Meet the Expert: Karen Francis

Illustration of AIR expert Karen FrancisKaren Francis, Ph.D., leads AIR’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, where she provides organizational guidance and management around AIR’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy and implementation. A medical sociologist by training, she is the chair of AIR’s Diversity and Inclusion Council and leads AIR’s Cultural and Linguistic Competence Workgroup.

POSITION: Director of Diversity and Inclusion

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Cultural and Linguistic Competency; Children's Behavioral Health; Juvenile Justice; Gender Responsive Programming; Youth Violence Prevention.


Q: Why is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) particularly important for social science research and evaluation organizations like AIR?

Karen: Let’s consider each component of DEI.

When people think about diversity, they often think about race and ethnicity, but it’s about much more than that. Diversity is about ensuring that the voices of many different groups are present at the table, which makes our thinking that much richer. Inclusion goes hand in hand with diversity because it creates the space and the opportunities for those diverse voices to be heard. We work in diverse communities that have a wide range of needs, and in order to truly support them, we need to hear from them and integrate their knowledge into our work.

Equity should be the natural outcome of what we do. It harkens directly to our mission—to generate and use rigorous evidence that contributes to a better, more equitable world. Our goal as an organization is to reduce societal inequities and increase opportunities; diversity and inclusion are essential to achieving that goal.

Q: What are the major challenges that organizations face in improving their DEI?

Karen: One major challenge is developing a cohesive strategy that goes beyond just a series of activities or events. It’s important to have a comprehensive framework and strategy to facilitate meaningful integration of DEI across the organization, something that invites input from all stakeholders, and that is communicated broadly to facilitate engagement and drive integration. We also must ensure that the DEI strategy is part of the organization’s overall strategy. It is tempting to have piecemeal events or policies, but a strategic plan gives organizations flexibility to address issues as they arise. For AIR, this was incredibly helpful in 2020, when many different issues arose. Our existing strategy allowed us to pivot in the moment to meet the needs of our staff and our organization.

Another factor that is essential to strengthening DEI is collective will. At AIR, we’re committed to holding ourselves accountable. We constantly assess where we are as an organization, we set goals and benchmarks, and we create opportunities to share and course correct as necessary. It starts with leadership, of course, but everyone in the organization is responsible for our momentum in advancing DEI.

Q: How has AIR progressed in this area in recent years?

Karen: When I think of AIR’s DEI journey over the past 11+ years, it brings a smile to my face. It’s been a steady progression, both from the top down and the bottom up. It’s essential that DEI does not stand by itself, as a silo within the organization; it’s integrated into all of our work and our business functions. I’m proud of the structures and supports that we’ve established. In 2020, we defined our commitments to DEI, which will continue to guide how we embed DEI and cultural and linguistic competency into our work, and sustain our focus on equity. 

AIR's DEI Efforts:

  • Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Office
  • D&I Council
  • Eight Employee Resource Groups
  • Cultural and Linguistic Competency Workgroup
  • Organization-wide DEI services

As we continue to benchmark and assess our progress against industry standards, AIR has been recognized by Diversity MBA among their “50 Out Front: Best Places to Work for Women and Diverse Managers” for the last two cycles. I want us to be #1 on that list someday soon.

We’re also committed to “showing up” within the field. We’ve joined with 1,500+ other organizations through the CEO Action For Diversity & Inclusion to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. We also discuss how to diversify the pipeline of future researchers and practitioners, to create a more inclusive field. We are also part of the CEO DEI Consortium, where executive leaders in the policy research and consulting field actively address inequities within their own organizations. In May 2020, AIR launched a new partnership with three large minority-serving universities to provide opportunities to graduate-level students. This program aims to build a pipeline of diverse candidates who can contribute to the field of behavioral and social science research and application.

Q: What practical tools and resources do you recommend for organizations interested in strengthening their DEI?

Karen: The development and use of tools and resources must be aligned with and connected to the established DEI strategy. It should guide implementation of strategy and facilitate intended outcomes. Before organizations really start think about implementation tools, they should make sure that they have the collective will to do it—the buy-in and participation from leadership and stakeholders within the organization.

Image of quote from Karen FrancisI’ll offer two examples of how we tie our tools and resources back to support our DEI strategy and our overall organizational mission. 

First, we developed the Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Standards for Projects, Research, and Operations (CLAS PRO). As researchers and technical assistance providers, there was a strong desire to produce culturally and linguistically competent work, but it wasn’t always clear what that meant in practical terms. We wanted to make sure that we were all singing from the same sheet of music, so to speak. CLAS PRO offers guidance on what exactly cultural and linguistic competence is, why it matters, and strategies to implement it. Of course, it’s not enough to create the standards and protocols. We also communicate constantly about them, so that staff know exactly where to find them and how to use them.

Another example is the Equity Review Process Action Plan, which allows us to really develop tools and resources to embed DEI and cultural competency across all our processes, whether it’s our proposal development, project staffing, or our project review process. As a research organization, we’re committed to measuring and benchmarking our progress, and to continuous quality improvement.  

Q: Before this position, you worked in research at AIR. What inspired you to change your area of focus, and how did your research background prepare you for this role?

Karen: I actually don’t see it as a change, but an evolution—it was a natural next step in my professional growth and development. When I came to the United States for the first time as an undergraduate, I was very aware of my difference as an immigrant, and of the role that culture plays in people’s lives. I got my Ph.D. in medical sociology with a focus on racial inequality, and I’ve always conducted my work through a lens of DEI and cultural competence.

I’d also been involved in AIR’s internal diversity and inclusion work for many years, so the pivot to becoming AIR’s second Director of Diversity and Inclusion felt very natural. Since I’ve worked on the program side, I understand the work and the communities that we serve, and I have a strong sense of what DEI should look like in that context.

Q: What books do you wish people would read to better understand DEI?

Karen: I could recommend entire bookshelves on this! But I’ll highlight a few:

Q: Where can we find you on a typical Saturday afternoon?

Karen: In the morning, I go to the farmer’s market, so in the afternoon, you’ll find me in my kitchen, cooking up what I’ve just bought! I love trying new recipes and different flavors. I’m very interested in the aesthetics of food—I cook by sight and smell to create what I hope are wonderful tastes. Food is at the very center of my culture, because it brings people together and I just love the spirit of community.

Image of Karen Francis
Vice President and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer