The director of UC Irvine’s Center for Statistical Consulting won her race for Long Beach City Council.
As a child, Joni Ricks-Oddie would often join her grandfather at county commissioner meetings in Chicago. So, it’s no surprise that when Ricks-Oddie was sworn in for her new seat on the Long Beach City Council on Dec. 22, 2022, she had her family in tow. She took her oath of office with her right arm raised and her left arm holding her young daughter.
“As a wife and mother of two small children, it is of utmost importance to me that we make our civic spaces open, welcoming and inclusive, teaching the next generation the necessity of civic engagement,” she said during her inauguration speech. “That lesson starts with them seeing their parents have the ability to be full members and make their voices heard. … I want to lead by example and let people know families are always welcome.”
In addition to exemplifying her life as a mom in support of family-friendly civic spaces, Ricks-Oddie also spotlighted her work in epidemiology and statistics in support of more impactful leadership. “As someone with a science and research background, I want to bring data and metrics to the way we make decisions in the city,” she noted, “to ensure we are making the most well-informed decisions on the ways we invest in our city, particularly our most vulnerable communities.”
Ricks-Oddie earned her Ph.D. in epidemiology from UCLA and now serves as director of the Center for Statistical Consulting, housed in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). She is also director of the Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design (BERD) unit within UCI’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Sciences (ICTS). This professional backdrop gives her a unique understanding of the power of data, and as she takes on her new role as council member for the city of Long Beach, representing District 9, she plans to leverage that knowledge to positively impact her community.
What was the most memorable part of your inauguration?
The official swearing is at the City Clerk’s Office, but the public inauguration ceremony was a ton of fun! I had my friend and mentor Yvonne Wheeler, who is president of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, swear me in, and my husband and two kids were supposed to be on stage with me. But my son had to go to the bathroom — he said he couldn’t hold it — so my father-in-law took him as I was giving my speech. But it worked out perfectly, because my speech talked about the importance of family and children and civic engagement. The reason I bring my kids to everything is to make it an inclusive space for families. I live in a community of young people of color, so we have a lot of families moving in. How are we going to grow the next generation of civic leaders if people aren’t comfortable bringing their kids? So it starts with us as leaders demonstrating that it’s okay.
So just as I finish talking about this, and I’m shaking hands with some of the other city council members, my father-in-law returns with my son. I pick him up and give him a hug, and then he says “I wanna say something,” and he grabs the microphone and says, “Hi, I’m Cohen!” Many people thought that was the highlight of the event! It was a perfect example of the importance of family and just being a mom in the middle of all that. So that was my favorite moment.
How does your position as director of the Center for Statistical Consulting help you in this role?
At my second city council meeting, we announced an emergency declaration on homelessness. We have an emergency operation center called the ELC, and we have around a 100 staff members in Long Beach dedicated to spending the next 100 days focusing completely on homelessness and sending us reports. So the Friday before our second meeting is when we got our homelessness report, and it was 100 pages. I had to read and analyze the report before our Tuesday meeting. This is the benefit of having somebody with a Ph.D. who is used to looking at data and quickly determining what’s happening.
I’ll give you another example. There was a slide talking about race and ethnicity related to homelessness, because we’re trying to approach the problem with an equity lens to identify which racial groups are most heavily impacted. In Long Beach, it’s African Americans. So on this one slide, there were two data points that just seemed contradictory to each other. One was saying that Black people tend to spend the fewest days unhoused, but they were also vastly more likely to be back on the street 12 months after being housed — like 62% compared to the 20% for the next highest group, which were white people. So what the heck is happening that we get Black people off the street quickly, but within a year, we are back where we started? In the meeting, I pointed out that this cycle is alarming. I then had residents and advocates thanking me for the depth of my questions, because I’m not sure others had enough time to review the data to make that connection.
How do your efforts to address the needs of your community give you a different lens for viewing your work in academia?
It’s the importance of implementation. We do all this research, but we often don’t get to see the final dissemination and implementation. How do we take what we do and literally translate it into something that impacts people? That’s exactly what I get the opportunity to do now, which is why the work is so important!
It’s basically asking, how do you take best practices, which is what we’re supposed to be doing here as researchers, and implement that? But then the counterpoint is, if we’re trying to implement these policies, what’s the feedback loop to research? That’s what’s missing, which is why I think somebody with my background is important to have in a position like this. We don’t have the feedback loop to know which programs and policies didn’t work out the way we thought they would when scaled for a larger audience. But having that knowledge can inform how we do our research and create useful interventions.
You’ve said that you want to advocate for an Office of Data and Evaluation. Why is that important?
Data is great, and information is great, but what are you going to do with it? How can it influence policy and help you apply for grants that can lead to interventions? I’m hoping to demonstrate to my council colleagues over time that data tells you a story, and then based on that story, you can present a series of policies to address inequities.
The level of challenges that we’re dealing with right now impresses the need for a holistic view. We have to do many things all at once if we’re actually going to make an impact, which means you need to understand the full breadth of the issue. I’m building the case right now for eventually hiring a unit of people with expertise in gathering and analyzing data to get the whole story, and give us that holistic view.
In addition to homelessness, you also want to focus on health equity, which became personal for you after the birth of your daughter. How do you plan to tackle that issue?
