Ep. 262: Researcher Profile – Dr. Adaobi Anakwe

August 10, 2021

Adaobi Anakwe, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri School of Health Professions, discusses her research study into the virtual challenges that African-American families with school-aged children faced during the pandemic lockdown that occurred in 2020.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. Today I’m in the studio to introduce our listeners to a researcher to watch. I’m here with Dr. Adaobi Anakwe, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri School of Health Professions. Thanks for joining me today, Adaobi.

Adaobi Anakwe: Thank you, Drew. Happy to be here.

Drew Catt: First, would you mind sharing your most recent research, which I guess caught our eyes, which I read really fascinating talking about virtual schooling, and the digital challenges for black families?

Adaobi Anakwe: This study was titled, A Sinkhole Swim, where we examined the virtual life challenges that African-American families with school-aged children were facing during the COVID-19 lockdown specifically. That’s when the study was conducted.

Adaobi Anakwe: The study we generally found that parents felt that they weren’t empowered or felt disempowered to provide the resources. Especially, digital resources that their kids needed to be successful during that time.

It also highlighted that the challenges with the digital divide, which has been around for a long time, which I think the COVID pandemic highlighted that a little more.

Drew Catt: Yeah, definitely. We can dive into that a little more, but I’m really interested in your background. What attracted you to this issue at the crossroads of K-12 education, educational choice and health?

Adaobi Anakwe: My background is pretty long, but in brief, I just finished my doctoral studies at St. Louis University. I literally graduated in May.

Drew Catt: Congratulations.

Adaobi Anakwe: Thank you so much. I have worked on a couple of different things. However, again, I was doing my research during the pandemic lockdown. My dissertation research during the pandemic lockdown. Now, I am from Nigeria and I am also a parent. I was long distance parenting at the time.

That even though, being in Nigeria and really seeing those disparities between the haves and have nots and having access to resources can really shape your trajectory in life, what you have access to and what you don’t have access to.

Then, so during the pandemic specifically, really doing some of that long distance parenting against all of those challenges came up with how do you utilize this technologies? How do you engage children with technologies if you’re that far away? Also, really looking at the African-American community here.

Thinking about the challenges that they were already facing, and what these additional issues with access to digital technologies could potentially mean. Some of the things that I was thinking about when we went into the study.

Really try and understand some of the experiences that African-American families or black families were having, specifically during the lockdown.

Drew Catt: That’s such a fascinating thing. My heart really goes out to you, long distance parenting. I cannot even imagine how hard that was. Having now two of my own and having the opposite effect of trying to juggle work and kids at the same time. Can’t even imagine having to do that from afar.

Adaobi Anakwe: Yep. Consider adding time zone differences to that, and then technology challenges to that. It was fun.

Drew Catt: Let alone dissertation work, which just takes up a little bit of your time.

Adaobi Anakwe: Yeah.

Drew Catt: What speaks to you more, if you could touch more on your background and growing up and maybe some of the similarities and differences, in the populations that you highlighted in the research, you talked about the haves and the have nots.

Did you look into some of those demographic differences, like small town versus rural, or just focused on the overall picture?

Adaobi Anakwe: This was really focused on the overall picture. It was African-Americans within small community in Missouri. Again, if you think about during the pandemic lockdown, doing any research then was hard if you are not going to be doing it online. These interviews were conducted on the phone.

I was calling people really asking them, “You’re home, what’s your experience?” Really thinking about that was an additional dynamic, given the lockdown on the pandemic.

Drew Catt: Are you looking to continue doing lines of research along like this? What do you enjoy researching the most and what do you like finding? Very broad question.

Adaobi Anakwe: It is. I have had experience researching so many things at this point. I really am finding that my research interest really lies in improving of figuring out what are the issues and figuring out ways that we can improve health outcomes for African-American populations.

Some of that for me, is really nested in the families circle. When we’re thinking about what is the family structure? What is the culture of the community, specifically born, not just African-Americans with black, for the black population, so that in compasses people like me who are here as immigrants.

Really thinking about how can understanding, what are the challenges? What are the cultural nuances to seek in health and improving health outcomes, and how can we make this more place-based? Understanding where they’re coming from and ensuring that whatever social venture you come up with is true to what the state of the challenges are.

Involving them in finding solutions for the challenges, that’d be a reason. That’s where my interest really lies is thinking about how to strengthen the African-American family and improve health outcomes that way.

