For more than 20 years, the Senator Walter Rand Institute (WRI) for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden has utilized its collective might to champion sound public policy in South Jersey. Residents seeking more affordable and accessible healthcare, families enjoying increased financial stability, and children receiving social-emotional learning (SEL) support in schools are among the thousands living and working in the region who have benefited directly from WRI’s impact.
Simply put, WRI—named in honor of the late New Jersey Senator Walter Rand, who harbored a deep commitment to South Jersey—has built its legacy on making data actionable.
“We exist to be instrumental in transforming problems into solutions in South Jersey,” said Mavis Asiedu-Frimpong, director of the Institute. “In policy, it can often be difficult to access real-time research, data, and information that supports a targeted, community-engaged, and tailored approach to addressing problems in the community.”
Prior to the Institute’s founding in 2000, Rutgers–New Brunswick and Rutgers–Newark had established a very strong public-policy presence in their respective parts of New Jersey, but Rutgers–Camden had not. Highly motivated faculty were making a demonstrated impact in the region, but their efforts were scattered, without any clear connection to Rutgers–Camden. It was difficult for the university to build equity with community partners, but WRI changed everything.
The fledgling WRI reinforced faculty connections to the community by establishing an external advisory board. The members were instrumental in helping to build support in the New Jersey state legislature. Their efforts resulted in state funding and a matching grant from Rutgers University.
Since its inception, WRI’s mission has been multifaceted. For Rutgers–Camden students, WRI has served as a learning laboratory and training ground for them to hone their research skills. In doing so, the institute builds a pipeline of future practitioners who understand the value of community-focused research and know how to interpret and write about it for public audiences.
WRI’s community-forward agenda has consisted of collaborating with Rutgers–Camden faculty, community-based organizations, foundations, government agencies, and others to evaluate programs and services, and assess community needs in southern New Jersey. Right out of the gate, the institute’s research projects focused on regional economic and social development in southern New Jersey, with a particular emphasis on Camden.
WRI’s projects reflect its commitment to community-based public safety and reentry initiatives in Camden. Past projects included a partnership with the Rutgers–Newark-based Police Institute on the Camden Safer Cities Initiative, an effort to make the city safer through a sustained collaboration among the criminal justice community and local leaders from Camden’s faith-based, neighborhood, governmental, and social service organizations. WRI served as a facilitator for the initiative’s bimonthly meetings today and provided regular analysis of crime data focused on victims and perpetrators of Camden in order to help at-risk individuals.
Underpinning these and subsequent successes, Asiedu-Frimpong noted, is Rutgers–Camden’s formidable strength as an academic institution that prides itself as a community partner. She noted that Rutgers–Camden is always keeping eyes on issues that surrounding communities are facing.
“You see that community partnership flag flying,” Asiedu-Frimpong said.
“There’s a real responsibility and obligation to understand what the issues are, see where we fit in to help solve those problems, and roll up our sleeves to get to work.”
With this institutional backing, WRI’s indelible fingerprint can still be seen across scores of community projects today. Over the last ten years, for instance, WRI conducted an evaluation of the Strengthening Families Initiative. This study, supported by the Pascal Sykes Foundation, showed that families using the Whole Family Approach, which pools social-service organizations in Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties, had more stable social support and increased levels of financial stability during the COVID-19 pandemic and revealed consistent, positive changes in healthy relationships, financial stability, and child well-being over 10 years of implementation. The Strengthening Families initiative now serves as a framework for future whole-family, goal-oriented, community-based social service provision efforts.
WRI has also conducted multiple community health needs assessments over its history, and is currently collaborating with the Inspira Health and AtlantiCare health systems to conduct assessments across Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, and Atlantic counties. This research highlights community priorities and identifies systematic gaps for the nearly 800,000 residents that live and work across the four counties. This includes an identified lack of affordability, accessibility, and availability of healthcare.
“Community health needs assessments are blueprints for action,” Asiedu-Frimpong said. “Highlighting community needs and priorities can serve as a data point and foundation for policy and practice to follow.”
Among other contributions, WRI captured data to understand the influence of “A New View-Camden”—a Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge-funded initiative that brought together the City of Camden, Camden Community Partnership, and the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts to transform six former illegal dumping sites into dynamic art spaces. An evaluation found that respondents’ positive views of public services and the City of Camden government and public services increased. Residents and other partners who engaged in the art installations and accompanying community events also expressed pride in the project.
“We were proud to be engaged in a project like that,” Asiedu-Frimpong said. “Illegal dumping is a great concern in Camden, so showing that the impact of the beautification of those spaces on residents, businesses, and the community as a whole was an important achievement for WRI.”
WRI’s recent contributions include a new report, “Seeking Work in South Jersey,” commissioned by the Rowan University/Rutgers–Camden Board of Governors. The report, conducted with the Camden Community Partnership and the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, identified an economic opportunity gap for South Jersey and Camden residents with other parts of the state, a mismatch between skills and available jobs, and communication and feedback challenges for job seekers.
In “Community Conversations: Pandemic Perspectives, New Jersey’s COVID-19 Storytelling Project,” WRI analyzed almost 600 personal stories from New Jersey residents collected by the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance (NJYSA) and their partners about the COVID-19 pandemic’s cross-cutting impact. The ongoing study, led by the NJYSA, New Jersey Department of Health, and Healthy New Jersey 2030, attempted to capture history as it happens, reporting mental health issues, such as isolation and stressors; social and economic factors, including challenges related to loss of income and employment; and clinical and healthcare behaviors, such as barriers to health resources.
One of WRI’s landmark achievements has been its work evaluating The Clayton Model, an innovative social-emotional learning (SEL) program established in the Clayton Public School District in Gloucester County. The intervention program provided a network of SEL services spanning from individual student support, teacher resources, and classroom strategies, to tools for parents to incorporate SEL strategies in the home.
The program is responsive and agile, meaning that it meets needs of students, but according to the school’s own lesson plans. For instance, Stephanie Chambers, SEL coordinator for Gloucester County Special Services, explains that she leads discussions for groups of three to six 4th- and 5th-grade boys for six to eight weeks on a variety of topics, including family ties, social skills, emotional regulation, and stop and think. After the lessons, Chambers will add a corresponding activity like a game, worksheet, or craft.
WRI found that The Clayton Model reduced behavioral difficulties in students and had a positive impact on their lives. But the research center’s involvement didn’t end there; representatives worked to amplify the program’s merits, even testifying before New Jersey legislators to support an effort to expand the program statewide. That effort would pay off; a bill was passed by legislators and signed by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in May 2021, funding a five-year expansion of The Clayton Model into 30 schools across the state. Today, WRI continues to evaluate the program’s impact on schools, families, and students, including absences, grades, suspensions, and behavior reports.
WRI also continues to leverage its headquarters on the Rutgers–Camden campus to collaborate with faculty—in some instances, providing faculty fellowships—to bring their breadth of knowledge, expertise, and skills to bear on regional problems and to support university initiatives. Its Veterans Serving Veterans collaboration with the School of Nursing–Camden provides supplemental training to nursing students who are veterans to care for fellow veterans in primary care settings.
Asiedu-Frimpong notes that WRI’s collaborations with community partners, agencies, and providers have been a two-way street over its proud 20-plus year history. Sometimes organizations approach WRI for research support, while conversely, WRI seeks out partnerships for projects highlighting gaps in existing research that can benefit South Jersey policymakers or community providers. Either way, WRI makes a lasting impression.
“WRI’s legacy is important,” Asiedu-Frimpong said. "We have shown for more than 20 years that our research and data can be another voice which can prove critical to decision-making processes.”
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