The National African American Child & Family Research Center (NAACFRC), an institute housed within Morehouse College’s School of Medicine, is joining forces with Compassionate Atlanta, a nonprofit aiming to inspire compassion-oriented change throughout Atlanta and surrounding cities. 

In doing so, both organizations aim to incite positive change among Black families in the region, state and beyond by prioritizing Black voices and experiences within the community and changing the narrative regarding poverty and government assistance.

Both organizations have laid out a plan to improve the state of Black families in Atlanta through means of research and community involvement.

The NAACFRC was founded in 2021 in order to research solutions that would benefit Black families routinely discriminated against in previously conducted studies. The center works to improve the overall welfare of Black families by focusing specifically on three areas: early education, early care and social and economic mobility.

Latrice Rollins, director and principal investigator of the research center, said the general topic of health intersects with the NAACFRC’s three central areas of focus. 

“Economic mobility, early childhood education, all of those things contribute to the overall health and well-being of children and communities,” Rollins said. “So, there is this cross-cutting theme of health that runs through [our research], as well.”

Morehouse School of Medicine volunteers work at a Pro Sisters event table. Photo courtesy of Compassionate Atlanta

Rollins has worked with the center for just over a year, working in child support enforcement at the start of her career before joining the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Prevention Research Center in 2014. She said that pursuing master and doctoral degrees in social work prepared her to assume her leadership position with the NAACFRC.

“To be honest, this is a dream. This was like a full-circle moment for me,” Rollins said. “To have this opportunity to run a center that is looking at how we can better serve African American children and families with the Administration for Children and Families, it has been a dream come true.”

The NAACFRC is the first research center to specifically focus its research upon the needs and treatment of African American families, alleviating Black families from facing discrimination from inaccurate framework commonly used to analyze their white counterparts. According to the center’s website, the NAACFRC is funded by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.                    

Iyabo Onipede, co-director of Compassionate Atlanta, said she met Rollins through a monetary grant that the organization received from Gilead Sciences to fund an HIV awareness campaign for Black women in the region. One of Compassionate ATL’s board members introduced Onipede to Rollins and her work with the research center. 

Onipede is a keynote speaker and consultant with a background in justice, equity and religious studies. A self-described “community builder,” she began working with Compassionate ATL in 2018 after wrapping up 20 years of service as an attorney. She joined the organization to diversify the nonprofit’s outreach in the greater Atlanta area.

“On our board, we have at least two African Americans, but our work wasn’t deep in the Black community,” Onipede said. “I wanted to come in and make sure there was a lot more consistency because [Compassionate Atlanta] is very focused on inclusivity.”

Despite Onipede’s background in divinity, Compassionate Atlanta takes a more fluid approach to compassion, choosing not to center its values around religiosity or a single belief system. The organization works to inspire members of the community to transform their feelings of innate compassion into action that is capable of positively impacting the city and citizens around them. Onipede said the NAACFRC aligns with Compassionate Atlanta’s values regarding compassion and in their efforts to bring about more diversity and inclusivity through their community service.

“For us at Compassionate Atlanta, our job is to advance the ethic and culture of compassion by responding to the asks of the community,” Onipede said. 

Compassionate Atlanta works with over 160 partnering organizations located all over the metro area to inspire compassionate work across the city, all of which individually specialize in a variety of topics ranging from business to religion. The organization also hosts its own annual convention called CompassionCON, where Compassionate Atlanta employees, partners and community members gather to publicly discuss and promote compassion-oriented action, while networking with like-minded people and organizations.

Onipede said the nonprofit’s partnership with the National African American Child and Family Research Center will kickstart a new goal to collaborate with more institutions of learning in the future.

Both the research center and Compassionate Atlanta have short and long-term goals they’d like to see fulfilled through the partnership.

To gather the data needed to draft peer-reviewed literature, researchers with the NAACFRC travel into predominantly Black communities around Georgia and six other states in the southwest and mid-Atlantic regions of the country, speaking with residents about their concerns regarding the center’s three focal areas. Rollins said that the research center’s short-term goal of focus is to share their collected data with the communities the data represents. Doing so allows these communities to offer feedback on the center’s findings and share their opinions on the changes they want to see within their hometowns. 

“That’s what we’re working on now,” Rollins said. “Pulling together the findings so that we can share them back.”

These listening sessions are private opportunities for members of local Black communities to list their grievances with the government services they utilize and the quality of life and care they receive from the resources available to them. The sessions also help NAACFRC researchers pinpoint problem areas in public policy.

Rodney Washington, co-investigator at the NAACFRC, said that the center’s researchers hold these discussions with affected families in order to prioritize the communities’ viewpoints and define the areas of research that require the most attention.

“We are hoping that we can get a framework together that has more humanizing factors,” Washington said. “Because when these families are going in to get support and assistance, they’re at their most vulnerable.”

On the other hand, Compassionate Atlanta’s short-term goals for the collaboration include equipping the NAACFRC with the tools and ideas they need to accomplish its current objectives, as well as deepening the relationship and connections between the two organizations.

In the long term, Rollins said the NAACFRC wants to see necessary policy changes implemented so that fewer Black children and families should have to suffer at the hands of racially-exclusive research framework.

Compassionate Atlanta aims to incorporate lesser-funded grassroots organizations into future conversations as a long-term goal, because Compassionate Atlanta lacks the resources to serve Georgia communities outside of the metro Atlanta area. Onipede said the nonprofit started its own initiative earlier this year providing smaller nonprofits with the connections they need to serve their own respective communities more efficiently.

“We believe in community building and we must honor these smaller grassroots organizations that need funding and notoriety,” Onipede said. “[The grassroots organizations] need to be known for what they’re doing and they often get overlooked.”

Although the National African American Child and Family Research Center is the first of its kind, according to Rollins, it likely won’t be the last. Rollins said more partnerships between think tanks and nonprofits like this will emerge over time, as more research centers will be encouraged to adapt a community service component into their work in order to receive funding. These partnerships also allow research centers to diversify existing frameworks of research, she said, creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment for those burdened by frameworks of the past.

An overarching theme of the project involves treating overlooked communities with dignity and respect. This is accomplished best through the research center’s listening sessions, said Leanne Rubenstein, Compassionate Atlanta’s other co-director. She said that discussing prominent community-wide issues in group settings helps to reduce the stigma surrounding personal suffering, while also allowing members of these communities to feel seen and heard.

“We see people for who they are without judgment,” Rubenstein said. “These listening sessions are all about ‘Your voice matters’.”

Editor’s Note by way of Dr. Latrice Rollins, director and principal investigator of the research center: These views are the interviewer’s own and not the institutions or funder HHS/ACF.