Economics and the power of data for social good

Photo of Economics and the power of data for social good

Economics is probably not the first thing to come to mind when most people think about social good — but economic researchers like Fanta Traore are working to do just that. Traore is an economist and entrepreneur who recently shared her insights as part of The National Science and Technology Medals foundation’s Science Unscripted series.

“Economics is everywhere, in terms of this concept of power and distribution,” she added. “When we look at how that affects Black and Brown communities — and the lack of power that is within those communities — it is really frustrating.”

Traore has been addressing this disparity since her days as a Howard University undergraduate beginning with launching the Young AfricanA Leadership Initiative (YAALI). 

“That was an entity that was created based on looking at data …  the rate of black people studying abroad,” she said. “Having gone to Mali just that summer before I started at Howard, I saw the value in being able to go to the [African] continent and really be able to get a sense for the realities on the ground and explore opportunities for service.” 

“When we are looking at the data around who has passports, it’s pretty low for the Black community, so that was used to inform the creation of this program, which still exists to this day,” she added.

The data served as the basis for funding proposals that helped establish the YAALI program. According to the organization, through learning, researching, and visiting Africa, students gain an educational and enlightening experience.

“What I think is really cool about [economics is] that you can really color the kinds of work that you do based off of the experiences you have,” she said. “If you’re someone who is interested in Africa and development economics, you are able to bring all those experiences to inform these kinds of questions that you ask.”

When it comes to the world of economics, however, Traore is among very few Black women. 

Practically, this also meant Traore did not see herself represented at economic institutions, including the Federal Reserve System  — the Fed — where she worked as a senior research assistant. 

“For my first couple of months when I entered the Fed, I was unlike who I am. You couldn’t recognize me in that I was slicking my hair back and for a hot second trying to blend in — which doesn’t make sense to do at all. For a couple of weeks, I was in this phase of ‘do I belong here’ and really doubting myself,” she said.

There she met Quentin Johnson, who at the time was working as the senior economics outreach specialist at the Fed.

“We had a conversation, and as we were talking, he started a few affirmations and those affirmations I started to say to myself literally every day. They were: ‘I am capable. I am competent. I can do it. I am confident to conquer.’ It was like poetry. These were what he termed in that moment the Five C’s,” Traore said.

“I think in the early phases of that new situation, having someone to pour into herself was really what allowed her to have a reservoir to tap whenever she needed it,” Johnson told the NSTMF.

Johnson terms this kind of support, “inclusive reinforcement.”

There isn’t a lot of inclusive reinforcement for people who find themselves in spaces where they are in the minority, where they don’t see themselves represented at all levels of the organization,” he said. 

“We were both new to the Fed at the time. So in our own ways we were dealing with the newness of being at a place of very high regard, and being one of few folks from our background that look like us in that space,” he added. 

When economist Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman was first introduced to economics as a way to use math to understand social issues, she started looking up Black economists.

“I remember not seeing many,” Opoku-Agyeman told the NSTMF. “Then I looked up Black women economists and saw even fewer pictures.”

That is, very few economists who looked like her.

According to economist Dr. Rhonda Sharpe, in 2016 minority women accounted for only 5.1% of all students graduating with economics degrees — and worse, the rate of Black women entering economics was actually declining over time. 

Like any good economist, Traore and Opoku-Agyeman turned this “market failure” into an opportunity for advancement.

Together Traore and Opoku-Agyeman founded The Sadie Collective, the first and only American organization dedicated to empowering and equipping Black women in the pipeline and pathway of economics and related fields. The Sadie Collective does this through curated content creation, programming, and mentorship. 

“We came up with an idea for addressing the needs for Black women in this space as we were learning more about the lack of Black women in economics,” Traore said.

“We thought, in order to address this, let’s get all the Black women that we know in a room who have been encouraging us to go into economics and get a sense for why they decided to pursue this field — and it continued to grow from there,” she added.

They started with seven Black women in economics. The Sadie Collective now has more than 700 members and hosts an annual conference on economics and related fields.

“It’s important to note as well, in order to join to be a member, you don’t have to be a Black woman. Our work requires allies and their commitment as well,” Traore added. “We have thought deeply about how to provide services and information to allies as well, so they are able to engage with what we are trying to do here to make economics accessible to everyone.”

For Opoku-Agyeman, accessibility to economics starts with awareness.

“Not a lot of people realize there is a way to blend mathematical and analytical tools into a career that is pretty lucrative and also allows you to have a direct impact,” Opoku-Agyeman said.

“When I was a freshman, I remember going back to my high school and mentioning in passing, ‘I think it would really enjoy majoring in math,’ and a teacher laughing at me and saying ‘no, you ask too many questions to do that.’ That actually shut it down for me,” she added. Economics came as a revelation; “It wasn’t until my junior year that I realized: You can ask questions for a living, and people will pay you? I ask questions all the time! I just didn’t know. I had no idea that this was a path people took.”

For Johnson, who now serves on The Sadie Collective advisory board, awareness and data are closely aligned. In fact, his role at the Fed was born out of economic research.

“One way economics has played a part in changing things: My job at the Fed. It was based off of economics analysis … on the unequal distribution of economic education,” he said. “Based on their research, one of their recommendations was to create essentially my position.” 

“That position being created led to me getting the job at the Fed, that led [to] my conversation with Fanta,” he added. “I’m a product of economics.”

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