Nov 28, 2018 11 min read

Equity Warriors - Emma Winiski

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Episode 1, 15 min listen

In this episode, we interview Emma Winiski from our State of Inclusion team. Emma is a young woman just beginning her work as an Equity Warrior. Emma has recently graduated from Furman University and started her career working with Urban Institute. She is young but still has a realistic view of the possible ways to impact communities.


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Emma Winiski is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, where she worked extensively with city governments to address the opioid overdose epidemic and develop 911 alternative response programs. Previously, she was a Research Analyst in the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Emma has been working with Ame at State of Inclusion since 2018 when she was an undergraduate at Furman University.

Note: Emma's Bio has been updated as of 2024



Interview with Emma Winiski

[00:00:00] This is State of Inclusion, a place where we can all come together to safely explore and share our ideas at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. I’m Ame Sanders. Welcome. At the heart of any equity and inclusion effort are the people who tirelessly work to make a difference in the world and for the people they serve. Who are these Equity Warriors? What motivates them, and what even brought them to this work to start with? But even more importantly, what keeps them going in the face of such overwhelming and exhausting work? We’ll talk with a few of them, and we’ll learn how they’re making a difference in their community and what they hope for their next chapter.

Today, I’m talking with Emma Winiski. Emma is a research assistant in the Health Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington. She graduated this past spring from Furman University with a [00:01:00] BS in mathematics/economics. For the last year, Emma has been working with me at the State of Inclusion. Emma is an Equity Warrior.

When we first started working together, we each took a personality test from the Enneagram Institute. You were a Reformer, and I was a Challenger, if I remember correctly.


Just for our audience, a reformer is described as the rational, idealistic type, principled, purposeful, self-controlled, and a perfectionist. Does the description of a reformer still fit you pretty well?

[00:01:35] Oh, yeah. Yeah. I think so. I definitely am very particular, and I have a strong sense of right and wrong which can cause conflict, I guess if my idea of right and wrong conflicts with someone else. I think it’s really satisfying to look at a process and sort of evaluate it and then tweak it, so it’s more efficient and more effective. And so, [00:02:00] I think Reformer fits that pretty well, and the idealism, you know, the desire to have things perfectly done fits in with that well. I think my choice of major, like a very quantitative and organized way of thinking, also fits into that. Yeah. So, I definitely think it fits.

So, Emma, can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself?

Yeah. Sure. So, like you said, I recently graduated from Furman with a degree in mathematics and economics. Included in that was some summer research where I studied early childhood education and the impact of racial and socioeconomic diversity on test scores, focusing on South Carolina.

I also took a lot of Public Health courses throughout my tenure at Furman, which sort of led me into my current position at the Urban Institute in the Health Policy Center. I’m doing a lot of research on the opioid epidemic, right now, and sort of dipping my toes into that arena, which I have not really previously been a part of.

But you also didn’t mention that you’re a pickleball player and potter on the side.

[00:03:00] Yes, that is that is very true. The pottery has been put on hold, but I did manage to complete a dish set that I’m currently using, which is great. And I do play Pickleball, which is like tennis for old people, but hopefully, I am starting a lifelong sport.

[00:03:17] This is where I mention that Emma is not an old person.

I’m the youngest there by quite a few years often, often times.

When you were growing up, were there people around you involved in the community and in giving back to the community?

I think, to some extent, it wasn’t super present. So, I guess my church would have volunteer opportunities fairly irregularly. I have distinct memories of my family, and I’m making shoe boxes to send in with Operation Christmas Child, and we would do like Habitat for Humanity or like, you know, cleaning up a garden or something. But I don’t think it was really a super regular presence. I didn’t like volunteer every day or anything when I was really young.

In high school, I did more regular volunteer work towards the end of my high school career with the Frazee Dream Center, which is like an after-school program for underprivileged children, and so that was very valuable. Until then, and growing up very young, probably not super regular.

[00:04:18] So how did the work with the Frazee Center, how did that impact you or affect you?

So, I would go Tuesdays and Fridays after school with one of my good friends, and I was assigned to a classroom or group of young girls from kindergarten to second grade, and I would essentially read with them or help them with math or play games with them, I guess, if it was like gymnastics day or something. I think I just realized how exhausting it is. To be honest, like it is very rewarding but also really frustrating and I think I was probably pretty naive in high school to where I was like, you know, I’m doing good, this is nice, I feel good after [00:05:00] this. But, I didn’t really start to think super deeply about like why are these children here? Are there larger systemic things that have impacted their families or their childhoods, and how does this experience sort of play into their larger development?

I don’t think those were questions, and I was. Which is unfortunate, but I think it was like I was aware enough to know that there were a lot of things out of their control, and Frazee was a place that was trying to create some sort of community and some sort of stability, which was really important for their development.

And then, of course, the focus on both school work and accountability in that setting but then also leaving a lot of time for like play, and physical exercise, and friendship building, that was almost equally important for Frazee to provide to these kids.

[00:05:49] What led you then to choose to move into this kind of research and policy work?

I think particularly the homeless community has always been of interest to me. I’m not sure why. When I was younger, I think I don’t know, just like the good feeling that you get after, like helping people or serving food or preparing meals for people, and often times I was interacting with folks who are homeless.

