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Women in Economics: Anna Opoku-Agyeman and Fanta Traore

Anna Opoku-Agyeman and Fanta Traore | St. Louis Fed

This 25-minute podcast was released Sept. 18, 2019.

“We want to get to a point where it’s normal for underrepresented minority women to succeed at a higher level within these kind of careers,” says Anna Opoku-Agyeman, who co-founded the Sadie Collective along with Fanta Traore. They talk with Maria Hasenstab, St. Louis Fed senior media relations specialist, about their experiences as young black women in the field of economics—including why they created the collective and plans for their second conference in February 2020.



Transcript:

Maria Hasenstab: I’m Maria Hasenstab and you’re listening to Women in Economics, a podcast series from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Today I’m here with Anna Opoku-Agyeman, an undergrad student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I’m also here with Fanta Traore, a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Thanks for being here with me today.

Fanta Traore: Thank you so much for having us.

Hasenstab: I want to ask you both as we get started, what is the Sadie Collective?

Anna Opoku-Agyeman: This is Anna Opoku-Agyeman. The Sadie Collective is an organization that seeks to empower, equip and educate black women in quantitatively demanding fields, such as economics, public policy, finance and data science. We hope to serve as one solution to the pipeline and pathway problems in economics and related fields.

Hasenstab: And who is Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander?

Traore: This is Fanta Traore speaking. She was the first African-American to obtain a Ph.D. in economics, and also the first African-American to graduate with a juris doctorate in law from the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also the first African-American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. She’s absolutely phenomenal. And as we were coming up with the idea of the conference, we wanted to name it for the first woman in the field, who also is the first African-American, overall, to get a Ph.D. in economics. Even though she was not able to practice economics because she was discriminated against at the time, in 1921 when she graduated, she has been a pioneer in conversations about economics, especially as it relates to marginalized groups, regardless of race. Which says a lot about her, because regardless of what she was experiencing, she was very intentional about talking about economic policies that are beneficial to all people, making her a woman who was truly ahead of her time. We’re really grateful to the work of Dr. Julianne Malveaux and Dr. Nina Banks, which has allowed us to uncover the work of Sadie Alexander’s legacy.

Hasenstab: Well, I really liked the way you phrased that, that Sadie is a woman of many firsts. Tell me, why did you decide to undertake this project?

Traore: The Sadie Collective and the Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference is really born out of Anna and I’s [sic] experiences as black women studying economics. In 2017, Anna met Dr. Lisa Cook through American University, where she learned about the American Economic Association summer program. And because Anna wanted to learn more about it, she reached out to me because I participated in it just the year before. And that was the beginning of Anna and I’s mentor/mentee relationship. Where we began to align about our interests in economics and public policy, especially in Africa, being of Malian and Ghanaian heritage.

So, after weeks of having regular check-ins and becoming really good friends, we met in person for the first time at the ASSA conference, which is a conference for economists all over the world. And it’s also one of the largest ones that takes place. It was in Philadelphia. And once we met there, we went to one of the conference’s events, which was hosted by Dr. Rhonda Sharp, who was president of the National Economic Association at the time, which is America’s oldest organization for black economists. And during her talk, she shared that the rate of women, black women in particular, entering the field of economics was declining.

For me and Anna, we were very confused by this statistic, and it was also discouraging for us. Because we understand how economics can be used to advance the public good, especially for the communities that we’re from and that we care about. So, we wanted to do something about it to really understand why this is the case. Especially if there’s just so much public good that economics produces for everyone.

Coming to the Federal Reserve Board is the first time I experienced being the only black woman in my workspace. Then also coupled with Anna’s experience of being the only black woman in a program that she attended at the University of Chicago, really reinforced the need for us to cultivate a community for ourselves that is intergenerational and that is also encouraging undergraduate students to enter the field.

So, we began to dream even bigger about what the gathering that we initially thought of could be. And began to pull resources together to create an experience that we thought would be useful for ourselves and our own trajectory. But also for our peers who studied economics, but aren’t really aware of all of the many different options they could have with an economics toolkit. Especially for individuals that we knew who are passionate about social justice.

Hasenstab: Well, that’s great. Anna, can you tell me how many people attended, and who were your speakers?

Opoku-Agyeman: Our first conference was a two-day long program with involvement from Mathematica’s D.C. office, leading women from across the Federal Reserve System, as well as economists we personally look up to and admire. In total, we had 110 participants. Students representing 30-plus different universities across the United States and Canada, as well as several ethnicities and nationalities across the black diaspora represented. We also had 13 different career recruiters present, including representatives from places like the Urban Institute and University of Chicago Terrace School of Public Policy.

