April 5, 2019

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George-Ann Ryan
George-Ann Ryan MPA ’20 at the Sadie Collective Conference in February 2019.

“In the 2016-2017 academic year, out of 1,150 economics PhDs awarded, only seven went to black women and 15 to African-Americans in general.”

These statistics illustrating the striking racial and gender gap in the field of public policy and economics were highlighted by George-Ann Ryan MIA ’20 in a recent conversation with SIPA News. Although the issue of diversity is frequently brought up in public-policy debates, experts often overlook the glaring issue in their own field. Now, the issue has sparked a dialogue not only in academia but in policy circles across the nation.

Ryan said the remarkably low figure does not reflect a lack of interest in economics among African-Americans but rather a lack of funding and resources for students from inner cities. Many of them, she added, see law, medical, engineering, or athletics as their only paths to success.

Ryan is chief financial officer of the Sadie Collective, an organization that seeks to bring together black women in economics. The group was established by Anna Opoku-Agyeman, a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Fanta Traore, a recent graduate of Howard University, when they realized there were few black women in their chosen field. Opoku-Agyeman and Traore began reaching out to fellow black women who are pursuing advanced degrees in economics and related disciplines; Ryan agreed to join the organization’s leadership after connecting with the founders on social media.

“The Sadie Collective came to be out of the need of realizing that there are so few women, especially black women, in the field,” Ryan said. “So, how can we make sure we keep connected for networking and mental-health purposes and flourish in the field where there are so few of us?”

In February, the Collective held the first conference in history solely for black women in economics. The organization’s members are all under 25; they seek broad change over the long term, in the form of a better pipeline that will increase diversity and give more people power.

The initiative was named after Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, who in 1921 became the first black woman to earn a PhD in economics.

“She couldn’t practice in the field because it was so racist,” Ryan said. “They just wouldn’t let her practice. So she ended up getting a law degree just a few years later.”

Alexander became the first black woman to earn a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania and also the first African American to practice law in the state of Pennsylvania. Indeed, Penn’s Black Law Students Association hosts an annual conference that recognizes Alexander’s pioneering status in the legal profession.

“So she worked at the intersection of economics and public policy,” Ryan said. “In all of her papers, she writes about economics, policy, and law, and how they intersect to advance the life of African-Americans.”

The inaugural Sadie Collective Conference, held on February 23 in Washington, D.C., convened 100 black women with bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees in economics and related fields along with recruiters from more than 50 organizations, raising over $15,000 for the main event. The conference was highlighted by a keynote speech by Governor Lael Brainard of the Federal Reserve Board and also received a shout-out on Twitter from Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

“What the event gave them was a sense of belonging because all of them were the only black women in their respective institutions; a lot of them had felt discouraged or at times felt that no one understood them,” Ryan said.

Ryan also discussed her experience and goals at SIPA in connection with her current role. “I never thought I’d end up in a public-policy school,” she said.

Ryan finished her undergraduate studies at 20, expecting to eventually earn a PhD in economics in order to work at the World Bank or in academia. But after working briefly at a nonprofit organization, she says, she was struck by the shortcomings of economic theories that don’t take into account intangible things like bias, stigma, and social factors that influence public-policy outcomes in practice. As a result, Ryan decided instead to pursue studies that balance theory with practice.

“SIPA is the perfect in-between where I can get quantitative skills, and still learn about international relations and public policy,” she said. “It gives a more balanced education than just going straight for an economics PhD.”

After SIPA, Ryan plans to go back to her native Antigua to establish its first think tank dedicated to analyzing public policy, making policy recommendations, and providing public policy education to a population that is well-educated but faces many barriers to development.

“I can be a spokesperson for the media or a public-policy analyst who works independently of the government to inform people the pluses and minuses of government legislation,” she said. ”I want to use my SIPA degree and whatever benefits I have in the society to really help Antigua move forward.”

Ryan’s says her personal journey is inextricably tied to her role at the Sadie Collective.

“When you look at the people who enact public policy, especially in international relations, a lot of them don’t come from the countries that they are enacting their policy toward,” she said. “Even in America, a lot of people enacting welfare policy have never been on welfare. Although the police aren’t African-American, they’re policing African-American neighborhoods. And with that comes cultural misunderstanding”.

While the Sadie Collective has only held the one conference so far, the group is already making an impact.

“I think it’s a cultural movement at this point,” Ryan said. “We have raised the awareness of underrepresentation and lack of diversity in economics and public policy. We also made a huge group of women who feel they belong.”

— Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19