Faculty Profile: Charles Lea
Charles Lea, Assistant Professor of Social Work, spoke with us about the early personal, scolastic, and work experiences that led to his research and the Race and Racism Scholarship Cluster that brought him to Columbia.
Please say a bit about your background and upbringing and how they led to your current research.
It's hard for me to talk about my work without sharing my lived experience. My family is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, and they migrated west during the Black Migration of the 1960s and 70s. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles were all born in Louisiana and moved to California, and my generation was born and raised in California.
Growing up in the Bay Area, there were many times that I saw men in my family transition in and out of the carceral system. Back then, I thought, Why don't they make better decisions and not get caught up in this cycle of incarceration? Yet, following high school, I started my undergrad as a sociology major at UC Berkeley and began to learn about the larger social and structural factors that shape individual decision-making and behaviors. Seeing men in my family and my community cycle in and out of juvenile and criminal legal systems, I had a singular focus on the downstream or individual behavior change. I didn't think much about the larger structures until I was exposed to sociological theory and research.
With this understanding, I wanted to find a way to address racial disparities and, within that, mass incarceration, especially for young men. Though I did not have that carceral experience like many other men did (including my younger brother), I wanted to be in a position to try to create transformative change.
The fields of sociology and social work are very interconnected. What made you ultimately pick social work over sociology, or is there even any distinction in your mind?
After graduating from Berkeley, I wanted to practice directly with young people. I worked for a nonprofit mental health agency in Oakland, California. They partnered with a middle school, and I provided behavior modification support in that setting. I realized that all the students in the class were Black and brown young men, but the therapists or instructors were mostly white women or white men. I would often be pulled in to support these young men because they just couldn't do it, and I could connect with them in culturally relevant ways. I was essentially doing their job!
From this experience, I sought to get my master’s in social work to serve as a school social worker. I attended the University of Michigan and was part of their inaugural community-based initiative fellowship. I never really thought about research or academia until my field practicum in Detroit, where I was doing wraparound services. I worked with young people at risk or involved in the juvenile legal system. During that experience, I realized that my traumas were coming up, and I felt that I needed to do my own deep work before I could engage in this therapeutic relationship with folks.
"I participated in projects focused on decreasing school violence and promoting positive outcomes among young people in highly-stressed school settings. That exposed me to diversion, re-entry, desistance programs, practices, and theory early in my career."
When I graduated, I received job offers to work as a multi-systemic therapist for a non-profit and a research assistant at a research and evaluation firm in Oakland, California. I took the job with the research firm to allow time to continue my deep work and to expand upon the research knowledge and skills I gained at Michigan. When I started, the Department of Labor was one of the firm's biggest funders, and President Obama was in office. During this time, the Department of Labor was funding many prison reentry programs. Through these research experiences, I was exposed to different types of reentry programs across the nation and provided technical assistance to support the implementation of these programs. There were also school-based programs being funded, and I participated in projects focused on decreasing school violence and promoting positive outcomes among young people in highly-stressed school settings. That exposed me to diversion, re-entry, desistance programs, practices, and theory early in my career. Yet, I realized I didn't have the strong research skills to lead my own projects or think about research in rigorous ways. That led to my Ph.D.
Having the perspective of all of these site visits, what were some factors that contributed to a program’s success?
It was really the relationships that mattered the most. Young people, who were going through traumatic life experiences, would still engage because they felt that someone who worked for the program supported them in ways that others didn't. In thinking about re-entry or diversion programming in general, relationships matter. The relational components were vital, whether I was providing technical assistance or acting as a researcher doing interviews. Even in the worst situations, students thrive because someone there cares.
What are you hoping to change through your work, and what are the research methods you're using in order to do that?
My desire to strengthen my research skills led to my Ph.D. at UCLA. When I was at the firm, one of my biggest projects was YouthBuild USA. We were doing an implementation evaluation, but also, we did a random assignment evaluation. The project was ongoing when I left. In understanding the racial disparities within the school-to-prison pipeline and in the criminal legal system, I realized that young men who came of age but still didn’t have the credentials to graduate or to be in a traditional school were funneled into alternative schools like YouthBuild. There just wasn't a lot of knowledge about how we should structure these school settings to support them.
"In understanding the racial disparities within the school-to-prison pipeline and in the criminal legal system, I realized that young men who came of age but still didn’t have the credentials to graduate or to be in a traditional school were funneled into alternative schools like YouthBuild. There just wasn't a lot of knowledge about how we should structure these school settings to support them."
