As part of Policies for Action’s (P4A’s) recent call for proposals to investigate policies to reduce the racial wealth gap, we recognized the opportunity to center the people and places most distant from privilege and power.

One framework we found useful is The Principles of Trustworthiness, ten ways to integrate local perspectives with established precepts of community engagement, recommended by a national collaborative of health equity scholars, practitioners, and community partners. Here are just three of the principles and how we’re applying them to the P4A program and its work.

Principle #2: You are not the only experts.

People closest to injustice are also those closest to the solutions to that injustice. (That is probably not you or your organization and, even if it is, there’s a power imbalance.) Listen to people in your community. They have deployed survival tactics and strategies for decades — centuries, even. Take notes. Co-develop. Co-lead. Share power.

Scholars, researchers, and funders, especially those coming from privileged backgrounds and trained at elite institutions, are often poorly positioned to understand the many causes and consequences of economic marginalization and exclusion, and therefore, the policy solutions to countering it. We recognize that we can center the perspectives and priorities of those most negatively affected by the policies studied within the P4A program – people with lived experience and deep ties to the communities – at every stage of the policy research continuum. These include but are not limited to:

  • conceiving, developing, and distributing our calls for proposals;

  • seeking out and supporting prospective applicants, especially non-traditional ones;

  • adapting the application design, submission, and review process;

  • iterating the grant-making and ongoing research support process;

  • evaluating and possibly adapting the research completion and dissemination period; and

  • working with grantees to distinguish and act upon useful opportunities beyond the end of their grant period. 

This is a major undertaking, one that we have started imperfectly, and that will require care and patience and new ways of understanding and approaching our policy research work. It also requires recognizing who needs to be prioritized in this process (and how), and developing and honing our analytical skills relating to systemic racism and its intersectional and attendant injustices.

Principle #9: If you’re gonna do it, take your time, do it right.

Demonstrating trustworthiness is not a one-and-done proposition. Keep at it. Be mindful. Remember, it takes a long time to build trust and only a split second to destroy it. Pace yourself. 

Centering people and communities most distant from justice requires a wide range of skills, sensibilities, and relationships, many of which require time to acquire and develop. It involves asking and answering new questions that have often been overlooked in the past. Questions such as:

  • Who are the most marginalized people and how are they affected?

  • How are the views and experiences of the people most affected by this research centered?

  • What power dynamics are involved, and who holds the most power?

  • Who is for and against policy change, and how might this affect policy research?

  • Who generated the evidence that supports the status quo?

  • What do the data reveal when they are disaggregated?

These are questions that pertain to both the research enterprise itself and the policies and systems being researched. We recognize that the work involved in posing and answering them with care and humility must be built on trust, and more importantly, trustworthiness.

Building trust, and acting on what we learn, will require much more time than is generally allotted in traditional academic and policy research ecosystems. P4A will continue to explore how our timelines are designed and sequenced, and how they might be made more flexible to support the new kinds of work we are hoping to fund.

Other ways of trying to do this kind of work “right” include: 

  • providing culturally specific technical assistance;

  • providing flexible funding;

  • fostering communities of practice;

  • encouraging leadership and capacity development; and

  • supporting grassroots activism around policy change.

Principle #10: The project may be over, but the work is not. 

Do not drop in and drop out. Share results. Partner on next steps. Close the loop. The community is constant — it is not there only for the duration of your grant or initiative. Be there for the community, always, and it is more likely to want to be there for you.

In centering community wisdom and voice in policy research, it is critical to recognize that people’s lives and experiences extend far beyond the temporal bounds of a single research project. Considering how the policy research process itself might affect (positively or negatively) existing community ecosystems and power imbalances, and what traces it might leave (again, positive or negative) are essential considerations. Done properly, policy research can amplify pre-existing efforts in communities to shift systems in the direction of fairness and equity, and the findings can accelerate policies needed to create communities that are not only prosperous and equitable but just.  As described in a recent Prosperity Now blog:

Community organizations know their clients best and should amplify their concerns, issues and client-centered innovations in discussions with policymakers and funders. Organizational leaders can work with policymakers to advocate for a universal living wage, full employment and the elimination of barriers to wage and wealth parity. A racial economic equity approach can ensure that once adopted, policies will remove institutional barriers, rather than simply mitigate issues that result from inequitable practices.  

Ultimately, the policy research generated by P4A and similar programs should support community-led policy change that creates a more equitable, fair, and healthy society. By drawing on principles of trustworthiness and centering the people and organizations that have the most to gain from equity-oriented policy shifts, the research P4A supports and its impact can only be strengthened. We look forward to continuing down this path toward equity and justice.



Laudan Aron is Co-Director of P4A and a Senior Fellow with the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center. She also co-directs Urban’s cross-center initiative on the social determinants of health.

Cat Goughnour is Racial Wealth Equity Fellow at Prosperity Now. P4A engaged Cat to review its grant applications and help better integrate racial equity into P4A’s calls for proposals. 


P4A is a signature research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), administered through the national coordinating center at the Urban Institute. Since 2015, P4A has awarded over $33 million for research identifying policies, laws, and other public and private sector levers that can support RWJF’s vision, working with others, to build a Culture of Health and help achieve health and racial equity. Along with the other signature research programs, P4A is helping to explore the root causes of health disparities in America and identify potential solutions to improve health, equity, and well-being.


Prosperity Now drives economic opportunity for all and builds equitable economic power. We create impactful systemic change by centering those who have been historically excluded, amplifying community-rooted solutions, and energizing them through research, advocacy, policy, and narrative change.

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