Turning the Corner
There’s a wealth of research available on what leads people to lose themselves in crime, drug addiction, and homelessness. IPFW Assistant Professor of Public Policy Rachel Rayburn wanted to know what motivates a person to come back.
“I’ve always wondered when you want to change your life, how do you do that? Why and how do people quit?” she asks.
Rayburn was inspired by a project launched in 1991 by Jim Wright of Tulane University in Louisiana. The project created a treatment program for homeless substance abusers.
She became fascinated by the opportunity for a “longitudinal study” of these individuals—to follow up with them over the course of their lives and their treatment.
At first, the task ahead of her seemed impossible. “’There’s no way you’re ever going to find any of them to re-interview them,’” she recalls being told. “They’re homeless, they’re drug and alcohol users, and Hurricane Katrina came and devastated the community and a lot of people left.”
Confronting the Realities
Rayburn received funding through Purdue University to continue her work in Louisiana, tracking down participants in the 1991–2001 study, learning their stories, and researching rates of desistance and recidivism from crime and deviant behavior.
She was able to hire students from the Department of Public Policy to work as research assistants. They learned how to use the tools and research methods out in the field.
“They’re getting to talk to people. They’re getting to learn all about it,” she says. “It’s been very rewarding.”
Rayburn notes that while the experience and learning opportunities are profound, the lessons don’t always come easy. Many students struggle with confronting the realities of homelessness, poverty, and substance abuse.
“They’ll say, ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ ‘I want to be a police officer.’ ‘I want to work as a U.S. marshal.’ And I say, ‘Have you ever been in a cop car? Have you ever been in a jail? Have you ever been in a homeless shelter?’ And a lot of times the answer is no.”
To which Rayburn responds, “I guess we’re going to juvenile corrections today.”
These confrontations may be difficult, but they can also inspire. Rayburn pushes her students to turn their frustrations with complex social issues and injustices into opportunities for making a positive impact.
“Find something that’s a social problem that angers you,” Rayburn tells her students. “It could be anything you want. You’re going to find a social problem and you’re going to do something to make it better.”
Program Snapshot: Department of Public Policy
Be foundational to a more open, green, and just society. Whether you’re interested in protecting the peace, the planet, or the rule of law, the Department of Public Policy has programs to connect you to your calling. We graduate lawyers, administrators, officers, and more. Our program includes criminal justice, environmental policy, health services, administration, legal studies, and public management. Learn more.