As a managing director at the MacArthur Foundation, Cecilia Conrad oversees the MacArthur Fellows and 100&Change programs. She is also the CEO of Lever for Change, a Foundation affiliate whose mission is to accelerate solutions to the world’s biggest social challenges. Conrad has been a Member of the Academy since 2006, and was elected to the Academy’s Board in 2018.
During this transformative time in the United States, where the pandemic and the movement for racial justice are forcing a reckoning with racial disparities, we turned to Conrad for insights into how the Academy might increase diversity in its Internship Programs and Membership.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for an outreach and selection process that aims for more diversity in our internship program?
Conrad: One of the first steps is to reach beyond the immediate network, in your case your Membership, because the immediate network doesn’t have the diversity you seek. You have to reach beyond it and get the information out to a broader group. In the MacArthur Fellows Program, for roughly the first ten years of its existence, the “Fellows” were “fellows”, namely men. During that time there were panels of nominators, but it wasn’t until we opened the field up that we began to see the diversity in the class of Fellows that we wanted.
Q: What do you mean by “opening the field”?
Conrad: Every month we go out and try to identify people who are in a position where they can spot where creativity is happening and where new talent is, and we ask them to nominate candidates. We spend a lot of time looking for nominators from diverse groups, from diverse geographies, and from across all fields of endeavors. You have to build the yield; it might take time to get results, but persistence pays off.
You need to identify key informants, like people at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), who are faculty in economics, actuarial studies, and public policy and ask them to share the internship information with their students.
Part of the challenge is that there may not be a lot of awareness around what social insurance means. There is a need to educate young people about social insurance and why it’s important to them. There is a role for the Academy to play in simultaneously educating and recruiting young people.
Q: Are there unique ways we can try to reach young people?
Conrad: At the MacArthur Foundation we are experimenting with many kinds of methodologies to get placement in prominent places in social media, but it requires a special kind of expertise. Certainly for the Academy, there is a need to think carefully about values, how they are conveyed through social media, and what will yield the kind of payoff we want. I think some of the fun things we did with the Campaign for Social Insurance kickoff, such as the Songs of Social Insurance playlist, is a good example. It is at the cusp of being fun and engaging, yet still conveys serious information.
Q: Why is it such a challenge to increase diversity in the field of social insurance? Do you see it changing with the current situation of the pandemic and calls for racial justice?
Conrad: Yes, the pandemic is a specific opportunity to get attention on the ways that social insurance is important for everyone. About the diversity issue, there are multiple pieces. I can speak about the profession of economics, though that is not the only supply source for the kinds of people we want to engage. The economics profession has been slow in terms of increasing diversity relative to other social sciences. It is a field that tends to steer graduate students toward things that can be studied empirically or in certain theoretical directions; there may be an instinct to lead people away from specifically applied topics. So students who might have an interest in some parts of social insurance may not see opportunities to do that while they are in school. And that’s why the internship program is so important.
Then there is the challenge of information. There are some networks we can reach to try to present these opportunities to students of color across the country. Within economics there is the American Economic Association’s Mentoring Program, currently led by Trevon Logan of Ohio State University.
Q: One of the challenges for implementing the outreach you suggest is the time and staff commitment it takes.
Conrad: You have to find the people who will help you do the work! Leverage the network of past interns by keeping them engaged. I think it’s increasingly important to connect them to each other and to maintain them as community. They will help to connect you to new people.
There was a state senator in Texas who started a paid internship program for students in his community about 30 years ago. The program has continued all these years, and now much of the legwork, energy, and time that get invested in it are coming from the alumni. They successfully keep the alums connected with each other through an annual reunion and by having alumni help interview the intern applicants. Maybe the Academy could use a former intern (with the help of a small stipend) to run the intern alumni program and be charged with keeping them together.
More about Cecilia Conrad
Before joining the MacArthur Foundation in January 2013, Conrad had a distinguished career as both a professor of economics and an administrator at Pomona College in Claremont, California. She served as Associate Dean of the College (2004-2007), as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College (2009-2012), and as Acting President (Fall 2012).
Cecilia Conrad’s work has appeared in both academic journals and nonacademic publications including The American Prospect and Black Enterprise. She was an economist at the Federal Trade Commission and a visiting scholar at The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. She served as director of the Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession’s mentoring program. She is a past president of the National Economic Association and of the International Association for Feminist Economics.