This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed Janelle Jones about women of color. I’ve been reading her recent work on racial wealth gaps, and I interviewed her about her career recently. She is an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a think tank that focuses on including the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions. Janelle Jones works for EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), which is a nationally recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color.
EO: A lot of your research revolves around the labor market for minority races. How do you use your platform to help people get an insight on the life of minority workers as not one dimensional?
JJ: Just as important as doing the research is how you communicate that to different audiences. Part of that message is to provide the data to support things racial and ethnic minorities have been saying for decades – there is racial discrimination in every aspect of the labor market that is no way the fault of workers. The other part of that communication strategy is to portray a larger vision of life for workers of color. In spite of structural barriers, racial and ethnic minorities are represented all across the labor market, in every occupation and industry. It is a mistake to talk about workers of color as a monolith. The obstacles to economic success for Latinas in the Southwest are different than the obstacles for black men in the Midwest. And at EPI, we try to make sure our data show the fullness of life for workers of color, and how that will take different policies to ensure economic equity.
EO: Do you witness these hardships in some of the people of color you know? How does that motivate you in your day to day work life?
JJ: A significant portion of my research is informed by the experiences I, and others close to me, have had in the labor market. There was a time when I thought researching topics of which I am personally invested would make me less objective, and thus a less effective researcher. I have come to decide that is completely false. My personal experiences have helped me in two distinct ways. First: It allows for a context and framing that is completely lost if there is only a focus on the numbers. It is nearly impossible, and I think less persuasive, to communicate economic data on racial and ethnic minorities without an accurate narrative of how we ended up in our current circumstances. Second: This is hard work, and to use “slow” as the pace of change is an exaggeration. But the potential impact on the people closest to me is a constant motivation that keeps me passionate and working towards solutions.
EO: How does your role as a black woman in policy research help to shape perspectives in think tanks such as EPI? Why does this representation matter?
JJ: If the voices of black women are not included in producing research and promoting policy solutions, then those products will not result in positive outcomes for us. So often I am the only person in the room that looks like me, and just my presence can change the direction of the conversation and make it more inclusive. There is sometimes useful discussion about women, or about racial and ethnic minorities, but it is that distinct intersection of race and sex that is often left out. The data show that this intersection, with overlapping and intertwined discrimination, is deserving of targeted research and policy.
Let me put it in a more personal way: Until I had a job in a think tank, I had no idea it is something black women do! I would like for no other little black girl to think this is a career she can’t have.
Eunice Owusu is a Council on Contemporary Families intern as well as a senior Sociology Major at Framingham State University. Janelle Jones is an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. Follow her on twitter at @janellecj.