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CRF Welcomes Back Faculty Director Maureen Perry-Jenkins from Stanford Fellowship

Maureen Perry-Jenkins

CRF is happy to welcome Faculty Director Maureen Perry-Jenkins back from California, where she spent the 2015-16 academic year taking part in a prestigious fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University. CASBS, an interdisciplinary research organization, was founded in 1984 with the goal of bringing great minds together to solve problems through collaboration. CASBS sees itself as an incubator of cutting edge approaches to critical social problems.

During her year at CASBS, Perry-Jenkins began writing a book highlighting two opposing realities--the first, the negative effects of low wages, unstable work schedules and minimal workplace supports on parental and child well-being; the second, in contrast, how low-income workers, despite difficult work conditions, often experience and create meaningful work. Her research focuses on low-income families who are having their first baby and the long-term implications of work conditions -- policies around parental leave and flexibility as well as the actual conditions of their jobs (i.e., supportive supervisors, a degree of job autonomy)—for both parents’ and children’s well-being.

“I saw this fellowship as a chance to provide a capstone to my longitudinal study. When you’re conducting research, it’s hard to know when to stop. This was a good way to wrap up the research and move on to the prevention and intervention piece,” says Perry-Jenkins.

The CASBS fellowship was a perfect fit for Perry-Jenkins, who deeply values interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Talking across disciplines fosters new ideas…it is really that simple.  It challenges you to define problems in more complex ways. Part of the push, for me, is to translate all of our research findings so they can have some impact on the lives of families through programs, interventions or policy. Many academics, myself included, have a hard time translating their research into something meaningful and digestible, and this opportunity forced me to do that. We (all of the scholars at the center) had to decipher our jargon for each other.”

Perry-Jenkins was able to work with an interdisciplinary group including economists, labor historians, sociologists, journalists, psychologists, anthropologists and Silicon Valley executives as part of a cooperative group called “The Future of Work and Workers.” The group, co-sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, engages participants in a series of meetings to discuss the sources and implications of the ways in which work is changing globally. Working together to synthesize their ideas allowed the group to approach the problem from myriad angles.

During one of our discussion, which had focused on professional workers only, “I asked what high school-educated folks were going to do in the changing face of work and it blew up the conversation…how will climate change or immigration effect what we’re doing? As we worked through the problem with input from all sides, it showed that the whole, the collaborative group, was greater than its parts.”

One of the most rewarding parts of the fellowship was that it reinforced her belief that the way significant social problems will be solved is through interdisciplinary work.

“Working through these problems will be complex…there’s not a little pill we can take to fix things. We saw it in action on a big scale. We were taking into account climate change, infant mortality, post-natal depression… It will take groups of people working together to come up with the solutions we need.”

Perry-Jenkins is hoping to apply this collaborative approach to some new community-based research partnerships in Springfield this year.

“The challenges Springfield faces, such as high infant mortality, violence, and income inequality, are not going to be solved by one person doing a project on gardening, another person working on interventions with depressed mothers…each piece is critical, however, to be sustainable they must represent a holistic approach to chip away at cumulative risk. We need to target toxic environments, early maternal and paternal health and what people eat. We need to pull resources together in a way that is sustainable, impactful and efficient.”

A large part of that effort will be partnering with established community groups in Springfield to support the change and progress that is already in motion, as well as building upon the strengths of these programs.

Perry-Jenkin’s time at Stanford and her upcoming community outreach work has fortified her belief that CRF’s mission is essential and that she’d like to conduct this work on a larger scale.

“We have lots of institutes around campus creating interdisciplinary spaces, trying to solve problems. The next step is envisioning how we can bring these people from different disciplines together to work on a problem.”

This concept is modeled in CRF’s Family Research Scholars program, where this year faculty from the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the College of Natural Sciences, the School of Education and the School of Public Health and Health Sciences are all represented and will come together to give perspectives on each other’s grant submissions.

“This year,” says Perry-Jenkins, “we’ll be continuing the tradition of engaging really fantastic scholars doing amazing research. A question we’ll be asking is ‘How can all these years of research done at CRF come together to have an impact on policy, programming, prevention and enhancement?’ ”

Perry-Jenkins, through her dedication to integrative collaboration, has taken the first steps toward building a multi-faceted and versatile research archetype on campus, one that will hopefully continue to thrive and engage faculty in search of the answers to the pressing issues affecting families nationwide.