Research with Relevance: How Recent Crises Reinforce OCF Findings About the Opportunity Gap Facing Oregon Kids

Jean-Marie Callan recently joined OCF as a senior research officer, returning to her hometown of Portland after 14 years on the East Coast, including nearly a decade in the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. Her professional expertise and personal passions align with one of OCF’s chief goals: To expand opportunity for all of Oregon’s children. 

Two years ago, OCF published the TOP Report 2020: “Cornerstones: Economic Mobility and Belonging in Oregon,” which illuminated the key factors in our communities that, when present, give the most children an opportunity to succeed: economically integrated neighborhoods, high-quality schools, living wage jobs and strong social ties.  

Since then, Oregon has experienced multiple crises — COVID, wildfires, the impacts of racial injustice. You recently returned to your home state with fresh eyes. How is the TOP Report still relevant to where we find ourselves now?

What makes the report feel really relevant to right now is that it helps to document and explain how economic opportunity is largely a product of circumstances — of where you grew up. It’s about your childhood environment, rather than anything about us as individuals, and that's really important to understand. It matters for how we think about taking action on the issues that we care about.

While a lot has absolutely changed since OCF did this research — the world has changed dramatically as COVID has upended everything — what we’ve seen going through these last couple of years is how much those crises have illuminated and reinforced existing inequalities. And so while previous research might not be able to tell us about what, for example, schooling looks like right now in my neighborhood, it does tell me a lot about the importance of inequalities that we know from recent experience have become even more pronounced. In some ways, (the TOP Report findings are) even more relevant, because those inequalities have become so reinforced. Living through the crises of the past two years have just highlighted and enhanced what the needs are.

In addition to longer-term analyses like the TOP Report, OCF’s research team — one of the largest of any community foundation in the country — publishes numerous evaluations of OCF grantmaking and related initiatives, to help the foundation and donors prioritize finite resources.

For example, you recently helped evaluate the results of the Oregon Legislature’s enormous investment in 2021 in summer learning for K-12 students. OCF administered almost $40 million in state-funded grants to over 500 summer learning programs in every county of the state. What were some key takeaways from the evaluation, and how do they connect to what the TOP Report tells us about creating opportunity for more kids?

One of the biggest points from our summer learning research is that we heard from the programs (that received grants) just how much this funding expanded opportunity for students and families in communities across the state, particularly for low-income families and kids who wouldn't have been able to participate otherwise. And investments in summer learning might help narrow some of that opportunity gap.

That links strongly to what the TOP Report is talking about, about those real differences in opportunity for kids based on the neighborhoods that they're living in. The TOP report digs in more on how quality schools are a driver of economic opportunity, and disparities in access to quality schools for students of color, students from low-income families and under resourced rural students.

With the summer learning research, we also wanted to understand how summer learning programs sit within broader systems of support for families and kids — alongside the supports provided by schools and other services or programs. What came through in our findings is that summer learning programs play a really important role in that ecosystem of support. They’re providing culturally specific and diverse learning opportunities that are tailored to students, and they’re also providing some basic supports for students and their families, including things like food supports, as well as relationships with caring adults and that mentorship piece.

You grew up in Southeast Portland near Mt. Tabor, graduated from Central Catholic High School and Seattle University, and earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton University. What life experiences have shaped your perspective on the connection between place and opportunity?

Looking back, I think of my childhood as being really happy and connected. Some of my strongest memories are of times outside with neighbors, other families with kids my age on our block. My best friend lived across the street and we went to the same small grade school. Those were some of the defining characteristics.

In college, I was doing volunteer work in Seattle, working with young adults who were about my age, striving for similar things in life as I was, but who were living on the streets nearby campus. I was also helping to run some programming for a local school that focused on students whose families were at risk of or experiencing homelessness and organizing some tutoring there for younger kids.

This idea that where you start should not determine where you end up — that’s such a critical thing. It became very real to me, doing some of that early volunteer work, particularly when I was working directly with young adults the same age as me and getting to know them a bit as people. Barring a lot of the characteristics of where I grew up versus where they grew up — just those circumstances of place and family and things that are out of your control — it could have been me.

What first attracted you to a career in research, and what brought you back to Oregon?

Where I really started to get the research bug, that was absolutely in college. I was taking economics for the first time in the classroom, and at the same time, I was leaning into volunteer work in my community.

Through those volunteer experiences, and at the same time, learning about research tools in the classroom, I started to see potential to use the knowledge and skills I was building in a longer-term way, to do something meaningful and that I care about, too.

A large part of what attracted me to this role (at OCF) is the opportunity to use research in applied ways, and in both longer-term and real-time ways. Making research be in service of the issues that I care so much about around equity and opportunity and being able to do it in a place that feels like home.

What can you tell us about the focus of the next TOP Report, anticipated for release in 2023?  

We’re still figuring out the specifics, but broadly we’re thinking about how the crises of the wildfires, COVID and their connections to racial injustice in our state and across the country  have highlighted those intersections between place and not just economic opportunity but also health and well-being as a whole. We’re asking ourselves about what community-level characteristics support healthy, thriving communities. This builds strongly on what we already looked at with the TOP Report 2020, where we deeply explored economic well-being. We’re now thinking about filling in more of the picture with other ways of thinking about what makes a healthy community. That is the overall direction of what we're currently exploring and where we’re headed.

After six months in your new role at OCF, what has surprised you the most?  

Just how broad OCF’s work is, as I learn more all the time about efforts in so many different communities. It has been surprising to see that breadth of activity and the diversity of work it reflects — how big that world is, all the different things that OCF does with our partners in places across the state.

I'm most excited just about learning and listening to the stories of this work and the wonderful opportunity to get to learn from all the different people engaged in these efforts. And, as we’re all starting to take some more steps out of COVID, I’m excited about having opportunities to see and hear more in person and to get to know my home state in a different way.