Our opening and keynote speakers were Dr. Julianne Malveaux and Dr. Willene Johnson. And our conference was generously funded by Mathematica, the National Economic Association, Gies College School of Business at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Dr. Dina Pomeranz of the University of Zurich, who was formerly at Harvard Business School. We received donations from our GoFundMe campaign. At the end, we ended up raising more than $14,000.

Hasenstab: Well, that sounds like a really impressive event. What was the biggest takeaway from the conference?

Opoku-Agyeman: We spoke with our peers about being the only one in the spaces that we were native to. So, for me, I think the biggest takeaway was affirmation. We all left the conference knowing three things to be true.

One, we are not alone on our journey through our respective fields. Two, we are following the footsteps of excellent black women in economic and related fields. And three, we are Dr. Alexander’s dream realized.

One moment that really touched me was her daughter, Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter said at the conference that her mother would have been so proud to see us all here supporting one another and lifting each other up. And that she probably would have benefited from a community like this.

Hasenstab: What about you, Fanta?

Traore: I agree with everything that Anna touched on. It was very affirming. Especially the fact that organizing this conference took place over only six months. So, that’s an incredibly short time to organize a conference. And that was made possible because of everyone who came together to support our idea. And those people include the speakers who came and spoke for free, the economists who we look up to. Like, when you Google black female economists, Dr. Malveaux comes up. So, to have the support of someone of her caliber, someone that we’ve looked up to, it was just incredibly meaningful. And then, also, mentors like Dr. Cook, who has been an incredible part of my own personal journey of being interested in economics. So, to have every one of these different calibers in one space was just phenomenal.

And then to have Janet Yellen involved and Governor Brainard, be incredibly supportive means a lot to our own personal journeys, our lived experiences. It’s saying that our experiences matter. And, the well-being of the black community, which is what we want to improve through the Sadie Collective, and getting more black women into the field because of the kind of research that black women do—it’s saying that it matters. And everyone coming together and putting action behind what they say is important to them by showing up, and also donating means a lot to us.

Hasenstab: Well, that sounds really awesome. And I’m glad you threw out some of the names of those who helped make this possible and who participated in the conference. Lisa Cook and Lael Brainard, they’ve participated in this Women in Economics podcast series. So, it’s great to hear that they’re out there participating in these events and inspiring other women in the field.

I’d like to back up now and ask a little bit about both of you. Where did you grow up and what schools did you attend? Can we start with you, Anna?

Opoku-Agyeman: I’m originally from Ghana—Kumasi, Ghana. And I moved to America when I was a baby. So, I’m really first generation.

Hasenstab: OK.

Opoku-Agyeman: But I mainly grew up in Columbia, Maryland. And I’ve been really fortunate. I actually attended private school my entire life on multiple scholarships. And now I’m at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where I’m a Meyerhoff Scholar and a MARC scholar, as well.

Hasenstab: What about you, Fanta?

Traore: So, my family is from Mali. I grew up in New York, though. And I like to say that I grew up in a Malian household, because my first language was Bambara. I learned English in school and actually was placed in ESL (English as a second language). And I am a proud proponent and participant of public schools. So, I’ve been in public school all of my life up until going to Howard University. And to go to Howard University, I received many different scholarships. And one of those scholarships is actually from an organization known as Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated. And to receive that scholarship and to see their commitment to me and my academic journey, as someone who comes from an immigrant family, makes it so that an experience of creating something like the Sadie Collective is very natural.

Hasenstab: Why have you both chosen to study economics?

Opoku-Agyeman: My first introduction to economics was one of my colleagues, Brandon Enriquez. And I remember our conversation very clearly. We were sitting in a department study hall and talking about how I could use math to understand the world a little bit better. And he was telling me that he was looking at community college remediation and he was using mathematics to understand the problem. And I said, “Well, how are you doing that?” And he said, “I’m doing something called economics.” And I was like, “What is economics?” And, so, I did a deep dive after that conversation. And later on he connected me with Dr. Sandile Hlatshwayo, who is a Berkeley alum and now is at the International Monetary Fund. And I kind of realized from both of them that I could do this and learn a little bit more about how the world works through this discipline.

And so, I really chose to pursue a career in economics after working with Dr. Judy Hellerstein, a labor economics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. And, so, she mentored me during the Summer Research Institute Program, which is actually at College Park. And with that experience, I felt empowered to pursue the field and to pursue research in the field. I really wanted to ask questions about the labor market, because that was what we were working on. And since then I’ve been really interested in understanding how labor market outcomes sort of vary amongst the black diaspora. Looking at barriers for the black diaspora and trying to understand how can we generate human capital in these communities?