So, my family and I attended Triune Mercy Center, where a decent portion of the congregation is homeless, and I think it was really important for me in high school to sort of interact with people who came from a different socio-economic position than me, to interact with them in a non-serving interaction, I guess, to where it’s not like I’m the one serving them food. I would spend time worshiping with them or eating lunch with them, or in the art room with them. And I think that was really important for me in thinking, re reimagining, and re-evaluating why I enjoyed service or just give me a new perspective on some of the problems that they were facing [00:07:00] and difficulties they were facing. As far as me being led into the work that I do, now in college, I think I was always interested in math and econ, and I like the research side, data, and I like having solid evidence, and investigating problems, and having what I feel like there is a solid argument to make a case. And so, I think given my interest in poverty studies, it, sort of, naturally let itself to economics major and then my work in public health was motivated by a course I took. We sort of did bioinformatics stuff which I had never been introduced to before, and I did a summer program after my freshman year at Boston University, and so that was sort of my introduction into public health and social determinants of health. It, sort of, opened the door for the combination of math, and econ, and sociology, and education to, sort of, all come together. I found that my skill set was like best used in the math econ [00:08:00] approach to those problems.

[00:08:001] So, do you feel like it serves you well and your work to be a Reformer?

I think it does, because we’re looking at practices for opioid treatment and protocols for how screenings and things are done I think we see gaps in care. So, clearly, it’s not a perfect system, and so, my job now allows me to sort of dig into data that might, you know, lead to policy briefs that lead to policy changes that hopefully improve outcomes for people. So, I think that whole process of sensing that there’s a problem but needing to confirm it or justify using data and then, I mean, that that’s a whole process in itself, but hopefully finding, I don’t know, trying to get results that are just a good picture of what’s happening and may or may not support our initial hypotheses, but then sending that along to hopefully make improvements. I think that definitely fits with the Reformer Enneagram type, for sure.

[00:08:58] Well, in the research that you’ve done, you’ve talked a bit about that, but can you tell us some of the things that were surprises to you along the way, some of the things that you’ve now seen that, as people say, I’ve seen it and now I can’t unsee it? Are there things like that that were impactful for you?

Yeah. I think a lot of those moments came this past spring when I was working with you and State of Inclusion – just looking for early childhood education data. There’d been a lot of research about how that’s a very important time for cognitive development, and so, of course, we wanted to evaluate Greenville County, and see where we were, and try to benchmark, and the data was just not readily available. So, that was really surprising and frustrating to know that there’s something important, and to want to study it, and not be able to get it down to the level that we want.

I think it’s also just interesting thinking about how our data will be and our findings will be received and perceived by the larger community. I know [00:10:00] that you have a cohort of people that are into this research, but it is surprising and interesting, and it’s been eye-opening for me to try to think about how best to disseminate the data and adjust it and sort of take into account different forms of data.

So, I’ve talked a lot about math and econ, and hard data, but there’s a lot of value in people's lived experiences, and personal stories, and pictures, and memories. And, I think it it’s been good and surprising for me to move towards valuing all of those equally and differently and thinking about like how to, sort of, combine those to create a holistic picture of what’s happening in Greenville, and beyond.

[00:10:42] That’s a good point because you and I have struggled quite a bit in trying to think about how to go beyond just publishing a report, which is challenging enough for a complex subject like childhood poverty or some of the subjects that you’re dealing with, but how to take it further and spark the right kind of conversations around that. And, it’s one of the things that led you, I know, to do some research for us on what they call data walks, which can be a good tool. Maybe you can describe data walk to our audience.

Sure. So, actually, a researcher at Urban has spearheaded this idea of data walk and has documented it. And so, the idea is that it’s, sort of, an interactive way to involve different community stakeholders in the data process. And so, one way to do this, I guess, is to sort of set up stations with data presented. And so, you have people in groups walk around and look at the data and react to the data and ask questions about the data. If we were doing one on education, you could have the superintendent, and the principal, and teachers, and then you could also have PTA presidents, and parents, and students. And so, it sort of, is a way to get people who may not interact on a regular [00:12:00] basis in the same place and discussing something, that they all have been common, but they don’t really have the space to necessarily discuss regularly. And so, it also helps the researchers adjust what they’re doing or ask questions that they may not have thought to ask and then just get a read on how the data is being received by folks and whether they think it’s representative, or offensive, or valuable.

And so, I think that would work very well for the type of research that we have done since the topics that we’re studying are difficult and complex, and we’re just two people, and they’re a lot of people with experiences very different than us and in different spheres of influence and so it’d be good to, sort of, get everybody together and hear their thoughts.

[00:12:48] I think it’s a promising technique for us to explore and for others to use to try to vet and extend the reach of their data and to participate with the broader community. So, I was pretty happy when you were able to bring us some additional information on how that could work.

We touched on it a few minutes ago. So, you’re still pretty early in your career, and you had some ideas when you left school about what you wanted to do. What do you imagine is next for yourself, and what do you imagine your near-term or mid-term future looking like?

That’s a good question. So, I think I’ll be at Urban for two to three years. Just trying to, I’m sort of in an exploratory phase, I think. I think I like research, right, but there are also larger questions that I have about at what level do I want to be involved in the policy-making process? I mean there’s like the national level, and state level, local, and things in between all of those. And then, I’m also asking questions about what step of the research process am I interested in? So right now, I’m in very early research phase, but being the reformer perfectionist that I am [00:14:00] like the implementation and evaluation phase is also very interesting and I know that I can’t be a part of every step in the process, or at least I haven’t found a way to do that yet. Maybe that’s where I’ll end up.

I see myself definitely going back to grad school. I think right now I’m trying to figure out what I want to go back for, whether that’s maybe a Master of Public Health or a degree in public policy or public administration. I’m a bit unsure. I could see myself eventually moving down to a smaller scale. So, either state, or city, or county level just because I am worried about feeling really disconnected from the people that I’m supposedly trying to help. I think a good way to sort of have research and interaction with the communities that I’m working with and studying would be to scale down a bit. But right now, I’m exactly where I want to be.

This has been the State of Inclusion, and we’ll be back again next week with another episode of Equity Warriors.


Guest: Emma Winiski

Host: Ame Sanders

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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