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American Association for Public Opinion Research

AAPOR Profile: Tamara Terry

by Alian Kasabian
Rene_Bautista-Large.jpgGrab your chisels—we are making a change! Or at least that is Tamara Terry’s method for getting through obstacles, and she is passionate about inclusion and equity. Not in an abstract way, but in a putting-in-the-effort, leading-the-charge, and building-teams-to-make-things-happen kind of way. Currently a Research Survey Scientist at RTI, Tamara has been part of the RTI team since she was an undergraduate student at the nearby North Carolina Central University (NCCU). Within RTI, she serves on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council as the Domestic Outreach Chair and as the University Collaborations Relationship Manager with her alma mater, NCCU. In this role, she helps facilitate and support proposal development with project teams that could benefit from working with minority-serving institutions, internships for NCCU students, and partnering on research around minority health disparities. For example, RTI is collaborating with NCCU (which was recently awarded a million-dollar grant) to create the Advanced Center for COVID-19 Related Disparities (ACCORD) and conduct multidisciplinary research to study the public health and economic impact of COVID-19 in underserved communities in North Carolina.

Outside of RTI, she is very involved in her communities. Besides AAPOR, Tamara serves as a Board member at her alma mater as well as WomenNC, plus she is a leader in the Research Triangle Park Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Collective. Within AAPOR, she has been very involved at both the chapter and national levels and continues to encourage more chapter representation at the national conference, include chapters in the conversations, and support their future leadership. She served as SAPOR Vice President in 2016, SAPOR President in 2017, and in various roles in AAPOR before becoming Chair of the Membership and Chapter Relations (MCR) Committee. “MCR really fed my desire to help people.” Prior to chairing MCR, she was part of the Diversity Coordinating Committee (DCC) and has continued in that role. Now she is taking the lead on a new committee: the Inclusion and Equity Committee (IEC). In honor of this new direction, I met with Tamara to talk about her work.

[The following is excerpted from a longer, wonderful conversation about our field, the community of AAPOR, inclusivity, Marvel movies, the pandemic, and other off-the-record goodness. This is a longer-than-usual profile, but Tamara’s vision, motivation, and positivity are worth the space and time.]

Alian: What keeps you coming back to AAPOR?

Tamara: AAPOR has the best of the best! We literally have research celebrities at AAPOR and I come back because I get to learn from the very best. That’s at the core. But second, I get to KNOW the very best. I’m closely connected and knitted to these great people that have written amazing books, created innovative research methodologies, etc… —These are people that are thought so highly of and I get to share a little bit of space with them for a couple of days. Last, I feel good at AAPOR. Connecting with everybody, the hugs, conversations, and the late nights hanging out makes AAPOR always an unforgettable time.

Alian: Do you have a favorite memory from AAPOR?

Tamara: First, let me give a high-level disclaimer. I love AAPOR, and specifically our annual conference because it’s literally like a family reunion, right? You’re connecting with these people that you likely haven’t seen in an entire year. You’re picking up like it’s old times. You’re reminiscing, and just having a good time connecting. And so overall, I love AAPOR because of the feeling of being connected to a family, and people who have the same interests and commonalities.

Do you know Dick Kulka [AAPOR President 2008-09 Richard Kulka]? He used to work at RTI, the first year I started, but I didn’t really know who he was, and he certainly didn’t know who I was. I always remember seeing him and saying, “that’s Dick Kulka.” And this one time in Arizona at the conference, I stopped him and told him “Hey, I admire all of your work and everything that you’ve done. You are an inspiration! Thank you for setting the path for people like me to come behind you. I’m appreciative.” This was probably 10 years ago. So TWO years ago, I am minding my own business, somewhere within the conference, and he stops me and says, “Tamara.” And in my head, I was thinking—you know MY name? And he continues and says “Tamara, I just want to let you know that I’ve been seeing all the things you’re doing within AAPOR, and I’m so very proud of you.” And it touched my heart—I almost cried! It’s hard to explain but just knowing that someone I admire, someone who I think highly of, thinks highly of me too. You know what mean? To me, it was a moment of humility. Dick Kulka said he was proud of me, and told me to keep going, and to stay motivated. It was a great memory and great moment for me.

Alian: What work are you proudest of? (Either in this position, or something you’ve done before.)

