Employee Spotlight Interview: Jessica Santos

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How would you describe your role at ICH?

My role at ICH is the inaugural Director of the Leah Zallman Center for Immigrant Health Research.  I envision this role as multi-faceted, with endless possibility.  There is the responsibility to honor and build on Dr. Zallman’s legacy, which I hope to do by linking my own research and network of partners with hers, and charting new territory that unites us intellectually.  I’ll be leading and developing research studies, publishing, and working to establish a public presence for the Center.  Perhaps most importantly, I plan to dedicate a good amount of time up front in this role to building strong networks and teams, and engaging local and national immigrant scholars and advocates.  I’m thinking about it as a 6-month listening opportunity.  I expect that this participatory process will result in a collective, emergent strategy for a vibrant Center.

What is your educational background?

I have a PhD in social policy from Brandeis University’s Heller School, where I studied anti-poverty policy and economic and racial equity.   My master’s degree is in sustainable development from the School for International Training, and as part of that program I had the opportunity to work and study in Brazil.  A highlight was reading Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in its original language while sitting in a tiny cabin in the rainforest.  My Bachelor’s degree is in International Studies from Middlebury College.

What was your career path before coming to ICH?

My career/educational path for many years was focused on understanding why poverty exists and what is being done (or not done) about it.  I worked at a homeless shelter, did casework and job development with families attached to the welfare system, resettled refugees, and spent time in some of the poorest regions in the world.  I also worked in state government at the NH Office of Minority Health, where I learned about health equity and strategic policy work.  Most recently, I was the Director of Community-Engaged Research at the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity at Brandeis, and a faculty member at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

What made you decide to come to ICH?

The people.  I feel a connection to the organization’s mission, and the opportunity to build a research Center focused on immigrant health does not come along every day!  But I’ve learned that if you have great colleagues, the rest will follow.  I really respect the way ICH’s staff and leadership engaged with me throughout the interview process, and I think we will do meaningful and impactful work together.

What are some projects that you are working on right now?

I’m in the process of wrapping up a 3rd case study on Empowerment Economics with an urban Native organization in Portland, OR, and I’m also working with the Massachusetts State Office of Economic Empowerment to figure out what role state agencies can play at a policy level in supporting grassroots organizations in communities of color as they seek to advance economic wellbeing.  I just secured a new project that will be launching in October, focused on career advancement in refugee resettlement cities.  Secure, quality jobs are the cornerstone of immigrant health.  We will be evaluating the extent to which a handful of cities across the US – designated by our partner LIRS as New American Cities – can effectively welcome refugees and create systems for career advancement and economic wellbeing.  This is a mixed methods, policy-oriented study designed to specify effective models for resettlement as well as define the social return-on-investment for cities that invest in economic integration and wellbeing for newcomers.

What are your favorite projects topics and why?

I love studying the interplay between individual- and family-level outcomes (in health, economic security, career mobility, etc) and community-level outcomes (integration, equity, improved systems, and power shifts).  I’m fascinated by the multi-level nature of social realities and spend a lot of time thinking about how to accurately design mixed methods studies with causal arrows going in multiple directions between methods, theory, and practice.  In general, my favorite studies end up being the ones where our research provides evidence for action towards equity.

What are you most excited about for the future of ICH?

I am excited about the potential to develop a stronger training and educational component to ICH’s overall model by experimenting with this in the development of the Leah Zallman Center.  What are the core competencies and/or shared values and knowledge pillars that ICH staff have?  What expertise can we develop to better advance equity within the organization and in society?  Are there ways to disseminate and develop aspects of “community health knowledge” in partnership with community?  What has ICH uniquely learned over the years?  Do we already “know” enough to improve community health, and if so, what more do we need to learn about power, policy, resources, or advocacy to make community health a reality in our lifetimes?  I’d like to integrate all of that knowledge directly into research.  How can ICH draw on decades of collective knowledge to create action research studies for maximum impact?

What are hobbies or things you like to do for fun?

In this cautious not-yet-post-covid reality, I’m basically just thrilled to leave my house for any reason.  I usually recharge by turning off all electronics and getting outdoors, in all seasons.  I swam a lot this summer, and my son Kai and I have been visiting farms so far this fall.  We held baby goats last weekend!  I love to travel, but have not been on a plane in almost two years, so lately I spend a lot of time staying connected with friends in different parts of the country/world and planning our next adventure.

Do you have any plans for the holidays/summer/etc? Anything that you are looking forward to?

I am already getting excited for ski season, and plan to spend some time over the holidays in Vermont with friends on the slopes.  The thing I am most looking forward to in the near future, though, is getting my 6-year-old vaccinated as soon as it becomes possible.