Over the summer our team was fortunate enough to have Dr. Terrell Winder join us as a new team member and reviewer. Working with the rest of the E4A national program office and the Foundation, Dr. Winder reviews letters of intent and full proposals to make funding decisions. His expertise in racial equity and qualitative work makes him a valuable addition to the team and helps broaden the collective expertise of the group and increase the diversity of perspectives.
I recently got to sit down with Dr. Winder and ask him some questions to learn more about him, his work, and his motivations, as well as what excites him most working with E4A and where he hopes to see us go in the future. It was a joy speaking with him and hope that comes out below.
Steph: Can you just start by telling me a little bit about yourself, where you started and how you got to where you are today?
Terrell: I'm originally from Baltimore, Maryland. I did my undergraduate work in New York City at Columbia University and then I went straight to graduate school at UCLA for sociology. I was a McNair Scholar at Columbia and they really got me into pursuing a Ph.D. and I took some sociology courses and they just really spoke to me at the time. When I first started at UCLA, I was going to do an education-based project, but it proved a little bit more difficult to get into the Los Angeles Unified School District at the time.
So instead I pivoted and started to study this queer group of guys in Los Angeles who were part of an organization that services a group of predominantly Black gay and bisexual men. One result of that was that people assumed I was studying health and oftentimes I was invited to panels and things about HIV in particular, given its disproportionate impact on Black queer populations.
I wasn't actually studying HIV and almost adamantly refused to in the beginning, but then I got folded into it because I realized they needed someone who could think about things outside of HIV in those spaces. I spent some time first as a youth member and then later as the Behavioral Social Scientist on the Los Angeles County Commission for HIV. On that planning body, I leaned more into that research around health. I did some work around how to use mobile apps for biomedical interventions, how friends talk about things like PReP and PEP.
My journey, especially into health research, was accidental, if you will. I really was focused on other things and more interested in social dynamics and relationships and friendship-building among this community and how they come to accept themselves in this particular locale. Academia became the thing I pursued at the time when I graduated. I worked for two years at Syracuse University and then came back to California to work at UC Santa Barbara.
Steph: Thanks so much for that, Dr. Winder. It would be great to hear what about the E4A program was interesting to you and why you accepted the invitation to join us as an assistant director? What are you most excited about and where do you hope to see E4A go in the future?
Terrell: For me, it was an exciting opportunity, especially because when I was in graduate school there was a postdoc program for health scholars that I had been very interested in applying to, but that was sunsetted a year or two before I got my PhD. So when I got the invitation to participate in E4A, I was like, “Oh, this is great” because I've always admired the work that was done and all of the folks who I'd met who had participated in that program had gone on to do such interesting research and interesting projects and things.
I also really believed in the call and the idea about racial equity and how we can use research to really push the needle forward, as we continuously say, which is something I'm often thinking about. The connection between theory and practice or research and practice is what I'm always excited about. That's really the driving force behind E4A – not just doing research for information’s sake, but thinking about how we can actually do things that might ameliorate the conditions that people are living through.
In a lot of ways, I think what I've been excited about and thinking about recently is this tension that I think exists in the work around how do we both help folks navigate systems while also changing them so that they can be better? For me, the big piece is even if we can't impact change in the most linear, direct ways, people still have to navigate these things and it's still ongoing. One of the most pressing things to me is as long as research takes and as long as it takes us to get things off the ground and get things going every day and every minute, people are still dealing with unequal systems.
And so what I'm hopeful and excited about is really thinking about how do we tackle both, right? How can we help people who are working with unjust systems to navigate them and to use those assets that they have? But also, then how do we leverage those assets to actually shift structural change and come up with structural change objectives for these policies and programs and institutions?
One of the things about E4A in particular is that when we think about evidence and studying interventions in that way, it often leans very quantitative, right. So thinking about the ways that we can include qualitative methods and qualitative voices in that process is something I'm very excited about and glad we're moving towards trying to reach out and incorporate more of that into the work funded by E4A.
Steph: Yes, it's exciting. You’ve already touched on what I was planning to ask next, but is there anything you’d like to add about E4A’s explicit focus on advancing racial equity through the research we fund? What does that mean to you, in terms of what that research looks like? What do you see as some of the markers for success in that endeavor?
