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De Marco selected for RWJF IRL Program

headshot photo of allison demarco; demarco is smiling at camera wearing a white cowl in front of a purple shrub

De Marco selected for RWJF IRL Program

December 1, 2021

Allison De Marco, MSW, PhD, has been selected by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) for its prestigious Interdisciplinary Research Leaders (IRL) program, alongside two colleagues, Danielle Spurlock, PhD, UNC Department of City and Regional Planning, and Donna Carrington, executive director of Community Empowerment Fund (CEF). Thanks to the RWJF support, De Marco, an advanced research scientist at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and adjunct faculty at the UNC School of Social Work, and her collaborators will spend the next three years on their research project, “Overcoming Structural Racism in Housing Stability and Wealth-building: Laying the Foundation for Community Health and Well Being.”

The researchers will investigate the short-term and longer-term effects of housing stability on financial, social, physical, and psychological well-being. The goal is that the research findings will advance racial and economic justice, not just in Orange and Durham Counties, but throughout the United States. The research team is committed to helping the community better understand structural racism in housing and homelessness, how those systems are oppressive, and what can be done to change them.

In addition, De Marco is passionate about racially equitable research practices so she is looking forward to partnering with CEF—largely comprised of people with lived experiences of being unhoused—to create a model that centers these community members. The team plans to facilitate virtual community give-back sessions to share results with participants from listening sessions and other data gathering efforts. In addition, to disseminate findings to a wide variety of community partners, the team will offer: policy briefs incorporating infographics; webinars that are multi-lingual, as needed; and jargon-free blog posts for the CEF, UNC centers, and RWJF websites.

De Marco is particularly enthused about the project being community driven. “One of the highlights of this Robert Wood Johnson initiative is that it seeks to create partnerships between community members, who are often the focus of research, and researchers, who often do not get results back to the communities with which they work,” says De Marco. Her long-term partnership with Community Empowerment Fund resulted in the nonprofit approaching her about the collaboration.

“I'm excited that there's a funder like RWJF that cares about community engagement and is centering community members in this work,” says De Marco. “When we had our initial meeting with all 12 teams, the community partner had to do the introductions. When we had our interview during the application process, the community partner had to state the research question, which are great signals of what the foundation expects from our team.”

Throughout the IRL program, which began on November 1, 2021, De Marco and her colleagues will receive leadership training, mentoring, opportunities to develop and grow networks, consultations for research methods, and fellowship and research funds. This is the sixth year of the IRL program, which chooses an annual cohort of 12 teams—each doing engaged work around structural racism—from more than 100 team applications. Weekly webinars with the 12 teams from each year’s cohort are supplemented by two annual convenings of the 36 teams participating at any one time, allowing a broader way of learning and working with scholars and community leaders from across the country.

IRL aims to produce diverse interdisciplinary leaders who conduct and apply high-quality, community-engaged, action-oriented research in order to drive improvements and promote equity in the health of their communities. The IRL fellowship emphasizes a shared leadership approach to research and seeks to enhance existing networks in both the academic and community settings. Central to the IRL goal is a commitment to deep community collaboration in order to build relevant, credible evidence that drives equitable change to improve health.

RWJF offers annual support of $25,000 per team member and a one-time research grant of up to $125,000. Team members hone high-level leadership skills through networking, an advanced curriculum, and mentorship from national experts in research, community action, health equity, public policy, and advocacy.

De Marco says that not only is she looking forward to learning from scholars across the country, she is pleased that RWJ recognizes that researchers need planning time. The first six months of the program are dedicated to allowing each team to think deeply about its projects and receive expert consultation through IRL around data collection and statistical analysis before submitting its final research proposal.

“My colleague, who was in cohort three, said IRL is the best experience she's ever had in her career,” says De Marco. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to participate and to deepen my understanding of structural racism in the housing and homelessness systems.”