When it comes to the issue around health equity, this is actually related to Black residents as well. So I have been working, over time, with what’s called the Black Health Equity Collaborative, an organization born out of the framework for racial reconciliation that the city of Long Beach implemented right after the murder of George Floyd. The document was designed to make the city accountable toward its Black residents. It includes milestones, metrics and objectives on how to engage with Black residents.
Out of that, we started exploring how to tie things together to focus on communities of color. We already had an Office of Equity, we already had a Health Department, but how do we make sure each community is getting the attention that it needs? Black residents need it. Latino residents need it. Our Pacific Islander groups need it, including our Samoans, our Tongans, our Chamorro population, who are barely even a blip in the data — they’re never disaggregated out. I talked to several of them when I was knocking on doors campaigning, and they said they don’t even feel visible most of the time at the city level. So when we talk about health equity, it’s about being intentional about those communities that have been marginalized historically and don’t even get a voice at the city level, and really engaging them with them to uplift their voices and their needs. There’s a lot of work to do.
Can you also talk about your efforts to expose underrepresented minority (URM) middle and high school students to careers in statistics and data science?
Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio is the assistant vice chancellor for UCI’s Center for Educational Partnerships (CFEP), which has a group of managers under her that focus on URM students. So Statistics Professor Veronica Berrocal and I participated in one of their workshops for students in the Long Beach, Paramount, and Compton school districts. We did a presentation, talking about statistics and what you can do with it, and we recruited some students of color from the Department of Statistics to share their experiences. I’ve done a couple of presentations with Veronica through the CFEP, talking about the work we do, and trying to collaborate with them on projects so ICS can be a partner in general.
But it’s interesting, because when talking about careers, this isn’t a pipeline problem; it’s a recruitment problem. We need to better target URM student blocks and expose them to open positions. I’m a Black woman, so I have a much more diverse network, but you have to be intentional about building a network that is diverse enough to attract the best candidate. Don’t tell me there’s no Black people or Latino people for a position. They’re out there. What are we doing to find them?
This relates to your ICTS Black Thriving Initiative Strategic Plan. Can you tell us about that?
After George Floyd’s murder, ICTS, the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, started a working group that fall, a visioning process about how ICTS could join with UCI’s Black Thriving Initiative (BTI). We were trying to assess how we could leverage the resources at ICTS to double down on our commitment to diversity and make sure we were doing our due diligence to increase the diversity of the clinical translational sciences, because historically, as much work as it does, ICTS as an entity has not been super diverse. Again, it’s just levels of intentionality.
So we drafted what I think is a comprehensive plan that leverages our strengths and talks about regional partnerships. We came up with a series of goals, metrics and objectives that map to the three pillars of BTI [leverage the mission, change the culture and engage Black communities].
That was fall of 2020, so how’s it going?
It’s been really great. We’ve been engaging with our education unit to get them to increase the number of NIH diversity supplements, contacting eligible researchers. We’ve had a lot of success with that over the last couple of years, going from around two [supplement] applications to six, with I think five out of those six being awarded.
We’re also making sure our labs and research groups have culturally competent researchers, so when students of color come in, they have a sense of belonging and feel comfortable. It’s all these little interventions you need to do along the way to make things easier and more inclusive. We also have a steering committee for the ICTS that meets every week, and we have speakers come in quarterly to talk about different topics related to DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion], such as race as a biological versus social construct. Because race is often controlled and included in analyses, and most people don’t really know why they include race, so we’re teaching researchers to critically think about those things. Or we’ve talked about precision of language. We had a researcher, Dr. Monica McLemore of the University of Washington, talk about how people use words like equity, diversity, and inclusion and conflate all these terms without really understanding what they mean.
We’ve also had people talk about workforce development in the clinical space to not only recruit a diverse set of students and faculty but also to think about our clinical trials, because we’re often testing things on a very specific group demographic. We found out the problems of that during the pandemic. I don’t know if you heard about what happened with the pulse oximeters for measuring your blood oxygen levels, but [research has shown that] the darker your skin, the poorer the reading. Black people with darker skin would go into the emergency room saying, “I can’t breathe,” but the pulse oximeter reading would say you’re at 100% oxygen saturation. So the doctors would say “you’re fine,” because the finger oximeter couldn’t read through darker skin.
These are things we need to think about during clinical trials when we’re testing devices. The color of someone’s skin matters. This ties back into the question of what kind of data you’re getting and whether you’re getting the full picture from that data.
On that note, and given that it’s Black History Month, is there something you’d like to share as a source of inspiration?
There’s a book called Black Like Me. It’s old — it’s literally like a 50-year-old book [originally published in 1960] — but it’s basically the [true] story of a gentleman, a journalist who’s white [John Howard Griffin], who darkens his skin and then goes to live in the South as a Black man. It is a fantastic book, because you’re still the same person, but once you remove the privilege of your skin, the author experienced what it is like to live through the lens of not having the privilege of whiteness. I remember reading that book back when I was maybe in high school, and it’s a great read and I still remember it to this day.
Anything else you’d like to add?
If there’s anyone out there who’s interested in the work I’m doing on city council, or who wants to be a resource or to “bend Joni’s ear” on an issue, let me know. There’s going to be times when I’m looking for subject matter expertise in particular areas. Obviously I talk about homelessness, but there’s tons of things that cities as large as Long Beach have to address. So I’d love to be able to interface with my colleagues here at UCI and use them to get subject matter information to myself and my colleagues. So please reach out!
— Shani Murray