Policy & Research Legislative Fellow Jailene Aguirre contributes to Family Roots Pilot Program

Policy & Research Legislative Fellow Jailene Aguirre

The CSBS Policy & Research Legislative Fellows (PRLF) program matches graduate students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with state legislators representing Champaign-Urbana or a neighboring district to collaborate on a policy research project that can inform public policy and help make Illinois a better place to live. This non-partisan initiative is supported by the Office of Public Engagement.

PRLF participant Jailene Aguirre is currently a fifth-year doctoral student in Human Development and Family Studies. Jailene works with State Representative Carol Ammons.

Please tell us briefly about your PRLF research project.
As a Guatemalan-American, first-generation college student from a low-income background, I am particularly interested in understanding the lived experiences of historically marginalized and underrepresented individuals, with a particular focus on how Latinx immigrant-origin families navigate accumulating social resources for the benefit of their families. I aim to use research-to-policy initiatives to explore various contexts with the goal of creating positive social change that will uplift families and their respective communities. Since working in State Representative Ammons office, I have been leading research-to-policy initiatives on re-establishing parole in Illinois and an ancestry genealogy project to enable descendants of enslaved persons to trace back their roots to their ancestral homelands.  

What motivated you to apply for the PRLF? 
My research journey began when I noticed the way in which research could be used as a medium to inform policy that would benefit some of our most vulnerable communities as I wanted my work to strive towards positive social change. However, once I was in my doctoral program, I realized a lot of research that would inform some needed policies seemed to be stuck within academia and not disseminated to the public. It was around this time that I began hearing about research-to-policy initiatives that intentionally weave together research and policy to create new policies meant to uplift and empower others. When I heard about PRLF and explored what the program was all about, I felt it was exactly what I was looking for. Not only would I be getting the applied, hands-on research-to-policy experience I was looking for, but I would also have the opportunity to make a difference in my local community. It was a perfect fit!

Tell us about the Family Roots Pilot Program and how it took shape.  
From the very start, State Representative Carol Ammons and I were aligned in that we wanted to work on social-justice oriented research-to-policy initiatives. Originally, we were researching existing reparations-oriented policy work such as the Evanston Illinois Restorative Housing Program to see what was already done and what we could do to move the work forward. As we discussed, Representative Ammons mentioned she was more interested in helping individuals reconstruct their family tree to be able to trace back their roots to before their ancestors were human trafficked into the Transatlantic Slave Trade. One of my peers, a former alumnus of my program and now a current Assistant Professor in Anthropology at UIUC, Dr. LaKisha David, focused on this exact research topic by uniquely analyzing autosomal DNA to find a distant living relative in African countries. So, I was able to connect them and we hit the ground running. Dr. David and I co-wrote House Resolution 453 and the rest is (literally) history!

It is our hope that once we get this program running in Illinois that others can expand it across the nation so that all individuals who had their family narratives disrupted can have the opportunity to learn about their heritage and strengthen their ethnic identity development for the sake of their well-being.

What have you learned during your time in Rep. Ammons’ office?  
This is such a hard question to answer because I have learned so much that I don’t know where to start! One of my biggest takeaways is simply learning about the policy field ranging from understanding how fast or slow paced it can be as well as how quickly everything can change at a moment’s notice to the various types of legislation that can be written to how we communicate and help constituents to how their needs impact our in-house policy initiatives. I often here the phrase “It Takes a Village” for raising children, but I find it applies here, too, as we all come together to create beneficial policies or connect constituents to existing resources that are centered around improving the lives of others in some shape or form, which is extremely rewarding.

What have you enjoyed most about your time in the Legislative Office?  
Compared to my traditional research work, because policy is more fast-paced and applied, I love that I get to uniquely see how my work is making an impact in real-time, and, as we garner support, I can see how vital and sacred this work is, especially with the HR 453 Family Roots Pilot Program. It’s refreshing to see how research is making its way out of academia and into society with the help of research-to-policy scholars who realize how important it is to use research findings to inform policy for the benefit of society. It’s been a phenomenal experience to learn from policy experts, collaborate with legislators to move forward critical and impactful work, and see how my peers are also doing amazing work in their respective offices. There is always so much important work to do, and I am grateful that this program has allowed me to contribute. The PRLF program has helped me grow both personally, academically, and professionally.

What advice do you have for other graduate students interested in applying for the PRLF Program?  
Make the most out of your experience by asking all the questions and letting yourself be immersed in the world of policy. Be open-minded to learning new ways to gather information, write policy-relevant materials, and collaborate with diverse professionals with different areas of expertise. Don’t be afraid to highlight your strengths as a researcher, you never know when your area of expertise might be needed for a specific issue. Lastly, be open to going outside of your comfort zone as that is where you will likely grow the most and make the biggest impact on society.