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Kirsten Kainz continues to champion children from private sector

by Nancy E. Oates

After voters in the community where Kirsten Kainz had made her new home elected school board members who vowed to remove the word “equity” from the district’s counseling program policy and abolish the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, Kainz stepped up to work toward balance. After all, she’s built her career on finding ways to adjust systems so that all children can access opportunities and thrive.

A researcher who moved from Chapel Hill to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2020, Kainz recently completed her work as a professor and director for research development and translation at UNC’s School of Social Work. She’d earned her doctorate in education research at UNC in 2005.

“Kirsten was a champion of diversity, equity and inclusion in the School,” said Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson. “I applaud her strong record of mentorship with students and early career faculty. We have all benefited from her work as a highly valued teacher of doctoral students.”

Throughout her career, Kainz has kept one foot in academia and the other in the community as an advocate for prioritizing children’s needs. She brings what’s happening locally into the university to inform research and applies tools and data from her research to help communities identify and ameliorate problems.

“One of my values is a society where children are prioritized and receive what they need to thrive. That’s not our society yet,” Kainz said. “Children don’t vote or produce for our economy, but our future is grounded in that prioritization. We don’t have much to look forward to if we don’t prioritize the kids.”

A Chicago native, Kainz stayed in the Midwest for college, and after receiving a master’s degree in human development and family studies from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she directed a family literacy program in a public school system outside of the capital city. Later, she and her family moved to Edenton, North Carolina, where she continued to work in family literacy. Her direct experience with families in urban and small-town educational systems didn’t always mesh with the theories she’d learned in her academic training.

“Research on poverty located the problem in families, in children themselves — what is it about kids and families that holds them back,” she said. “I have a different viewpoint: What is it about our economic and social systems that holds certain problems in place?”

In both the urban and rural settings, she noticed the unfairness of the interaction between poverty and education, as well as the racial and economic segregation in public schools. While she helped individual families overcome those roadblocks, she felt she was part of a system that perpetuated the problems. She needed more training to make change on a larger scale. In 2001, she enrolled in a doctoral program at UNC and became a methodologist.

Kainz’s dissertation looked at disparities in learning opportunities children had based on school economic and racial segregation, said Kathleen Gallagher, a former professor in UNC’s School of Education and former research scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Gallagher has known Kainz since their days at UW-Madison, and they continue to work together, even though both have now left UNC. Kainz examined children’s classroom experiences and how disparities in opportunities were manifested in traditional evaluation metrics like scores and systems of measurement.

“No one was doing equity research 20 years ago,” Gallagher said. “Kirsten made an outstanding contribution. She’s spent most of her career ahead of the curve.”

While she worked on her doctorate, Kainz and her family lived in Durham. In 2006, a friend who served on the Durham County school board urged her to run for an open seat. She did and won. During her four-year term, she became keenly aware of the myriad decisions she and other elected officials on the board made with critical implications for children, parents and teachers, and how comparatively little research there was to support those decisions.

Understanding the people at the center of social challenges has made her a more effective researcher, she said. Once she completed her term on the school board, Kainz went to Washington, D.C., for two years as a consultant with the Strategic Education Research Partnership Institute, a nonprofit committed to equity that bridges education research, practice and design. Her work there bolstered her penchant for turning ideas into programs and practices, as she cultivated facilitation and design skills. She returned to UNC in 2012 as director of statistics at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. In 2017, she joined the faculty of the School of Social Work as a research professor.

Kainz has a reputation for conducting research that has practical applications. As Gallagher said, “We’ve published pieces where here’s theory, here’s real life, here’s what matters.”

Sandy Hong, policy division lead and senior research scientist at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, has worked on projects with Kainz and considers her research methods to be groundbreaking.

“In researching outcomes for children of different racial backgrounds, she looks within racial groups at what practices and classrooms are more beneficial, rather than comparing children of different races against one another,” Hong said. “Her work considers how we define problems and how problems are rooted in systems. She doesn’t put the full burden on teachers, parents or children.”

Kainz also has a gift for processing and consolidating information and presenting it in a way that people with very conservative views can hear. “She can talk about race equity without people running from the room,” Gallagher said. “She uses language that opens doors to conversation, that allows people to be honest.” With her facilitation, people feel safe enough to tell difficult stories, and she can turn them quickly into potential for action.

Though Kainz tackles difficult societal challenges amidst fraught education systems, her approach is unifying. She’s warm, she’s welcoming, she’s a connector, say those who’ve worked with her. Iheoma Iruka, a researcher at FPG Child Development Institute, said Kainz understands how stratification of power and privilege are baked into various systems. In working with the New Hanover County schools, Kainz encouraged people of color to become the experts and control the data.

“When one controls the data, one controls the knowledge and interpretation,” Iruka said. “She helps community members see these invisible power dynamics and dismantles them through her work.”

Minnie Forte Brown, former president of N.C. School Boards Association, served with Kainz on the Durham County School Board. The two were part of a national cohort that traveled to schools around the country for two years sharing successes in closing the achievement gap in public schools, achieving equity and diversifying the playing field. Kainz brought new skills to view the issues and a different language to talk about them.

“Some people say, ‘Think outside the box,’ ” Forte Brown said. “Kirsten says, ‘Don’t be afraid to destroy the box and start anew.’ She’s a change agent.”

Change moves slowly in a field as entrenched as public education, and Kainz has encountered resistance by suggesting systemic changes rather than doing more of what hasn’t worked so far, Forte Brown said, adding an analogy: “You can’t clean the water and put it back in the ditch. You have to look at the whole system.”

Kainz isn’t afraid to have conversations that make people uncomfortable. She challenges people without being pushy. She’s fun and fashionable and unassuming, Forte Brown said.

“When she walks into the room, you’re going to look at her,” Forte Brown said. “She’ll be honest but not overbearing. She’ll say, ‘Let’s fix the system that created this situation. We’ll do it together.’ ”

Apart from her research, Kainz joined committees and task forces to work on systemic problems at UNC. She was a member of the Committee on the Status of Women that reported on pay and workload disparities between genders. She served on the School of Social Work’s governance task force, provided a Tate Talk lecture on evidence use for systems change, lectured on foregrounding race in quantitative methods, and served on a panel discussing anti-racist measurement during Black History Month.

During her career, Kainz has been recognized with excellence awards for teaching and for mentoring doctoral students. Durham presented her with a Notable Woman Award while she was a school board member.

Since moving to Wilmington, she has become a member of the Community Relations Advisory Committee for the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County, which examines civil rights in the community, and been appointed to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for the New Hanover County School Board.

Equity specialist Kayce Smith, who now works for Baltimore city public schools but began working with Kainz while teaching in New Hanover schools, said Kainz reads the room well.

New Hanover residents have many different views on equity and other issues in the school system. Kainz is able to synthesize what everyone was hearing in a meeting and move the group toward next-step possibilities, Smith said. Kainz invested in bringing people together, picking up the cost of meals, for example, so money didn’t stand in the way of everyone being able to participate.

“Kirsten looks for ways to plug in, to get someone with different views to see the value of DEI work,” Smith said. “Like any good educator, … she asked the right questions.”

Since ending her faculty position at UNC, Kainz has launched a consulting firm, Just Learning Systems, working with data, models, narratives and group processes. At present, she’s working with Gallagher on a federal grant to enhance Nebraska’s capacity to evaluate early care and education systems. Instead of assessing whether a system works, she’s evaluating how it works, for whom and under what conditions.

“When you want to develop an idea, go to Kirsten,” Gallagher said. “She’s generative and creative.”