Getting to Know E4A’s New Team Member & Reviewer: Dr. Charles Lea

The Evidence for Action (E4A) team continues to grow. Our new team members are broadening our collective knowledge, expertise, and perspectives. In October, we were fortunate enough to have Dr. Charles Lea join our team as a senior advisor and reviewer. Dr. Lea is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Columbia University. His research focuses on the risk, resilience, and resistance processes of young Black men at risk and involved in the criminal legal system, and the role and impact culturally congruent health prevention and promotion interventions have on their health and well-being.

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Lea to talk about his background, his research interests and approach to research, and how he hopes to see E4A continue to adapt to better contribute to advancing racial equity. I loved getting to know more about Dr. Lea and his work and hope that you do too.

The Interview


Steph: Thanks for speaking with me today. To start us off, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your professional journey? Perhaps sharing some about where you started and how you got to where you are?

Charles: My family is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, but I was born and raised in California. As I grew older I learned my family migrated to California during the Black Migration, which was the movement of Black people from southern states in the U.S. to the Northeast, Midwest, and West to escape racial violence and pursue educational and economic opportunities.

Growing up in a small Black community in California, I saw firsthand people in my community and in my family, particularly Black men, cycling in and out, in and out of the juvenile and criminal legal systems. At that age my mindset was, “why don't they just make better decisions to stay out of the carceral system?” However, It wasn't until I graduated from high school, went to Berkeley for undergrad, and majored in sociology, that I started to learn a lot about the larger structural and social factors that shape people's decision-making processes and experiences.

As I learned more about structural racism and mass incarceration through my studies, I realized my family moved to California right after the War on Drugs was declared. Witnessing, first-hand, the state-sanctioned violence and victimization against Black communities and people was an eye-opening experience for me because I initially blamed the Black men in my family and community for the life situations they found themselves in.

Becoming critically conscious thus shifted my mindset from asking, “why don’t they make better decisions” to “how do we dismantle racialized structures and systems so that folks can be supported and don't have to rely on risk-taking behaviors for personal and economic survival?

Following undergrad, I started a job with a nonprofit mental health agency. I was really interested in addressing issues related to the school-to-prison pipeline and wanted to find ways to support young Black men in school settings. I therefore worked at one of the organization’s day treatment programs that was a partnership between the mental health nonprofit and a middle school. Serving in the role of Classroom Counselor, I worked with special education teachers to provide behavior modification support to students. In this role, I often had to physically restrain students who displayed harmful behaviors to themselves or others, and that was just something I was honestly uncomfortable with. In addition, most of the students in the program were Black and Brown young men, so I was often asked to support them in a one-on-one capacity when the White school social workers were unsuccessful and asked for support.

In my mind, I thought, I'm doing your job, you know? So I wondered, why am I in this role as a classroom counselor? I felt limited, so I decided to pursue my masters in social work at the University of Michigan to become a school social worker. Given my previous work in the day treatment program, I decided to focus my studies on becoming a therapist to do more school-based social work with young men of color. As I worked through my academic studies and practicum placement, I realized that my own issues surrounding my own trauma were starting to emerge, especially as I started to work with young people in community settings. I thought, if I want to work in service of these young people, I really need to do my own work before I can professionally engage in a therapeutic relationship with folks who are in need.

So, after I graduated from Michigan, I moved back to California, and I had a job offer to serve as a multi-systemic therapist, working with young people who were involved with the juvenile legal system. I also had an opportunity to work for a research, evaluation, and technical assistance firm to do program evaluation of different types of national initiatives that were being funded by the federal government. I took the job with the research firm to give myself some time to heal from my own trauma. One of the firm’s biggest funders was the Department of Labor. At that time President Obama was in office and his administration funded a lot of demonstration projects, particularly things around prisoner reentry, employment training, and school violence. This experience allowed me to examine various community and school-driven strategies that sought to improve outcomes for marginalized and minoritized communities and people, as well as provide technical assistance support to organizations in many different parts of the U.S. The Prisoner Reentry Initiative and YouthBuild U.S.A were two big research and evaluation projects I supported, and significantly influenced my interests in research centered on alternative learning environments and school and community reentry. Like my experience in the day treatment program, most of the people in these programs were Black boys and men who had been engaged in the school to prison cycle and facing numerous stressors that challenged their overall health and well-being.

