February 16, 2022
Harvard Kennedy School PhD candidate Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is an award-winning Ghanaian-American researcher, entrepreneur, and writer. In 2018, Anna Gifty co-founded The Sadie Collective, the only non-profit organization addressing the underrepresentation of Black women in economics, finance, and policy. She also co-founded the viral and award-winning digital campaign #BlackBirdersWeek.
Her new book, The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System, is the first collection to exclusively feature Black scholars and experts across economics, education, health, climate, criminal justice, and technology. The book has received praise from the likes of New York Times bestselling authors, Wes Moore, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, and Chelsea Clinton. The Women and Public Policy Program sat down with Anna to chat about her book and the importance of centering Black experts.
The views represented here are those of the individual faculty, staff, or students and do not represent the views of Harvard University or any of its sub-entities. Interview was edited for clarity and length.
WAPPP: Why were you inspired to write and edit your book, The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System?
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman: The Black Agenda was really inspired by the fact that during the very early months of the pandemic, obviously we knew that this pandemic was horrible, was affecting a lot of different people in different ways, but it clearly was affecting Black folks worse. And I recognized that despite Black experts talking about how it was impacting the Black community disproportionately across the economy or how climate change was intersecting with the pandemic or obviously healthcare and wellness, not a lot of mainstream outlets were covering it. That was the main motivation behind it. I recognized that gap and I said, “OK, well, how do we fill the gap?” I am a person who's all about solutions. That was my main motivation behind it.
The other thing that happened was as somebody who was a little bit more visible in the economics profession, mainly because of my work with the Sadie Collective and writing op-eds, people were coming to me. News outlets would reach out to ask, “What's your comment on, you know, Janet Yellen being Biden’s potential Secretary of Treasury pick? Or what's your comment on X Y Z?” Look, I love commentating. I love chatting. However, I don't think I'm the best person for every question. And so, I also brought this book together with the media in mind. This book gives the media thirty-five names to choose from automatically. So, I always say that this book is kind of a litmus test in some ways. We put all these Black experts in the book to see if the media covers it, and that's going to test whether people are actually paying attention to Black experts who are weighing in on these different policy areas.
WAPPP: You mentioned your background is in economics, which is a field dominated by white men. How can we increase the visibility and representation of women of color in the field? And how do we ensure that economic research and policies produced are intersectional and inclusive?
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman: Yeah, this is an interesting question, given what just happened during the confirmation hearing for President Biden's Federal Reserve Board nominees. Drs. Lisa D. Cook, Philip Jefferson, and Sarah Bloom Raskin were questioned by the Senate about whether they should be eligible to manage the health of the U.S. economy. Dr. Cook, who is an esteemed macro-economist, with years of experience, and a Black woman, has had her credentials questioned publicly by a lot of people.
We talk about representation; we talk about bringing Black and brown folks to the forefront of these conversations. And then when we get there, we are questioned: Are you competent enough? Do you have the skill set to even do this? I don't think there's any level of experience, any level of credentials that will fundamentally reverse how people think about Black folks’ incompetence. And I think that's just been the name of the game with Black experts in general, especially in economics, which is fundamentally hierarchical and riddled with some very classist, racist, and sexist undertones that have been widely discussed by popular outlets.
So how do we increase diversity? Well, as the co-founder of the Sadie Collective, I believe it's best to work outside of the system. To me that seems to be the most effective way to push things forward. I think the system, if it's been there for hundreds of years, is very hard to reverse engineer. It's like turning a very, very big cruise ship. And so perhaps the best thing to do is to hit it at its pressure points.
In my own personal research, I am very much interested in thinking about how we get young, Black and brown folks successfully into the workplace, into organizations. It is very aligned with Dr. Iris Bohnet’s research as well. I want to both generate empirical evidence while justifying our lived experience. And that's also what we see in The Black Agenda.
WAPPP: Your book amplifies perspectives of Black women from a range of fields education, climate, policy, economics. Why is it important to center Black women's scholarship and amplify the research and policymaking in all fields?
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman: I like this question a lot, though as a quick correction, I would say The Black Agenda centers a wide array of gender identities within the book. But, yes, but the focus is Black women. This idea that we don’t just talk about Black women when it's convenient; I'm going to make it inescapable by having it be in a formalized fashion.
The point of centering Black women scholarship is that Black women lie at the intersection of so many marginalized identities—so many identities that ultimately have the worst outcomes when it comes to the economy, climate, health care. So, when we think about solutions that address essentially those at the bottom, across these outcomes, Black women oftentimes come up with solutions that end up helping everybody else in an attempt to help themselves.
For example, in Tinu Abayomi-Paul’s essay (that I like to cite quite a bit), she talks about how if we think about workplace policies around disabled Black women, that could then be a proxy for just better workplace policies. When you have better chairs for disabled folks, for example, you have better chairs for everyone else. A good example that I like to point to is ramps. People take ramps all the time, even if they don't need a wheelchair. And so, I think that's the biggest thing; Black woman scholarship ultimately centers the most marginalized and in doing so creates solutions that encompass everyone.
A concept that kind of embodies this is “Black Women Best” championed by Janelle Jones, who is the first Black woman to be the Chief Economist for the Department of Labor. Jones co-wrote an essay about this idea that if the best outcome is achieved for Black women, it's a better outcome for everyone else. And when you think about that, literally in any context, it applies, right? If you make things better for Black women it helps everyone economically; it helps us all in terms of climate, wellness, health care, and more. And so, I really want people to think about that as they're reading this book.
WAPPP: How has Harvard Kennedy School shaped your perspective and what's the most valuable experience you've gained from your time here?
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman: This is my second time at Harvard; I was previously a fellow with the GSAS Research Scholar Initiative. And what I'll say is that Harvard is a really privileged place, and I think that it's also a bit of a bubble. I know what bubbles can do to people's mentalities around certain topics. So, I think the biggest thing that Harvard has taught me is that privilege is not earned. For example, if you have privilege, you didn't earn that. That's just something that came with you. I think when you recognize that, you have to do everything in your power to then create avenues for other people to succeed.
I would say the most interesting concept I've learned so far, Professor Arda Gitmez (Visiting Assistant Professor of Public Policy) taught us in our microeconomic theory course last semester that not all efficient market equilibriums are welfare maximizing. So, what he means by that, through a normative lens, is that not every efficient outcome in the market is fair depending on who you are.
At the end of day, I sincerely hope that Harvard (Kennedy School) learns from and listens to Black people, beginning with the Black Student Association and Anti-racism Journal Club, both of which have done an exceptional job of bringing attention to issues regarding equity or lack thereof. The fact that more than 70 percent of the faculty identify as white men and not a single tenured faculty member at HKS focuses on any part of sub-Saharan Africa is a problem. We cannot be a premier policy institution that is informing the next generation of policy makers without Black perspectives across the board, and that’s what I want people to get from the book and overall works of Black experts.