Drew Catt: Just thinking back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It keeps coming up for me, every month or every couple of months. There’s so much linked between health and education. If you’re not having your physical needs met, then you’re not in the best place mentally to be able to learn.

I think it’s wonderful to see this interdisciplinary crossroads and intersection between research because that’s the stuff that I personally love. School choice can be an interdisciplinary study. There are so many different ways to tackle it from looking at the environmental lens and fewer buses on the road.

Students are attending school closer to their houses. Even that in of itself can be linked to health outcomes because of the exhaust from the buses. Yet I was really, really excited to see this intersection between health and education. There’s also a larger project happening here in Indiana, looking at nurse visits and learning.

It’s really interesting to see this stream popping up. What are your next steps with this research or maybe looking at replicating in another community? I realized that hopefully, fingers crossed that it was a once in a lifetime occurrence in terms of being forced to conduct research in that matter.

The parental experiences of their children learning at home. What are your next steps with this research or looking at a different research project?

Adaobi Anakwe: Just to add to what you were saying, I don’t think I mentioned that I am very much around what we call like the social determinants of health. The effects of where you live, education, all of that. How all those things intersect are really the root causes of the health outcomes that we see. Really, trying to unpack what are some of those social determinants.

To answer your next question, which is next steps, again, I’m still very much nested and the black community. I’m still continuing to work with this community where I am now at the University of Missouri to start to think about what other issues have they faced, or are they facing with optimizing their health?

There’s lots. There’s lots of issues. The one aspect that I’m moving into now more is examining health outcomes for black men, specifically before they start to have children. That’s where I’m looking at the social determinants of that and how that plays into their future life and future planning.

Again, it’s really thinking about before we get to this point where we have the children and we have to navigate all of those things. What are the factors that we should have addressed or should be addressing before we get to that point of they now have kids. They can provide, they can support, and all of that.

Again, you would agree with me that black men have been a neglected population or sub-population within the black population as a whole, specifically black fathers. Really, digging in there to explore some of that some more. Seeing how we can pull in what we now know about digital technology is the lack of access to that.

See how we can start to create some of those opportunities for them to be more engaged in those activities, or engaging in resources that can improve their access to digital technologies as possible. In that space, we’re trying to think through what next needs to be done.

Drew Catt: Well, before the former research you had a very specific defined community. How in your line of work do you define community? So many times in education, people focus on the school district as the community, or the schooling sector as the community.

I personally see a geographical space as a community, and regardless of where students attend school. How do you define community in your work?

Adaobi Anakwe: Right now, I think community for me would be it’s really the people. It’s really the people who are living within a shared space, that shared space could be a group of families. It could be the wider, the go-to church together. It could be participates in different other activities together, but they exist within a certain place and work within that space.

That will be my definition of community in terms of work. Then also, when you think about the American system and American culture, where a lot of things are stratified by race. I can also see how people of a particular racial group could become, or could be a community because they are impacted or affected by very similar structural issues. Again, that is another definition that I use for community. You’ll often hear me talk about the black community. That defines a group of people who are living through a shared experience or expands similar structural factors.

Drew Catt: Hitting on shared experience makes me remember something that, I don’t know, my hope for the nation in the world is that this shared experience of the last year and a half can hopefully help us feel more connected to each other.Regardless of where you live, what your background is, what you look like. Fingers crossed on that one.

Adaobi Anakwe: Yep. Right there with you.

Drew Catt: I was also thinking about local school board that I just rolled off of, not a school board, but the board of a school. It was in a lower income area with a lot of the health issues. Really just thinking of my conversations with the principal about like, “What is it the students need beyond what they’re able to get in school?”

So much of it was just going back to talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and getting fed, getting rested, getting connected to other people. In your work, being able to be connected to information. I feel like so many of us take for granted the ability to pull a supercomputer. A miniaturized supercomputer out of our pockets and have everything at our fingertips. We forget that there is a significant size of the population that isn’t able to do that on a daily basis.

Adaobi Anakwe: I couldn’t agree more. This is definitely true, which is why when we started to read some of those interviews from the participants, that was difficult in terms of really seeing what experiences that we’re living through at the time.

Really thinking about, I think for me, one of the biggest challenges here, or challenges that I would love for us to really proximate and think about how to prevent is that the digital divide becomes something that is added onto the social determinants of health.