After four years, I decided to leave the research and evaluation firm because I really wanted to enhance my knowledge and skills in research methodology so I could engage more deeply in this area of study and conduct rigorous applied, action-oriented research. That's what led me to get my Ph.D. at UCLA. It also led me to focus on alternative learning environments, particularly alternative schools as part of my dissertation research. I realized that while a lot of knowledge existed about the school to prison cycle, we knew little about the educational contexts that serve young people who are pushed out of traditional schools and funneled into alternative schools.

So, those are early life experiences that led me to really think about structural and cultural determinants of young Black men’s health, race and racial justice, racial equity, and liberation. We know that they're constantly surveilled in those spaces, and their opportunities and outcomes are very limited, given their racialized structure and culture. Additionally, as we as a nation continue to think about mass decarceration, I’m always asking decarceration to what? Because many people are returning to the same socially and economically marginalized and racialized spaces that need to change in order for us to see changes in racial health disparities.

Steph: Thanks so much for sharing about your background and perspective, and really what drives you to do the work. Can you share what interests you about working with E4A? What are some of the things you're most excited about?

Charles: What interested me most about this is that I really love learning and I think that really has led to my interest in E4A and in research in general. Being in an environment with other researchers and having the opportunity to read about interesting research studies that people are doing to tackle some of these injustices and inequities that impact people, especially people that look like me, is really interesting. I’m also honored to be in the position to help make decisions about what is funded because I think that research is a powerful tool for social change. But if it’s done in the same white dominant ways in which our services and programs are being implemented, we're just going to keep seeing the same results. It’s tiring.

We really need to move beyond deficit framing or deficit based research. We really need to think about strengths and assets that communities of color already possess. We really think about that in order to promote a culture of health. I’m therefore really interested in E4A funding diverse types of research led and co-lead by diverse academic and community-based researchers. It also feels great to be a part of E4A given the explicit focus on racial equity. However, for me, racial equity is not the end all, it's a starting place.

Steph: Thanks very much. You’ve hinted at this a little, but could you speak a little bit about where you hope to see E4A go in the future?

Charles: As you know, I'm a qualitative researcher. I think that qualitative research has so much utility in being able to push the agenda forward to really address a lot of these racial inequities, especially because it speaks to a lot of the nuances that quantitative research just can't. Studies using mixed methods also play an important role in influencing racial justice and liberatory policies, programs, and practices given their inclusion of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Also, when I say racial liberation, i’m talking about the creation of relationships and communities, societies, organizations, or collective spaces, that are characterized by equity, fairness, and implementation of key systems that really support people to be able to participate fully in society and recognize and acknowledge the full humanity or humanness in different ways.

At one point I was interested in applying for an E4A grant yet was discouraged as a qualitative researcher, because of the talk around, “we only fund things that have impact.” Some of those terms are often associated with quantitative research. So, where I hope E4A will go in the future is to think of impact beyond quantitatively focused research to include rigorous qualitative studies. Since we know little about how to effectively implement racially equitable policies, programs, and practices, I see qualitative research as a critical tool in these early stages of addressing racial health inequities.

I also hope that E4A will intentionally focus on building relationships with scholars and with communities early to provide needed resources to be able to see, over time, racial health inequities shift towards more positive outcomes and experiences for Black and Brown communities. That's something that I'm really interested in, really challenging people to think about impact and research and methods in different ways, and the types of projects that are being considered for funding.

Steph: So we've touched on this a bit already, but can you expand a little bit on what research that advances racial equity looks like to you? What do you see as some of those markers of success? What are some of the indicators that we’re moving in the right direction?

Charles: Of course. I think mixed methods approaches are really, really crucial because again, the methods complement each other. They speak to different types of questions and they yield different kinds of answers that I think really give us a full picture of racial inequity and equity in certain spaces or contexts. This means intentionally thinking about research designs in a way that can capture aspects of lived experiences holistically and focusing on strengths and assets. I also think that research that is inclusive of community members as active participants, rather than just passive participants. With that, I guess I'm saying more community based participatory action research where we're really thinking about community members as co-researchers from the beginning.

We're not just valuing knowledge that's developed from research studies or acquired literature, but we're also valuing lived experience and the things that people have to say about how they have been navigating and negotiating these different systems or structures and the ways in which they support their own health and well-being. To me, this community-driven process uncovers important markers, because we begin to think about success in terms of health and well-being from the perspective of what people want for themselves. I think as researchers we always include core outcomes that are relevant to existing knowledge, but maybe that's not aligned with what people really see or want for themselves.

Additionally, thinking about action, partnering with communities is also crucial for researchers to ensure the knowledge being developed can create racially equitable policy, program, or practice-related changes. I also believe these partnerships can ensure that as researchers we aren’t perpetuating the harms that some are intentionally trying to address through the research processes.

Steph: Thanks so much for sharing those valuable thoughts and insights. Can you share a little bit about your current research and what you're working on?

Charles: Yes. Broadly, my work is really thinking about structural and cultural determinants of formerly incarcerated young Black men's health and well-being. The qualitative research I'm really interested in is around understanding their risk, resilience, and resistance processes as they navigate racialized spaces as they re-enter society. So, thinking about how they narrate their own experiences in schools and community settings and the different strategies they use for health and well-being given the different challenges they may face with accessing resources. Access to resources is especially important given the collateral consequences that many face following a period of incarceration, especially if they have a drug-related offense. So, I'm really interested in understanding how they navigate racialized space and how their experiences and perspectives can inform the development and implementation of culturally congruent health prevention and promotion interventions?

Another piece, is really thinking about educational and community based diversion and reentry programing, and understanding the core mechanisms of those interventions that promote health and well-being. I'm particularly really interested in school based and community diversion and reentry programs that embed culturally congruent and healing centered strategies. For instance, if we think about substance use or substance use disorders, especially for people who are incarcerated, the way that we often address the traumas that lead to these health behaviors, especially if they've been incarcerated for drug related offenses, is through drug courts. These courts aren't necessarily structured in strength-based ways. They're very punitive. So, my work seeks to uplift strategies that move away from punitive approaches to address structural and systemic harms young Black men experience that often show up in risk-taking behaviors.

My third area is focused on anticarceral social work research and education. When I say anticarceral it’s really thinking about the non-reliance on punitive approaches. Social workers are often embedded in carceral systems, such as jails and prisons, and some use punitive approaches when working with people in need given social work curriculum and pedagogy. Therefore, I’m interested in building knowledge that provides different ways of doing social work research and teaching that is rooted in anticarceral approaches.

Steph: Thanks so much. Can you share a little bit about how you approach research? How do you get from identifying the issues to developing the research questions to designing the study and conducting the research?

Charles: I always say that it's difficult for me to do research if I'm not partnering with people in the community. I have my own ideas and thoughts about these things based on my own knowledge, skills, and lived experiences, but I also understand and value the knowledge that community people have about these same issues. As opposed to coming in and saying, “here's what I know and here's what I think is best,” it's really more of a knowledge sharing process saying, “well, here are the things that we're seeing here and the things that we're learning about how to address them,” either from a research standpoint or from a practice or lived experience standpoint.

And then thinking about, where's the best place to partner? One example of that is when I moved to Houston, I reached out to a team at the Houston Health Department that had a reentry program. I didn't have any research ideas or anything like that. I had some thoughts about things that I wanted to do given some of the previous work I did. But my initial intent was just to meet with the program director, introduce myself and learn a little bit more about what they're doing. We engaged in a few meetings and through that process, we learned that while we had all of these people who were being released from the carceral system because of COVID and were offered free testing and vaccines, 90% of them didn't take the test and weren’t getting vaccinated.

Even if a potential employer required them to get a vaccination, some would bypass the job opportunity. And so I thought, well, let's do some research to understand why they aren’t getting vaccinated and if they have thoughts about what could work best. So that’s one example of how I think about identifying issues and developing research questions or designing studies. As a scholar and as an academic, there are things I want to contribute, but I really want my work to be actionable. In order to do that, I really want it to be rooted in and co-developed with people in the community, whether they can serve as full co-researchers or if we're just core partners in the research process.

Steph: This has been awesome. Thank you so much, Charles.

Charles: Thank you, Steph. I appreciated this opportunity to share a little about my work and hopes for E4A.

Speaking with Dr. Lea was an absolute pleasure. I really look forward to working with him in the future.

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About the author(s)

Steph Chernitskiy is the communications manager for Evidence for Action (E4A). She's a frequent contributor to the E4A Blog.

Charles Lea is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Columbia University. His research focuses on the risk, resilience, and resistance processes of young Black men at risk and involved in the criminal legal system, and the role and impact culturally congruent health prevention and promotion interventions have on their health and well-being. Dr. Lea is also an Associate Director and grant reviewer for the Evidence for Action program.

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