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In-Depth With Our Experts

Relentlessly Searching for Opportunities to Make an Impact

In depth with Stephanie Hawkins, Ph.D., program director for youth, violence prevention and community justice at RTI.

Stephanie Hawkins and her research colleagues made their way to a local pizza restaurant for a bite to eat. It was lunchtime, after all, and they were hungry from a morning of work.

As they found a table, it was apparent to them that something was off. They were met with a mix of curious, confused and unfriendly gazes from the staff and fellow patrons. The message was clear: Why are you here?

It was 1995 and Hawkins, a Black woman, and her colleagues were participating in the Fogarty Minority Research Training Program in Potchefstroom, South Africa, not long after the end of apartheid.

“It was apparent that they were not used to Black patrons just walking in,” says Hawkins. “When you live in an area, you know the places that feel more welcoming than others, but when you are a visitor, you just go wherever you want. It was a lesson in how white supremist systems can come to a legal end, but the mindset and routine practices of an area can still hold the same sentiment. In that case, the sentiment was all the feelings associated with the system of apartheid where Black people had to have permission to travel outside their designated areas.”

Hawkins’ experience in Potchefstroom, and later Johannesburg, where she studied community violence and witnessed stark differences in resources available to White South Africans compared to Black South Africans, helped ignite her pursuit for justice. It all felt very similar to her own upbringing in Queens, New York, where residential segregation was commonplace.

Finding Her Passion

Hawkins’ path to becoming a violence prevention researcher started after she graduated from Spelman College with a degree in psychology. At the time, becoming a researcher was not on her list of aspirations.

“As an undergraduate at Spelman College, my goal was to become a therapist and influence the life outcomes of every young person living in a resource poor urban community,” says Hawkins. “I actually didn’t like research at all and didn’t think it was for me.”

Her mindset started to shift during a summer program at Howard University that introduced her to formal research methodology and allowed her to do hands-on community violence prevention research in neighborhoods in Washington D.C.

Hawkins describes herself as a bright-eyed student who had found her calling.

“That summer program at Howard introduced me to community violence prevention research and how community violence impacts child development. These families looked like my family. I was hooked. I was so intrigued with the whole body of research,” she says.

One memory from the program particularly stands out to Hawkins. She recalls a training that her advisor facilitated with a journalist. The objective of the training was to inform the journalist how to report news stories about violence in communities without traumatizing or criminalizing the people in those communities. Prior to the training, she had never considered the role that media played in community violence prevention and the opportunities researchers have in shifting narratives with research.

“That situation made an impression on me,” says Hawkins. “It made me ask, ‘What type of research can I conduct that shifts the narrative for what it means to live in a community that is experiencing high rates of violence? What resources are needed for the young people in these communities?’ It also made me think of all the context and the factors that matter so greatly for people to really have optimal outcomes.”

With her sights set on community violence prevention, Hawkins went on to earn a master’s and doctorate from Howard University in clinical psychology before doing a postdoctoral fellowship in violence prevention research at Stanford University.

The proud graduate of two HBCUs says her experiences at Spelman College and Howard University were “amazing” and “foundational.”

“As a Black person going into a professional field, you need a foundation that celebrates you and the contributions made by people of color as well as that professional network you can lean on. I went on to Stanford, which was the complete opposite in a lot of ways, and when I went there, I was very clear about the value I could offer that program.”

A Devoted Researcher

Still, Hawkins says she was skeptical of taking her career in an academic direction, but she figured if there was ever a time to try, it was after her postdoctoral fellowship. She took a position as a visiting professor at the George Washington University, and soon after, a colleague offered to share her resume with a burgeoning group of criminal justice researchers at RTI. The rest was history.

Hawkins has produced a lot of meaningful research in her 20 years at RTI. She has worked in the areas of delinquency prevention, youth violence prevention, school safety, and violence victimization — all while applying a racial equity lens to her work which was a core component to her graduate school training. 

While she admits that recency bias might be at play, she points to a 2015 study of programs and services  for Black male survivors of community violence as one of her more impactful projects.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), revealed the paucity of evidence-based programs and services available to Black males who experience a disproportionate rate of community violence victimization and described the work being done across the country to fill this gap in knowledge.

“That project was especially meaningful to me because we were able to disseminate the findings of the study effectively,” says Hawkins. “I know it made an impact, and the opportunity to make an impact is why many of us get into this work.”

Viewing Science Through an Equity Lens 

In fall 2020, Hawkins was tapped to lead RTI’s efforts to center equity in all the institute’s research, which she describes as “doing the type of work [she] was trained at Howard University to do.” 

Her vision reflects the perspective that equity must be at the center of RTI’s work if the institute wants to fully achieve its mission of improving the human condition. This means turning knowledge into practice, and then practice into impact, she says. To Hawkins, equity is both a process and an outcome. It is the commitment and action taken to address historical injustices while leveraging power, influence, and resources to ensure that who you are, where and to whom you were born, where you live, and the color of your skin does not determine your access, opportunities, and outcomes in life.

“Nowadays there is a lot of terminology, like ‘using an equity lens,’ but the truth is a lot of us have been doing this kind of research long before this language was in vogue,” says Hawkins. “I would love to see RTI become synonymous with equity-centered research. I don’t want to create a new silo where equity-centered work is only done in one place within this research institute.  My ultimate vision is when clients engage with us, they are engaging with researchers that conduct equity-centered work…always. It’s our differentiator.” 

Hawkins is optimistic about the possibilities of the initiative, despite it being in its early stages, but admits to having embarked on the work during a difficult year, headlined by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the cascade of racial justice protests that followed.

“It’s been a really tough year,” Hawkins says. “I don’t think I realized how tough it was until I took my first vacation in May 2021 and had time to reflect. I have three kids and all of us — my kids, my husband, my father, me — we all look like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the list goes on.”

On a professional level, Hawkins says she has been “consumed” by thinking and planning the best way to use her and RTI’s research capabilities to respond to the racial reckoning this country and the world, more broadly, is experiencing.  

As Hawkins reflects, she settles on a phrase she recently heard from social justice activist Bryan Stevenson: I feel like there is something better waiting for us, something that feels like justice.

“That’s how I feel about my work at RTI.”