health issues, housing instability, and  firearms-related violence.

Black children and youth have less access to protective resources in their communities and are overrepresented in the child welfare system.

Traditional approaches to public safety that prioritize police involvement are harmful to the well-being of Black children and youth.

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of several programs designed to address the issues faced by children exposed to violence, as well as policies, practices, and strategies related to violence prevention.

Respondents also identified unsafe schools as a critical issue facing the Black children and families they serve.

In describing the lack of school safety, respondents emphasized the punitive, exclusionary discipline practices experienced by many Black students across age, gender, disability status, and socioeconomic background. Additionally, respondents described unsafe schools as lacking the educational resources and security that all Black students need to thrive in the 21st century. Dimensions of unsafe schools for Black students were described as follows:

  • The school to confinement pipeline begins when our children are babies. More than just discipline: there is a dehumanization of Black children and families … Many people believe that the disproportionality [in discipline] is a Black poor people problem, but it isn’t. Black middle-class families are experiencing the same thing.
  • There is a lack of resources dedicated specifically to the education of children experiencing foster care.
  • Outside of having a lack of political or economic power, our children are not being educated to succeed in today’s world.

One respondent highlighted their organization’s efforts to create safe schools that not only address racial inequities in discipline and resources but also advance “intellectual safety” for Black students:

Our primary objective is to dismantle anti-Blackness as it exists in education systems … As part of that, we want to lean into intellectual safety as the next frontier in this movement. We are working together to define culturally responsive sustaining education and what it should be to support and foster quality, intellectual safety, love, and belonging in public education.

More about Black Children, Families, and School Safety

Black middle and high school students are more likely to attend schools with a police presence and less likely to attend schools with restorative discipline practices.

Black children experience disproportionately punitive discipline early, making up 47 percent of preschool children receiving out of school suspensions.

Black students with disabilities spend disproportionately more time in restrictive learning environments than White students with disabilities.

Black students experience disproportionately higher rates of bullying based on race, which is associated with risky health behaviors.*

* Also, see: Hong, J.S., Kim, D.H., Hunter, S.C. et al. Racial/Ethnic Bullying Subtypes and Alcohol, Tobacco, and Marijuana Use Among US Adolescents. J. Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (2021).

Local and National Leaders Emphasize the Need for Research that Deepens Our Understanding of Black Children and Families and Informs Meaningful Change.

We asked respondents about research priorities that would advance their organizations’ efforts on behalf of Black children and families; they highlighted the importance of research that is intersectional, strengths-based, and culturally relevant.

Respondents described intersectional research as necessary to “unpack and define the multiple dimensions of what it means to be a Black family in the United States.” Respondents further explained:

The thing has always been to couple Black students with other student groups so that their issues are never focused on or alleviated. I would like to see the Black community disaggregated in research. Black people are not a monolith, and the issues Black Americans face are different than those in Black immigrant populations.

Black girls are forgotten in our society although they carried the burden of caregiving during the pandemic. We need research to show the societal impact of supporting Black girls (children) and their families.

We need research that promotes understanding of the complexity of vulnerable populations in Black communities and the systems and institutions that obstruct their progress.

Participants also described the need for research that is “strengths-based and culturally relevant.” Strengths-based research on Black children and families is grounded in a respect for their humanity and for the cultural assets that have allowed Black families to persevere despite systemic discrimination. It also examines how organizations and institutions can build on these assets to promote Black children’s and families’ well-being. Culturally relevant research centers participants in the research process, amplifying their voices and experiences. One respondent emphasized the significance of community voices: “People with lived experience have a knowledge that we should be paying attention to—not just people with MPH, PhD, JD, or whatever behind their names.” Another respondent stated the need for “more research hearing directly from Black families!” Yet another underscored the importance of approaches that “ask young people and ask families” and encouraged the development of “a critical agenda using QuantCrit”—a field of quantitative research grounded in critical theory.

We also asked respondents about research priorities that could advance their work; they expressed the need for studies that can inform program and policy implementation using the “right data.”

Respondents described the need for evaluation studies to serve as guideposts, advocacy tools, and yardsticks in their efforts to promote the well-being of Black children and families:

  • We need research that uncovers issues, concerns, and trends that should be prioritized to achieve the well-being of vulnerable populations.
  • What we’re trying to do is to evaluate our work and say what’s happening on the ground. It’s helpful for folks to know that it’s not just a bunch of people who are out here doing work and just saying it works—we need to have the data that proves it and shows it.
  • Research is an advocacy tool. We can marry the experience of our families with the broader data to move public officials.
  • We get the legislative win and then we’ll move on to the next thing. But no, we have to examine the impact of this win to make certain that the legislation isn’t implemented in a way that is harmful.

Respondents also emphasized the importance of using the “right data,” or data that permit in-depth analysis of Black children and families and cross-sector examination of intervention effects. These sentiments are reflected in the following interview excerpts:

The question is are we using the right data to talk about the stuff we’re talking about? I feel like we’re using these old datasets that you know sometimes you can disaggregate and sometimes you can’t. It’s not telling a story that is accurate or helpful in some ways.

We’re asking folks to look at educational data. We’re asking folks to look at employment data. We’re asking folks to look at child welfare data. Because all of this plays a role in what’s going to happen in the long term. But a lot of cities are not sophisticated enough to carry this out. So, ongoing analysis of all the relevant data is going to be important for us at a local level and state level.


Child Trends’ outreach to the leaders of organizations that drive change with and on behalf of Black children and families is part of our ongoing effort to develop an applied research agenda that deepens the field’s understanding of the diversity of Black children and families, contextualizes their experiences within systems and institutions, and produces evidence to inform policies and practices that promote their well-being. We are indebted to the leaders who shared insights on their work, on critical issues facing Black children and families, and on the features of research that can advance their organizations’ goals and missions. Their perspectives will inform the research priorities and methods we pursue, and their continued collaboration will be central to our future efforts and success.


[*] Conversational interviews with leaders at six organizations were conducted virtually using Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and 11 leaders at nine organizations completed brief surveys that were sent electronically using Google Forms. Transcripts and notes from the qualitative interviews and survey responses were analyzed inductively to identify key themes for the major questions posed. Member checking was conducted prior to publication to ensure authenticity of the reported findings.