NAACFRC is Changing the African American Family Narrative

The National African American Child and Family Research Center (NAACFRC) at Morehouse School of Medicine is designed to provide national leadership and excellence in community-engaged research to better serve African American children and families served by the Administration for Children and Families, including those enrolled in Head Start. NHSA provided a letter of support in favor of the Center’s creation in 2021. Dr. Azaliah Israel, NAACFRC’s co-lead for dissemination and communication, joins us today to share more about the Center’s work since its inception.

Narratives are the stories we tell to make sense of the world. As a graduate student, I became fascinated with the influence narratives have in our everyday life, the power they have to create and sustain meaning. As practitioners, narratives influence how we perceive the families we serve. Unfortunately, narratives about Black families have often been told through a lens that highlights dysfunction, but ignores historical and cultural context.

In my exploration of Black families, I found that the recurring narratives around "deadbeat fathers" and "welfare queens" influenced how service providers interacted with them. While completing my dissertation, I conducted dozens of interviews with practitioners in the federal and non-profit sectors, seeking to use research to change how Black families are viewed in society. One of these interviewees shared something that completely shifted my own perspective and the direction of my research: “Instead of focusing on changing the narrative, we must change the narrator.” It reminded me how important it is to elevate the voices of Black families that are not often heard.

The majority of research centered around African American families has been conducted using a comparative framework where the behaviors, experiences, and outcomes of white Americans are viewed as the standard. And it has largely been conducted by individuals outside of the African American community with very little input from the community itself. This framework often ignores important historical and cultural context of African American life, and, inevitably, places these families at a deficit in relation to white families. It’s long past time for change.

The Biden administration has made a commitment to advancing racial equity and supporting underserved communities. To advance those efforts, the National African American Child and Family Research Center (NAACFRC) prioritizes community-engaged research to learn how to better serve African American children and families. Funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation within the Administration of Children and Families and housed within the Prevention Research Center at Morehouse School of Medicine, NAACFRC is the first center of its kind to focus exclusively on African American children and families.

The Center seeks to change the cultural and institutional narratives about African American families by conducting research that takes into account their unique experiences and the existing social inequalities. This requires a broad scope of research, including:

  • Early childhood education (Early Head Start and Head Start)
  • Child care assistance (Child Care and Development Fund)
  • Social and economic mobility (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)
  • Healthy relationships, including fatherhood and supportive family relationships

Early Head Start and Head Start—whose service population is 30% Black or African American—is a primary focus for the Center’s early childhood education research. NAACFRC’s primary goal is to illuminate the assets, needs, and experiences of African Americans families and parents participating in Head Start programs to improve the provision of services. To do so, the Center partners with parents, teachers, and administrators to better understand the needs of African American children and families. The Center is particularly interested in learning from and supporting Head Start families who live in rural areas, have family members who are involved in the criminal justice system, and have health/disability issues. In addition, NAACFRC highlights the experiences of African Americans in the child care and early education workforce.

Changing the narrative around Black families by lifting up their voices and shifting the research framework is essential to changing our society’s perceptions. NAACFRC’s research with Head Start is an important piece in working towards this goal.

Dr. Azaliah Israel

Dr. Azaliah Israel

Dr. Azaliah Israel is the Dissemination and Communication co-lead for the NAACFRC. You can reach the center at aacfrc@msm.edu. This project is supported by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award (Grant #: 90PH0031-01-00) totaling $1.8 million with 100 percent funded by ACF/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACF/HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit the ACF website: Administrative and National Policy Requirements.

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