This has actually led me to take on a senior thesis that looks at the impact of early childhood malaria on the probability that a child in Ghana will progress through school normally. What I ended up finding was that kids who experience a higher risk of early childhood malaria are less likely to progress through school normally. In fact, the percentage of kids who are delayed as a result of malaria actually increases by 5%.

I thought that was really interesting. And the fact that all of the research opportunities I’ve been given across the collegiate career I’ve had have kind of equipped me with the skills needed to do that research. At least that really helped me feel that I can do this work and that I can do it well.

Hasenstab: Well, that’s awesome. And, Fanta, what about you? Why did you choose to study economics?

Traore: My emphasis to study economics is really inspired by my family background. So, the economics of Mali, which is where my family is from, the economics of the experiences as francophone African immigrants impacts my upbringing and my experiences that I had while growing up in New York.

So, I grew up going to my mother’s African hair-braiding salon and also going home and watching France 24 with my dad. Which sparked so many questions for me about African political economies. Wanting to understand political situations that inform migration is what led me to studying political science. So, these very personal experiences, along with attending the public policy and international affairs program, excited me about the way I could create strong arguments through using data to transform communities. And what I found particularly striking about this space of public policy and economics is the crucial role that data plays to tell stories.

Even with the Sadie Collective, we’re building an organization that is transforming the field of economics for black women through using critical data that we have found about the field to advocate and support black women’s trajectory in the space and also related spaces. So, we found that in 2017, seven out of 1,150 Ph.D.s in economics were awarded to black women. So, it’s a very staggering statistic. And it’s an unfortunate one and the reason why the Sadie Collective exists.

Hasenstab: Well, thanks so much for sharing that. Fanta, I just want to reiterate. You said, was it last year that just seven out of more than 1,000 Ph.D.s in economics were granted to black women? Is that correct?

Traore: Yeah, 1,150.

Hasenstab: Wow.

Traore: Hm-hmmm [affirmative].

Hasenstab: Wow. That is a really startling statistic. What are the next steps for the Sadie Collective?

Fanta Traore: The next steps for the Sadie Collective include expanding across the U.S. We have a really great vision for what we will look like in five years.

Since the conference, University of Michigan students have been streaming the conference and having reflections about what that experience means for their economics department. We’ve also had members of the Sadie Collective gathering in Philadelphia. And, so far, we have started a journal club. So, with all of these amazing leads and the expansion of our team, and having conversations with different institutions about how they can be involved with the conference, we’re really excited for the work that we will be able to do to equip and build a pipeline and pathway for black women in the field.

So, some of what we have in the works includes building out a mentorship program and working across the Federal Reserve System. And we’re also looking to establish our nonprofit status.

Hasenstab: It’s great to hear that you guys are thinking so far in the future about the collective. So what are the next steps in both of your careers?

Opoku-Agyeman: I will be graduating from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a B.A. in mathematics and a minor in economics. I will be participating in the American Economic Association summer program. I also accepted an offer to become part of the Research Scholar Initiative Program in Economics at Harvard University, which will allow me to conduct mentored research alongside Dr. Peter Q. Blair, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education. And then also take relevant coursework to prepare me for a doctoral degree in economics or a related field in the near future.

Hasenstab: And what about you, Fanta?

Traore: I’m excited about becoming the briefing research assistant, which means that I’ll be working closely with an economist in my section to create visualizations and do data analysis. So that’s really exciting, and I’ll also be at the FOMC meeting while my economist is presenting. And then I will become a senior research assistant, which means that I will be helping train the next group of research assistants that join my team.

At the same time, I will begin applying the quantitative-based policy programs and honing my skills and building the Sadie Collective alongside an incredible team. And transforming and building a pipeline and pathways for black women in the field.

Hasenstab: We know that underrepresented minorities have had challenges as they pursue their careers in economics. How might you handle such challenges? What are your perspectives or expectations regarding the workforce and the behavior of those with whom you work?

Opoku-Agyeman: I just want to briefly say that one big challenge that your question kind of hints at is that there is just a divide in identities between women and underrepresented minorities. There are women who are underrepresented minorities, so minority women, right? And until the profession begins to really address that group correctly, many of our problems will continue to be ignored. So, it is clear that economics has many social underlying problems that are now coming to light by way of the New York Times, The Economist, and similar publications. But what a lot of these articles are failing to address is the lack of underrepresented minority women in the profession.