In terms of methods, I'm primarily a qualitative researcher. This led to my doctoral studies and my dissertation—to do a qualitative case study of an alternative school. The school I studied was a model of YouthBuild, but they used the arts as a way to provide academic and vocational skills and training—creative writing, poetry, and music—as opposed to traditional construction training.
Being exposed to this kind of teaching and learning led me to think more about the need for culturally congruent, healing-centered ways of supporting young people in re-entry. As a qualitative researcher, I'm interested in lived experience. One area is focused on documenting how structural racism shapes young Black men's risk, resilience and resistance processes as they navigate school and community settings. The second piece is about the dissemination and implementation of school and community-based culturally-congruent healing-centered interventions.
I try to move away from deficit-based research towards strength-based research. I also believe that engaging people from the community early in the research and practice processes is critical to ensuring racially just policies and practices. It gets back to that relational component and acknowledges experiential knowledge as crucial to this process.
While the goal of my work is to document and dismantle mechanisms of structural racism that create and exacerbate racial disparities in incarceration and recidivism, I’m also focused on ways to promote health and well-being among people who have been incarcerated. I, therefore, focus on how to divert young men away from the carceral system effectively, but also ways to support them in the re-entry process. That connects to educational and health equity. For instance, employment is identified as a critical factor that promotes desistance from crime, but if our educational systems aren't structured in ways that support and meet the needs of young people, then it's difficult for them to make those transitions as they move throughout the life course.
I also consider health equity because substance use and other risk behaviors, whether sexual or crime-related, often emerge from traumatic life experiences. So, as opposed to using punitive approaches to addressing trauma, I’m focused on anti-carceral ways to do that.
"While the goal of my work is to document and dismantle mechanisms of structural racism that create and exacerbate racial disparities in incarceration and recidivism, I’m also focused on ways to promote health and well-being among people who have been incarcerated."
What are you working on now?
Columbia University is the third institution I have worked from since earning my Ph.D. I started my career at the University of Washington, but it wasn't the right context for me personally, given my work is focused on young Black men. I went to the University of Houston afterward, which was a good fit. I moved there, and then COVID happened, which made it difficult to engage as a qualitative researcher. I did a project with some colleagues looking at the implementation of a diversion program during COVID. I also worked with the Houston Health Department’s reentry program to conduct basic qualitative research to understand COVID prevention mechanisms.
I’m also part of an HIV, trauma, and substance use training program with UCLA. My pilot study, which is focused on young men in re-entry, looks at different cultural assets and resources they use to buffer their risk for substance misuse, addiction, and HIV. I've had some issues with sampling and recruitment given COVID, and I hope to finish the study with a few more interviews with formerly incarcerated young Black men in New York City.
Right now, I'm working on a grant with a colleague in the School of Social Work. We're going to partner with New York probation to conduct a grounded theory study with racial and ethnic minoritized young people to develop a framework that can inform racial equity policies and practices. Since the murder of George Floyd, many criminal and juvenile legal systems have developed racial equity plans. However, we know little about what young people understand or think about their experience or what they perceive as a racially equitable approach. My goal is to move away from these more punitive approaches to supporting young people and include them in research to inform how this work can be done in an anti-carceral way.
We're talking a little bit about geography—you have experience in California and Houston and in Washington. What does the move to New York represent for you?
I identify as a community-based qualitative researcher, and I can't do this work if I'm not partnering with people in the community in some way. If I think about New York compared to Seattle, for instance, there are Black people here. There are people here in the community who are doing this work. People here are also very progressive in their thinking and their practices. That represents something really big and important for me. I can care less if I'm a well-known academic. I care about my scholarship and if it is truly making an impact on the populations and communities that I’m partnering with. Seeing that impact firsthand matters to me more than a published manuscript.
I have heard a lot of negative things about Columbia as a doctoral student and as an assistant professor, especially related to the tenure process for Black faculty. This has been and is concerning for me, but being part of a cluster focused on anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism indicates that my work is valued here. This is also another step in my career. All of the different places I've been have prepared me for this time. No one knew COVID would happen. No one knew that George Floyd would lead to all the things it's led to, and being at a university that values that is really important for me.
What are you looking forward to? What’s next?
First, I'm looking forward to exploring and learning New York and having some sort of balance outside of work.
I'm also looking forward to more interdisciplinary work. My work spans education, criminology, public health, sociology, and many other disciplines, which can be overwhelming. However, I feel like I learn and contribute much through these interdisciplinary collaborations. It's inspiring and impactful in many ways. I have also had the experience of being the only Black male on the faculty, which was a very isolating experience. It is, therefore, good to know that I have people I can go to for social and emotional support when that's needed, given that I was hired with many other Black scholars as part of the anti-Black and anti-Latinx Racism cluster.