Terrell: The definition of racial equity I really like is when race can no longer become a predictor of outcomes. I feel like that's a big goal, but I feel like the closer we get to it, the better. I'm excited to see what that kind of research does. Some of the markers for success for that are when we can say, we've been able to successfully lessen the impact or we're not able to predict with certainty what will happen in this particular case. So I'm looking for that.
I think the struggle for all of this is that there are so many different overlapping systems and it's hard to impact all of them, but I think what makes me excited is that we get to see so many different scholars working on so many different projects that seem drastically different. I think there are some that seem very similar, but then sometimes you get them and you're like, “this is nothing like the one I just read.” I think it's exciting to see how people are tackling these questions from different vantage points.
Steph: Yes, thanks. So you talked a little bit about your research, but I'd love to hear more about what you're working on right now – some examples if you have them and if you want to add anything about what continues to motivate you in that space and what you're focusing on.
Terrell: I currently am focused on finishing up my book project, which is about racial and sexual stigma and how Black gay men in Los Angeles navigate that. I have a few other projects that are also thinking about racial equity across the board and the intersection of race and other types of social institutions.
I have a project where I'm trying to think about how young students think about student loan debt and a project about how young millennials and Gen Z Black folks are either incorporating African traditional religions or changing their religious practices to practice things like voodoo, conjure, root work. So thinking about the connections of those projects and how they're impacting both identity development, but also things like health and mental health and the continuity of a self-identity and those types of things. I'm often thinking about that intersection and that's where I am.
Part of what I think drives me to do those types of topics is that I'm fundamentally interested in the experiences that marginalized and underserved groups in the US have and in particular I study Black Americans, because I think there's just a lot there. As someone who identifies as Black, who is Black, was raised Black in the US, I've always been interested in how that looks different in different spaces. So my projects are in different places and I think lately I've been shifting some of my focus to understanding the differences between what it means to enact Black and queer identities in predominantly non-Black cities and spaces. So like Los Angeles and some of the other work I've done versus places like New Orleans or Baltimore, where I'm from, or Memphis. Those things are very different in majority Black cities compared to majority non-Black cities, and so how those larger demographics are shifting on the ground politics and behaviors?
Steph: Wow, you've got a lot going on, and it all sounds really interesting. I can see why you're doing it. So, one of the other things that came out of this shift to advancing racial equity was also the shift in the idea of how research is conducted and how to conduct research in an equitable way. So I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about your own approach to research, how you go from identifying what you want to work on to actually conducting the research to sharing the findings and what comes into play in those different phases.
Terrell: Yes, definitely. For me I try to keep track of ideas that come to me all the time and I feel like some ideas are my own and other ideas I get pulled into. The greatest example of this – I'd done the project in L.A. and then I had some friends in New Orleans who were like, “Oh, you did this L.A. project, you should do this project on us.” And then started to tell people, every time I came down, "oh, my friend's going to do a paper about us. So my friend’s going to do this thing about us."
So this just kept going on every time and so there became a point maybe over a year where I was like, “So I guess I actually have to do this project.” And so that's how that started. I fell into that in that way and part of how that connects to what I do is I really look for communities that are interesting to me, spaces that are interesting to me – a sense of something going into it. As somebody who does primarily ethnographic and qualitative projects, I also like to be tapped into the questions and things that communities are thinking about.
And so for each one of the projects that I mentioned, one of the things I've been doing is that in my data collection process, I try to be as giving as possible. I think one of the things that comes up a lot in funding projects is that qualitative research is often not funded as well as quantitative projects. I think it actually ends up being a disservice because so much of the money, at least in my projects when I'm trying to do them, can go directly into the hands of people because I'm paying them for an interview or I'm giving them something to pay them back for their time if I can.
In the past, when I haven't been able to do that, I’ve tried to do my best to do small things or make small gestures. In my ethnographic work, when people ask things of me, if I didn't have money, I could help them with something. So like, “can you help me figure out how to fill out the FAFSA?” It's like, “Well, I do know how to do that.” I've done that. So, I try to be tapped into communities so it doesn't feel like I'm just pulling information, I'm actually invested in what happens to the people who are part of projects is at the core of the work that I do.
I also try to, as best I can, always share the work or the ideas that I'm coming up with based on my observations and my interviews with the folks that I'm doing projects with before I'm sending them out as “this is the paper, this is the book, this is the idea.” Part of that is presenting those ideas to folks within the population, this allows it to be more of an iterative process, letting them know, you are included in this. I'm not just taking this information from you and saying this is what I think they're doing or I'm the authority about what's happening here. I’m really allowing them to tell me, how do the things that I'm presenting actually land on them? And so that's important to me. And I think I would also say that what's important to me along this trajectory is that there's an opportunity for a continued conversation so that folks don't feel like I'm closing the door or totally leaving them.
