Rhiana Gunn-Wright ’11: Shaping policy to break the cycle of disadvantage

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When Rhiana Gunn-Wright ’11 was a freshman, she wanted to be a journalist, an ambition that was reinforced in a class she took on investigative reporting.

By the time she graduated, with high honors, in 2011, she had changed course, deciding instead on a future making policies to change the lives of the disadvantaged.

Gunn-Wright, who grew up in Englewood in Chicago’s South Side, ended up double-majoring in African American studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies, winning honors from both departments for her senior thesis exploring how politicians use representations of poor black women to drive welfare reform.

Her academic research intersected with her extensive community work in New Haven, most notably with the Polly McCabe Center for pregnant adolescents. One of the few such comprehensive centers remaining after drastic budget cuts, notes Gunn-Wright, McCabe offers teenagers parenting classes, access to prenatal health care, and — most importantly — a full public school curriculum, enabling adolescent mothers to finish high school seamlessly.

She cites McCabe and the Yale-supported New Haven Promise initiative — which aims to promote college education among New Haven students — as model programs for breaking the cycle of disadvantage. She also lauds the New Haven government for being “open to investigating how to invest public funds for social benefits.”

“Economic and educational opportunity are the best deterrence to poverty,” says Gunn-Wright.

Currently a fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, she plans to earn a master’s in social policy at Oxford. Her ultimate career goal is to design policy — which, she explains, is the template legislators use to write laws.

She doesn’t rule out law school or even entering the political realm some day, saying: “I’m really a researcher at heart, but I would consider politics if it meant getting the work done.”

On her dream of becoming a journalist, she muses, “A lot of my work is still about stories — stories about groups of people and how we think about them.”

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