Tamara: I go back to my humble beginnings. The very first project I worked on at RTI was the World Trade Center Health Registry. We built this huge registry of approximately a hundred thousand people that were within the proximity of the World Trade Center disaster. These groups of people were—firefighters, pregnant women, and just everyday people were part of this registry, starting in 2003. We’re still using that registry now, following these cohorts of people to understand where they are—Some are living, some are sick and others have passed away. I say all that to say that this is what I love about my job and RTI—we are right there when something happens, right there to help and provide the research to the monumental and huge issues that face our world every day. And although I am just one person, it feels good to be a part of an organization that makes positive impact through research and science. And so yeah, the World Trade Center Health Registry is dear to my heart and planted a seed in my spirit that has sprouted into a desire to change the world, which I am all about!
“One thing I know about a seed, is that it always grows. Whether it grows into something good or something bad depends completely on those sources that are feeding that seed.”  -TT
Alian: You went to an HBCU, you do all of this work in diversity and inclusion. How do you think your identity informs your work in AAPOR, if at all?
Tamara: Within AAPOR in particular, I think it’s important to have appropriate representation, specifically within the AAPOR membership, but also within our executive leadership and committees. As a black woman, it does feel good to serve with an executive council that is trying to change the world and make real impact in the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It feels good to be part of that. I want to see more members that look like me. I want to see more people from marginalized groups given the opportunity to sit in a leadership position within a national organization in addition to joining. AAPOR is a leader in the research community and represents several hundred companies, so it’s within our ability to be more influential and inclusive by showing the diversity within our organization. These values will bleed into our larger research community and that is where the real impact is made. So this isn’t only about AAPOR the organization, but rather how the work we do within AAPOR impacts the bigger picture. My identity within AAPOR is tied to my ability to make a larger impact within our entire research community, and it’s just that simple. This is what gives me motivation to keep pushing.

I always tell people, as a black woman, or just growing up as a black kid, I’ve never heard someone say “when I grow up I want to be an epidemiologist,” or “I want to be a survey researcher.” You just don’t hear that from our youth. And not just in the black community—in any community, kids just don’t aspire to be like us. So I think it’s our responsibility as researchers to educate and push down what we do every day to our kids so that they can grow up to be like us. We should be looking to identify our future researchers of America, you know? Our future epidemiologists, our future methodologists. I literally stumbled across my career, and I should not have, because this is an amazing field, and someone should have told me about it when I was younger.

Alian: In your HigherEdWorks video, you talked about the impact of volunteering as undergraduate student, and being pushed outside of your comfort zone. All these roles you fill—do you still get pushed outside of your comfort zone?

Tamara: Absolutely! [Alian: And do you still see value in it?] I believe that life can be tough. Meaning, there will always be obstacles in your life; metaphorically there will always be a mountain that’s put in front of you. And oftentimes when mountains come and things get tough, it paralyzes us, and we stop moving or retreat. What I have learned to do over the years is to chisel that mountain. I must work around it or kick down that mountain because I recognize that beyond my discomfort, beyond this obstacle is greatness. Beyond my discomfort is the hard stuff, it’s the stuff I never realized I could do. Beyond that discomfort are the big things that I really, really desire, and believe are meant for me, but does not come easily. I’m always trying to chisel around that mountain, and kick those obstacles out of the way. And after I get past it, I may walk a little bit, I may even run, but guess what? Another mountain may come, so I’ve got to pull out my tools again. This story never ends or stops—It’s the story of resilience which often equals success. I think you are always using your chisel to break those “life” challenges down. It’s not always easy—but it’s worth it! Like my new position as the RTI Relationship Manager for NCCU—when this opportunity was presented to me, I thought to myself, am I the best person for this? But then I thought, if not me, who? Why not me? So, I picked up my chisel, and started knocking down the obstacles in my own mind that say I’m not good enough. So, yes, it is a skill I use ALL the time. There are many times when I am uncomfortable and I want to stop, but I FORCE myself to keep pushing.

Alian: Earlier this month, you were on The Measure of Everyday Life on public radio (and did a great job repping AAPOR). You said that our field has made some strides in some areas (like demographics), but there is still room to do better. Is there anything you think our field does well when it comes to diversity? And what could they do better?

Tamara:  We have tried to diversify our demographic questions on surveys, especially around race/ethnicity. I think we’ve done a decent job, but we can always do better. I can remember about 10 years ago conducting research and talking to someone who was of Hispanic or Latino origin and they would say, “Well I don’t fall within the categories of White, Black, etc.” and we would explain that these are the categories the Census uses—please pick one. For years we did not have the question about Hispanic or Latino origin, and when we added that question it was a huge step in the right direction in being more inclusive. Like I said, we’ve made some strides and will continue to learn and do better. The goal is to have appropriate representation from all groups, and within the research community, we are best positioned to ensure this happens.

Alian: What about within AAPOR, specifically? What do you think AAPOR does well? What do you think AAPOR can do better?

Tamara: In recent years, AAPOR has done a really great job with the creation of the DCC—AAPOR has really taken a hard look at how they can be more diverse and be more inclusive and equitable. We are being more purposeful in identifying diverse people to take on leadership roles. AAPOR is being intentional and equitable about looking for members from marginalized groups to join committees and take on more volunteer opportunities within the organization. I know we are trying very hard to be more diverse and inclusive and the IEC will help fuel that fire and really add to the groundwork we’ve already started.