I think, in some ways as academics that can be easy to do and there are natural things that happen. I moved universities, I went to another place, I had to leave. But I think there is an intentionality about trying to maintain relationships and connections. That's not to say that I am in contact with every single person from all projects and things. But there are some people from my projects, who I basically talk to every month or every week. I try to be as connected as possible in how I'm telling other people's stories and telling what's going on in their lives and being connected to that.
The last piece about conducting and presenting research for me that's important is I want to be able to present ideas that are legible to the people who I'm studying. One of the things that I am constantly striving for is to say, “okay, in this presentation, in this paper, in this book, could someone pick this up and read it and make sense of what I'm saying, if they are part of this?” How do I write something that is both impactful to the field, but also that someone who took part in the project could see themselves in the pages of the work.
And that's how I think about research in that way, right? We talk about findings and ideas and outcomes and things like that, but some of the stuff that we uncover – it's not new for the people who are enduring it, right? Sometimes I think the newness for them can be the connections between other people or seeing the larger connections to other systems and projects and processes and things. And so my hope is always that I'm straddling that line between “okay, this is purely pushing theory or something on the academic side,” but also, “okay, I'm someone who participated in this project. I can pick this up and tell you what the idea is.” And I feel like if I haven't really done that my research is incomplete.
Steph: Wow, I wish more people did that. I wish academic journals took that ethos.
Terrell: It's a struggle. Yeah, absolutely. And I think especially in my field, it's a struggle. In ethnographic work it can take so much longer to articulate something or to get it out. And so I often joke and say, “every ethnographic project is always history,” because by the time it comes out, the world looks different, life is different, the same places don't exist. But I do think that what we can glean and processes and relationships we can still learn from. But I do think that's a struggle.
Steph: I know you've talked a little bit about the qualitative and ethnographic work you do, but I wondered if you wanted to expand on that, and perhaps share what drew you to qualitative research? I know you've also touched a little bit on the benefits of it, but also if you’d like to share any of the challenges.
Terrell: I think I was drawn to qualitative research because I was interested in the stories and the narratives that people share and really tapping into how people explain their own experiences. I think that's important.
I do ethnographic research, participant observation, interviews, I've done focus groups, I do some content analysis – looking at online forums and blog posts and looking at shows or actual cultural content that's been created. I really look at myself as someone who is trying new qualitative methods all the time, things like peer ethnography – so training folks who are part of communities to also take notes about their experiences, thinking about new ways for us to do data collection, especially on the qualitative front. I'm always excited when someone is doing something different. You know, like I set up an app where people could send voice memos about their day or doing those types of things.
So all of that is exciting to me. When we can think about new ways to collect data, especially as technology advances. How can we use tech to collect data and then have people participate in that? I think, as I said, some of the benefit is hearing directly from people what their experiences are.
I think maybe some of the challenges with qualitative research are some of the funding challenges I talked about or that some of the questions that we ask sometimes aren't as outcome driven or causal in the same way. Cause and effect looks different in what we are studying. But what I do think is powerful about qualitative research is sometimes it allows us to see the mechanisms in different ways. I know we talk a lot about a quantitative, qualitative divide and people feel how they do about it. For me, I feel like we need both because they both give us different answers. And sometimes, interviews are enough and sometimes ethnography is enough. Observing things, sometimes you have to see it for yourself.
I think there's a challenge to funding the research because it takes time. So it can be, I think, a challenge for folks who are trying to apply to programs like E4A and get funding when they're doing mostly or all qualitative work.
But I do think it's possible and I think maybe shifting our ideas and our perspectives on what is evidence of causal outcomes or what can we use to say that we know this for sure is something that I'm constantly thinking about. So the challenges, I think for me, are just always trying to find ways to connect the quantitative and qualitative sides of research and thinking about how does one inform the other and how do we actually leverage the best parts of both.
Steph: Thanks again for speaking with me today. It was a wonderful conversation.
Terrell: Thank you.
I really enjoyed speaking with Dr. Winder and getting to know more about his works as well as his aspirations for the direction of Evidence for Action and the racial equity call for proposals. I know I speak for the entire team, when I say that I am delighted he’s joined us and I really look forward to working with him more in the future.