So, for example, did you know that that no Native American women graduated with a Ph.D. in economics last year? Zero. And that the percentage, as we mentioned before, of black women awarded Ph.D.s in economics has been below 1% for the past two years.

So, interestingly enough, when you look at all these articles that are talking about the gender dynamics in economics, not one of them has said anything about the statistics on underrepresented minority women in the profession, even though the data is publicly available through the Committee on the Status of Minorities in the [Economics] Profession on the American Economic Association website.

So, part of me is kind of annoyed by that. And I’ve said a lot about that on Twitter. When you look at the intersection of race and gender, and then you add on the component of sexuality, a lot of these problems that are happening at that intersection are being missed by policies that are created in the economic profession, as well as the ideas that are circulating and trying to bring light to those sort of problems that exist in the economic profession.

And then, with regards to challenges that black women face, those are many, right? So, our identities are perceived as a threat in the professional and academic spaces we choose to enter. For example, we can’t wear our hair out naturally, if we raise our voice or, even if we don’t, people are really quick to stereotype us as the mad, black woman. And then we also have to conform our professionalism to what is accepted by white men, right?

And, so, another thing that I’ve noticed is that we are not given credit when we do great work. And there seems to be an attempt to erase black women excellence in the workforce. And I think that’s really why the Sadie Collective was created, so that we could amplify our achievements and assure that we are heard by our counterparts.

And for me personally, I plan to live unapologetically black and unapologetically woman in talking about the discrimination against other marginalized populations including the ones that I’m a part of. So, the Sadie Collective is really sort of response to that. I’m a black woman in this space. I don’t see a lot of people who look like me. And I don’t see us represented in leadership positions. Therefore, I’m helping to co-create a space where we can really have our opinions heard and our suggestions considered.

Hasenstab: Well, thank you for that powerful response.

Traore: Yeah. That was amazing, Anna, I’m so proud of you. I expect that any institution that I work in prioritizes inclusive spaces, especially where there is a severe underrepresentation. And it’s a benefit to us all when we do have diversity. So, for instance, my former professor, Dr. Spriggs, who is at Howard University, has testified before Congress about why the economic recession could have been preventable if there are more diverse voices in the room. And, as Sadie Alexander has mentioned in her work, that it’s important to include everyone in the economy in order for there to be progress for the nation as a whole.

So, it’s really of great benefit for inclusive spaces to exist. And, as far as maintaining myself in the profession and, like, finding a way forward, I think that there’s definitely an element of where you have to do a lot of self-affirmation. So, it’s important for me to remind myself that knocking doors down is not new. And many pioneers, whether black women, Native American, have had to do so for their communities. And if they can, so can I.

I love reading about the stories of individuals who have really paved and created a way for themselves by following what is important to them and living their true self. An example of this, in recent history, is Mackenzie Alston, who I met during the AEA summer program. And she made the course Mathematical Methods exciting and accessible as a really just incredible professor. And she will be the first black woman to graduate (with a Ph.D.) from Texas A&M University’s Economics department in 2019. This is in 2019.

Opoku-Agyeman: There’s one final point I want to add to that really quick, is that we want to get to a point in not only economics, but the fields that we are hoping to diversify, where we don’t hear stories like Mackenzie’s the first black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in economics from an economics department that has existed for nearly 100 years. Like, if you think about that, that’s really ridiculous, right?

So, we want to get to a point where it’s normal for underrepresented minority women to succeed at a higher level within these kind of careers. This shouldn’t be something that is news, right? Even with the Sadie Collective being created. You know, part of me is like, “Man, I kind of wish this was already created,” right? So, then we could also benefit from sort of just like being in that space and not feeling as discouraged. But I think there was also a lot of lessons that we learned from also creating that space for our friends, for our mentors and, as well, for ourselves.

Hasenstab: Well, I love hearing your energy and your enthusiasm about these subjects. You both truly are the future of women in this field and it’s great to talk to you today. So, thank you for that.

And just to clarify: Your first conference of the Sadie Collective was February 23, 2019. The next Sadie Collective Conference will be Feb. 21-22, 2020. Visit www.sadiecollective.org for more details.

Well, Anna and Fanta, I want to thank you so much for sharing your stories today.

Opoku-Agyeman: Thank you so much for having us.

Traore: Thank you so much for having us. It means a lot to be featured on the Women in Economics podcasts where many women that we admire have been featured.

Hasenstab: To hear more Women in Economics podcasts, visit stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. That’s one word, stlouisfed.org/womeninecon. You can also stream the Women in Economics podcast series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher, or ask your Amazon device, “Alexa, play Women in Economics from TuneIn.” Thanks so much for listening.