Sky Sealey-Otero (MSW’19) Joins American Voices Project as Research Fellow

May 15, 2019 @ 9:56 pm
By Janet Young, Communications Writer

Childhood concerns about inequality have put this MSW student on an unstoppable career path in social enterprise administration and social science research.

Columbia social work student Sky Sealey-Otero vividly remembers the night she and her mother rode the subway to a family shelter. Her mother’s partner had grown violent, and they were fleeing from the apartment where they were living, their few possessions stuffed into garbage bags. Only 12 years old at the time, Sky struggled to avoid the glances of other riders.

Recalling that night later, she wrote:

“You don’t notice how dirty the floor is until you have no choice but to stare at it. Your eyes become fixated on the ground. You’re unsure if embarrassment or grief has taken over your small body, but either way you cling to the pole. You begin to think how small, how voiceless you are in comparison to the liveliness of the 4 train.”

After spending most of her childhood in Puerto Rico, Sky had accompanied her mother to New York City as her mother wanted to study for her bachelor’s degree. She completed the degree—but ultimately didn’t have the wherewithal to support herself and her daughter in living independently.

Sky’s early experience with homelessness and life in a family shelter left her wondering why some people have more than others. This questioning of the system ultimately led her to apply for social work school, where she has dedicated herself to learning all about how economic power works in communities of color—in her own words, “how people are making it with their incomes or lack of incomes, what it means to own property in the neighborhood, and how to invest in our communities.” After graduation this month, she is planning a career in administration and policy that will make waves and move mountains for people who find themselves in predicaments like the one she and her mother once faced.

And she will take a bold first step in that direction by working for a year as a research fellow for the American Voices Project, an exciting new poverty initiative being launched by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality in partnership with Princeton University’s Bendheim-Thomen Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and the American Institutes for Research. The project, which has been ten years in the making, is sending a team of investigators into 200 communities across the nation to conduct deep, qualitative conversations with thousands of Americans about their hopes and needs. According to its website, it is “not a standard survey but a commitment to listen” in hopes that listening to people’s stories will yield ideas for policies that would “make our neighborhoods and country work better.”

Classmate Bethany K. Miller will also join the project as a regional director, training and supporting the research fellows.

Ready for a Road Trip

Sky’s cohort will train intensively for seven weeks in public policy, qualitative interviewing, and survey methods. Then they’ll hit the road in pairs, assigned to a broad region where they’ll visit rural areas, suburbs, and cities. Sky and her research partner will spend six to eight weeks in each community before moving on.

“I will essentially be living from a suitcase,” she says.

Asked what she expects the experience to be like, Sky surmises, “No two days will look the same. My prior experience conducting research and working in nonprofits tells me to always expect the unexpected.”

As one of only 70 fellows selected from 1,500 applicants, Sky knew the odds were long, but an enduring interest in research prompted her to apply. At the School of Social Work, her favorite class was Social Work Research, and she chose the Social Enterprise Administration method because she wanted to learn program evaluation and management practices. Her second-year practicum placement, at the Anti-Violence Project, focused on policy implementation and program needs-assessments.

As applicants were winnowed down, Sky conveyed to her interviewers how important it was to include social workers on the research team.

She credits the School of Social Work for its emphasis on social justice and cultural humility, qualities she thinks can counterbalance the kinds of biases research fellows with quantitative, heavy statistic and data backgrounds might bring to the table. “Having a trauma-informed or anti-oppressive framework really prepared me to understand how systems contribute to the experiences that people go through,” she says. “I also learned to be mindful of my own privileges as a person holding power in conducting research and being a graduate of Columbia.”

A PROP Perspective

If Sky is a member of the first American Voices Project cohort, she also belongs to the first cohort of MSW students at Columbia to complete a new Power, Race, Oppression and Privilege (PROP) course set in motion by previous graduating classes. A leader of the Black Caucus, she found PROP “popping up” again and again on campus.

“There were lots of discussions of how PROP should work,” she recalls. Students, faculty, and administration presented differing views on where, how often, and even whether the anti-oppression framework should be applied. Sky advocated moving forward with PROP, while also agreeing with those who felt the syllabus and discussions could be improved.

“For instance, the curriculum doesn’t focus as much on the experiences of Asian and Pacific Islander students or immigrants,” she says. “At the same time, the advantage of having this is really checking our own biases and recognizing that racism in this country is rooted in anti-Blackness and informs our public policies.”

Advice to Fellow Students: You Can Do Anything

Asked to provide some advice to incoming and first-year students as she nears graduation, Sky urges them to cast a wide net for career opportunities.

“There’s a lot of stress around what students are going to do after they graduate. And there’s this tendency to believe that we have to be restricted to one area of work,” she says. But “the degree and the skills are very versatile.” And graduates may move from one sector to another in the course of their career.

“I just want to encourage social workers to think of social work outside of the traditional confines like clinical or case management,” Sky says. “You can do research. You can enter into a venture project. You can do philanthropy work.”

In much the same way, she plans to make the most of the challenges she faces in her role of research fellow. As a woman of color with a Columbia degree and firsthand experience of economic inequity, she’s eager to begin the research and contribute her expertise.

“This fellowship can be whatever I want it to be,” she says.

Related external link:

Recruitment Video for the American Voices Project (1/16/2019)