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FPG Profile: Sherra Lawrence

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FPG Profile: Sherra Lawrence

March 14, 2024

Sherra Lawrence, MA, is an implementation specialist at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG). She leads projects and initiatives to improve the access and quality of programs, policies, and practices for children and families.

As part of our FPG profile series, we recently spoke with Lawrence to learn more about her work at FPG. Here’s what she had to say.

Tell us about your professional journey.

I have a broad educational background; I studied psychology, child development and urban environmental policy and planning. The through line is how place, space, programs, practices, and policies impact children and families. I started off in the nonprofit sector working at various organizations that focus on education, social work, and public health, helping to develop, deliver, and evaluate programming and focused on how to improve the access and quality of programs for children and families. This allowed me to build transferable skills around research, evaluation, improvement science, and implementation science.

Why did you join FPG?
I first came to North Carolina to do my undergraduate work at North Carolina A&T, one of the many North Carolina historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). At the height of the pandemic, my family had an opportunity to move closer to our extended family in North Carolina. As I was looking for jobs, I came across FPG and really liked its interdisciplinary approach to the work. I appreciated that I would have colleagues with varied experiences who use research, evaluation, technical assistance, and implementation science to solve problems that affect children and families.

What does a typical workday look like?

I work on three different projects in addition to the diversity and inclusion committee work that I do so every workday can look different. What all my projects have in common is that we're working with state and local agencies to help them improve on the implementation of their work. Some days, I will conduct a site visit where I go to the agency and have a working meeting during which we think about ways that they can incorporate implementation science best practices into the work that they are doing. Other days, I am attending a governance committee meeting or a meeting with state leaders to help them to think strategically about how to support the work that's happening at the local levels.

I spend a lot of time working with my teammates to problem solve and think critically about how to bring implementation science best practices to the external partners that we work with in an accessible way.

What are your current projects?

I have three main projects:

  • Virginia's Evidence-Based Practice Initiative - We are working with Virginia Commonwealth University to support several multidisciplinary state agencies in designing the implementation of a behavioral health initiative across the state.
  • Child Find ACCESS - The Child Find system is North Carolina’s way of identifying children with disabilities who might need resources. We are working with three North Carolina counties to make improvements to their Child Find system and build equity into how the system is being implemented for families with children from birth to age 3.
  • NC Data Governance (NC DaGov) Project – This project, with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Child Development and Early Education, is designed to build out how the division uses, shares, and retains data. We are creating a policy document for them so that they can institute this policy across the division.

Tell us about your work as chair of the diversity and inclusion committee at FPG.

I see the diversity and inclusion committee as the support system for all the diversity inclusion initiatives going on at FPG. That includes the McKinney Scholars Program, a pipeline program for North Carolina HBCU students to do summer research at FPG and learn more about doing research in the child development field. As an HBCU alum, I had the opportunity to take advantage of research experiences like this, which shaped me, opened doors for me, and set me along my career path. I believe as an HBCU student, you have a different foundation and learn a different world view than those who attend a PWI (predominantly white institution). Going through those experiences and having experiences at PWIs, I realized I bring a unique perspective to the work. There is just as much that colleagues can learn from those of us who attended HBCUs as we can learn from those who attended and/or are working at PWIs.

Our committee also collaborates with leaders at North Carolina HBCUs to support them, build connections and share our resources on shared projects and initiatives. At FPG, we also have internal affinity groups related to different races, identities, and cultures as a way for our staff to support one another, talk about issues relevant to their identities and groups, learn from one another, and share resources. As committee chair, my role is to champion diversity and inclusion at the Institute, make connections across the Institute, and lift up the great inclusion work happening.

"Being at FPG gives me the opportunity to flex all my muscles, reflecting all the years of academic and professional work that I have done," says Lawrence. "I've been able to tap into those strengths, skills, and experiences to contribute to different projects. I appreciate that at FPG, there is so much opportunity and so many great people to learn from and continue to collaborate with."

What do you like about the work that you do?

I work with smart and passionate people to address complex issues. I like doing work that benefits children and families and enjoy thinking critically about how to change existing systems. I appreciate that my work can make a difference in the world.

What is most challenging about your work?

There are historical systemic challenges that make it difficult to create change. Disrupting and transforming systems takes years and years and years. It sometimes feels like I am planting seeds and may not see the results. But I do the work because I hope that it can make a difference for people who look like me years down the line.

If you look forward five or 10 years, what do you hope to have accomplished?

I hope that I'm continuing to do great work that benefits children and families. I hope that we're still having conversations about how systems can be improved and that things will get better for children and families who are marginalized. I also hope that people continue to look to research and evidence to inform how systems are implemented.

Why FPG?

I get to do a lot of great work that's about transforming systems, opportunities, and access for children and their families. I hope that my work challenges the status quo. I also want the diversity and inclusion work I do to push the HBCU students I work with to be the next generation of transformational leaders.

Being at FPG gives me the opportunity to flex all my muscles, reflecting all the years of academic and professional work that I have done. I've been able to tap into those strengths, skills, and experiences to contribute to different projects. I appreciate that at FPG, there is so much opportunity and so many great people to learn from and continue to collaborate with.