Beyond education, it is already most likely going to become, and I don’t know that that research has been done to look at what has been the impact of COVID on educational outcomes. How that differs for people who had access to versus those who did not have access to.

I haven’t really looked at that research yet or if that’s been done. Off the top of my head, I would say, there’ll probably be differences. We anticipate some differences in terms of educational outcomes. Then, you add on the layer of now we need what is even more reliance on technology for social engagement.

Then, people that don’t have access might now be at increased risk for loneliness or just being cut off socially. Then, when you add on the fact that there’s a push for reliance on digital technologies for access to health care. Telehealth, when you think about telehealth, even for the vaccine, during the vaccine rollout, people have to schedule the appointments via their devices.

When people don’t have access to these things, what does that mean? For me, my biggest worry or fear is having this digital divide, if not addressed, become an additional thing that we add to the menu, the cafeteria menu of the social determinants of health. Impacting or adversely impacting populations of color, in this case, African-American population.

Drew Catt: There’s so much overlap between the social determinants of health and the variables looked at for educational outcomes. I feel like there is more overlap in our work than many people realize.

Adaobi Anakwe: I often say that public health is whatever you make it. It’s everything. It’s literally everything. That’s really what I like about it. It challenges you to think within and outside the box to really open up your mind, understand what are the real issues, and how can we address them? Especially, thinking about how they’re interrelated.

How they’re interconnected, how they overlap. There’s a lot I think that’s what makes me excited about, that was a lot of question. I think that’s something that makes me excited about being in public health because of the broad view that you’re able to have about there’s so much overlap between every other field, and what public health is, and what public health does.

Drew Catt: I can’t even think where I would be in my educational journey if my health would have been different as a kid growing up. If I had been like a friend that was in and out of school constantly for medical reasons. This has been wonderful.

Do you have any other previous research or forthcoming research that you’d like to mention?

Adaobi Anakwe: There’s things in the works, they’re still definitely very much formative around black men. There will be stuff coming out on that. I think there’ll be stuff also coming out on possibly disaster preparedness, maybe another thing that might be coming forth.

Then, as we continue to do this work, thinking about what place-based organizations have been doing with the African-American community here place-based organizations like the church, faith-based organizations have been doing. That might be something else that may potentially come out.

I may not be leading on that, but that’s something that I will just put it out there that’s something that we’re also working on. There’s lots of research going on.

Drew Catt: Always. That’ll be fascinating. It’s interesting to think of because when we talk about education reform and education policy, those are things that are hopefully going to have a positive impact on students in school now. What do we do for those who are no longer in the educational system?

How much are we focused on, “Fixing people when they’re young in the educational system.” We forget about those that went through the system that was already there, that didn’t have access to those opportunities. Didn’t have access to that information and how do we get that information to them?

Adaobi Anakwe: That’s a lifelong thing I’m trying to figure out because I think I’ve said something around that before, or ask some of those questions myself before, which is you see, we do a lot of interventions with schools. We’re assuming that everyone’s in school, always able to be in school.

That the program is provided through our schools does not necessarily mean that it is accessible to everybody. Then to your point, and then those who are no longer there, I think it’s a culture of that they missed out on that and move on, which is sad, but I’m not sure what we can do about that.

What is really thinking about how do we continue to create stop gaps and safety nets for those who have missed out on certain opportunities. I think it starts from acknowledging that people have missed out. Then, after acknowledging, it’s thinking through what then do we do.

It’s one step to acknowledge it, which is, I think is the very first step, which is important, but then really thinking through what needs to be done, which is the more difficult piece.

Drew Catt: I think even thinking if just focused on technology, some of that could happen through a workforce development program at a community center. Getting to the health outcomes at one point, if you’re an adult that never went through a highly informative health class in middle school or high school, where and how do you get that information? I’m sure that’s a huge challenge.

Adaobi Anakwe: I think that goes back to what I was saying about a lot of people would access stuff like that on their devices, for instance. That’s, again, a lot of people don’t have that access. It’s a challenge that I think needs to be addressed.

Drew Catt: Definitely. Well, thank you so much for helping to shine a light on this, Dr. Anakwe. It was a pleasure speaking with you. Wish you the best in continuing this research. Really getting the word out on how much this is an issue that as communities and as a nation does need to be addressed.

Adaobi Anakwe: Thank you so much. I enjoy having this conversation as well.

Drew Catt: To our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you choose to listen to them. For more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats, and more. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you back soon with more EdChoice chats.