Q&A with Roseanna Ander, founding executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Urban Education Lab

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Roseanna Ander, the founding executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Urban Education Lab , has dedicated her life to solving problems related to poverty and urban violence. She’s also my cousin. We sat down to chat about her work, what inspires her and her freakishly high energy.

CC: When did you start the Crime Lab?

RA: In 2008, University of Chicago professors Jens Ludwig and Harold Pollack asked me to help them get the Crime Lab off the ground. We now have about 45 people, between the two labs, in Chicago and New York City.

CC: Tell us about the labs.

RA: A lot of people, when they hear Crime Lab, think CSI and DNA testing.

CC: That’s what I think.

RA: We’re experimenting and testing novel, innovative approaches to reducing crime and violence. It’s focused more on social science than the bench sciences.

CC: One of the programs you’ve created is BAM: Becoming a Man.

RA: That program was already in existence by Youth Guidance, a local nonprofit. They were delivering it in one high school. We crowd-sourced to find the best ideas in Chicago to help youth at risk for being involved in violence, either as victims or perpetrators. We convinced local foundations to provide resources to that organization so it could go from one high school to over 20 high schools and middle schools.

BAM helps young people growing up in Chicago’s highest-poverty, highest-violence neighborhoods. It’s about helping them make choices that reduce the likelihood that they’ll end up involved in violence, and giving them the tools they need to succeed in school and in life. It became the impetus for President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which raises the visibility of helping young men of color succeed.

CC: What about the program WOW: Working on Womanhood?

RA: Girls are very affected by gun violence and in many ways involved in it. Sometimes they’re the ones stashing the guns. Sometimes the fights are over a girl. Youth Guidance developed WOW, and we’re going to work with them to evaluate the impact it has on young women. We’ll be looking at a range of outcomes, whether it’s early pregnancy or how to increase their likelihood of graduating from high school.

CC: What makes you Rebellious?

RA: I’ve never taken the status quo as given. My act of rebellion is to take challenges like violent crime and their underlying causes and say, “We have to do better. Let’s find the way.”

CC: Did you think about doing this a long time ago, like when you were in school?

RA: It’s been a consistent theme since childhood. Due to some of my experiences growing up in a family without always the resources we needed, I’ve always wanted to do a job that makes a difference for other people. Other people were there for me in difficult times.

CC: You’re insanely energetic. That has to be a factor. I heard through the grapevine—a.k.a. my mother—that you used to dive headfirst down staircases as a child. True or false?

RA: True story! It’s a much faster way to get down stairs.

CC: You kicked my butt at Trivial Pursuit. That seems like something a rebel would do.

RA: I don’t remember that. There might have been a little bit of wine involved.

CC: There was a little bit of wine involved.

RA: I’ve always been very impatient and refused to stay within the lines. Or, you know, walk down stairs. Sometimes you end up a little injured, but you get to the bottom.

CC: Full disclosure: I’ve done some work for the Crime Lab. This job takes a lot of your time. It requires you to travel around the country talking to experts. Where does all that passion come from?

RA: I love what I do. It’s energizing to work on things that really matter. I have three kids and a husband. I couldn’t do it without a very supportive spouse. I like the fact that my children see me doing work I really care about. It can have an impact on some of the most vulnerable populations. That’s really fulfilling.

CC: You have a lot of smart people who crunch numbers and study statistics and reports on crime trends. 

RA: Working with data is a small part of what we do. Our mission is to unleash resources to apply them to our most challenging urban problems. You won’t see many of the people working at the Crime Lab because they’re out in the communities working with service providers and school principals to uncover the most promising strategies and ensure they’re effectively implemented. We generate evidence so that public and private resources go to the strategies that have the most impact.

CC: So there’s reason for optimism.

RA: I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t believe that change was possible.

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Clare Curley writes about biking, business, being a broad and other stuff that piques her curiosity.

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