From my standpoint, AAPOR desires to be more diverse, but there aren’t enough people in the pool of members to really do that well. Meaning, the barrier isn’t we don’t want to be inclusive and diverse but rather a larger pipeline issue. This builds on what I was saying about creating the future public opinion researchers of America. We have to come up with ways to push our work down to minority communities and build a diverse pipeline. AAPOR is attached to hundreds of companies—we have influence. So, what can AAPOR do better? We can continue to be influential to really push the envelope for more diversity, equity, and inclusive within the research community and help create a career path for marginalized groups that might not be familiar with our field.

Can I say one more thing? I am a believer that when you are in a position of influence, you have to use your power for good. You are responsible and accountable for using your influence to make greater impact because you have been given this high-level position. AAPOR is influential. We have power. So we have to continue to use our power for good and make positive impact within the current and future research community.
“I’m always going to root for the underdog” -TT
Alian: You are the new Chair of the new Inclusion and Equity Committee (IEC). This will replace the Diversity Coordinating Committee. Can you tell us a little about what the DCC did, and how the IEC is different?

Tamara: First, the DCC has done an amazing job over the last three years in helping to form AAPOR’s position on being a more diverse and inclusive organization. The Diversity Coordinating Committee was created in 2016 to oversee, coordinate and track the implementation of AAPOR's long-term diversity plan. I want to thank Dianne Ruckinski, who chaired the DCC from 2016 to 2020, for leading this effort. Now we are expanding the DCC’s scope to include establishing, implementing and maintaining programs that promote the inclusion of diverse AAPOR members with the creation on the IEC.

The IEC Chair will sit on the AAPOR Executive Council, directing the diversity, equity, and inclusion programs within AAPOR.

Alian: I know you are working on the framework of what the IEC will encompass, but can you give us a hint about any plans? And what you hope it will accomplish?

Tamara:  I have A LOT of big plans for the IEC, but I can’t share everything right now. I will say that a component of the IEC will be around outreach, and how we tap into our younger generations. We should connect more with college students, start connecting with high schools, or even junior high schools. Maybe we could have a speaker series within the schools that support and serve minority students. I would love to see AAPOR representatives go into the schools and talk to students about all the careers the field of public opinion research has to offer. We could use faculty from our Diversity Student-Faculty Pipeline Award—ideally, they are the liaison to diverse college students—Our ability to really connect closely with those faculty members annually will allow us to identify students and build the pipeline.

My full plan is far from finalized but I’ll share the charge I wrote and add a little context. “The Inclusion and Equity Committee shall be responsible for the oversight of AAPOR’s inclusion and equity strategies. This committee shall establish, implement, and maintain programs that promote inclusion of diverse AAPOR members, and ensure that members of marginalized groups receive equitable opportunities, recognition, and support within the organization.” That means we are going to sprinkle diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into every aspect of AAPOR—that’s the only way this works, DEI becomes a part of AAPOR’s DNA. It has to be innate—something that people naturally think about. Am I being diverse? Am I being inclusive? Am I being equitable in my decisions?
“It’s important that we are identifying marginalized groups to support—they need our help! We are in a critical place in our country where we can and should be doing more to provide equity and equality to all people” —TT

Alian: The DCC was only formed in about 2016, in response to Mollyann Brodie’s Presidential Address; there has been in increase in affinity groups since then, and the diversity pipeline award is only a couple of years old. So these more visible efforts of our organization are still pretty recent. And now we have the IEC (which was much anticipated by some of us). In another 4-5 years, what do you hope AAPOR will have accomplished?

Tamara: First, I would hope that our demographic buckets (as it pertains to race) will have changed significantly for non-white members. We need to broaden and enlarge those buckets. And I’m not talking about a .1% increase. I want to see significant changes. In another 4-5 years, I would love to see a person of color as the President of AAPOR. This field has been dominated by white men, and we need more diversity. We need more women in leadership positions and continued diversity in the Executive Council. I want to see more students from minority-serving institutions, more women students, more support overall for marginalized groups. Our future isn’t complete if all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc… aren’t included and I want to commit to ensuring they play a strong role in AAPOR’s future. We need actionable change now to see positive impacts in 4-5 years. Over the past several months, many companies have made supportive statements about the Black Lives Matter movement, their belief in women’s rights, their company support for equality for all people, etc… But from my standpoint, I want to see the actions associated with those words. It’s easy to say that you believe these things, now the question is, what are the steps you plan to take within your organization to ensure that this happens? What does that look like? Does that mean you are intentional about hiring minorities for X percent of your workforce? I appreciate that AAPOR has turned their words into intentional actions and progress.

Alian: Any last thoughts for our readers?

Tamara: I want to urge the readers of this highlight to keep going, keep pushing, and never give up on matters of social change and the basics of “right and wrong.” We have to remember that we are literally trying to create a world that we’ve never seen before, and this will take resilience and strength. This means it’s not always going to be easy, it’s going to be frustrating at times, It’s going to be challenging, but we have to keep pushing toward progression and change. We must be brave and pull out our chisel and start knocking down the obstacles and mountains that will undoubtably come our way. It’s for the greater good! My hashtags on social media are: #WeCanChangeTheWorld #WeCanBeTheChange #WeCanMakeADifference I truly believe this!