Students at O’Neill strive to change the world by creating safe and sustainable communities through careers in government, law enforcement, and nonprofits. While some write and enact policies or work on the frontlines protecting their communities, others provide data to make sound decisions.
That’s the lane in which Brianna Dines sits.
“I want to do research and evaluation in social policy,” Dines says. “I want to be part of policy and decision making that’s done with more in-depth lived experience informing decisions.”
Dines already had research experience before she began her Policy Analysis certificate program at O’Neill. While earning her bachelor’s in political science and master’s degree in anthropology, Dines had focused on qualitative research—the side of research that incorporates people’s first-hand experiences. Dines says that part of the equation is critical because numbers never tell the whole story.
“When policies impact someone’s experience of oppression or liberation, it’s important to get a grounded perspective in their experience,” Dines explains. “You don’t get that through crunching numbers. You get that through doing in-depth interviews, focus groups, and participant observation.”
Dines says she chose the O’Neill School because she wanted a place where she could use her research skills to address real-world problems and get hands-on experience making an impact.
“Being an O’Neill student opens up experiences outside the classroom where you get direct, applied experience,” she says. “It’s one of the biggest reasons why I sought out the Policy Analysis program and I was not disappointed in what that has opened up to me.”
Her first opportunity through O’Neill came via the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy at the IU Public Policy Institute. Each spring, they host the CRISP Research and Evaluation Clinic. The clinic’s student research assistants work with local nonprofits to provide pro bono evaluation services.
Dines wasn’t part of that group, though. Instead, she was evaluating the evaluators.
“My project was an assessment of the CRISP Clinic itself,” she explains. “It’s a study about the process and outcomes of community-engaged research, and how it impacts those involved—from nonprofits to students to the university.”
Dines interviewed the CRISP student researchers and the participating nonprofits about their experiences, what skills the students were learning, and the payoff for the nonprofits. In the end, she developed a report for CRISP to help them improve the clinic for students and nonprofits alike.
She credits the experience with allowing her to put her classroom learnings into action in a practical way, helping her learn to work as part of a research team, and understanding how to balance project timelines.
But her work at CRISP was just her first foray into qualitative research. She’s also working with O’Neill Assistant Professor Peter Federman on a project that will impact people on the east side of Indianapolis.
The Shepherd Community Center’s Shalom Project pays the salaries of one police officer and one paramedic to intervene and connect people to resources in nonemergency situations.
“There are a lot of nonemergency 911 calls in the study’s ZIP code—they’re people who just don’t know what other number to call to get help,” Federman explains. “Those calls are routed to the Shalom Project team who can direct them to resources and take the burden off other officers and paramedics.”
Dines is working directly with the officer-paramedic duo and assessing how well the project is working for them and those they serve.
She admits her own beliefs about policing make her participation both tricky and interesting. But she adds that’s where qualitative research shines—it doesn’t pretend the researcher is objective, but rather teaches researchers to work around their biases.
“This project is morally and ethically challenging for me, but it’s an extremely important issue right now and goes to the foundation of systemic oppression,” she says. “As a result, it feels like high stakes research in terms of what kind of analysis I am putting my name on.”
Federman says having their names on research is one reason students should consider working on faculty-led research. The positions are paid and allow students to reap the benefits of faculty mentorship, while building their knowledge bank—and resumes—for future careers or even current positions.
“I’ve had graduate students get their names on publications and contribute to writing some of our papers,” he says. “I know many O’Neill faculty members who have had students be published in academic journals even while they’re still pursuing their degrees.”
For Dines, it’s about more than prestige. She wants to do her part to make an impact on addressing long-standing historical systemic oppression.
“When I entered the field, I was surprised and dismayed that reductive and positivistic ways of thinking about policy are still fairly dominant for many in power,” she says. “That strikes me as just irresponsible when we’re trying to make decisions. These research opportunities mean I can help change that by incorporating people’s experiences into the research that decision leaders will use to make that will affect our communities.”