Building a better world through policy


Helping children and families thrive. Preventing gun violence. Bridging the racial wealth gap for Black Americans. Three Sanford researchers continue to lead these fields with decades of research and innovative solutions.

For more than 40 years, Kenneth Dodge has examined one of the most critical issues in the world: how to foster healthy environments for children to thrive, grow and succeed. Dodge’s work has positively impacted the lives of children and families.

In 2022, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it would empower Dodge with a MERIT Award worth more than $8 million to study how to prepare families and children, from pregnancy to kindergarten, for academic and social success.

The prestigious award, chosen through a rigorous review process, will support five years of research and the opportunity to extend funding for an additional five years.

Dodge, with Ben Goodman, a research scientist at the Sanford School, and Professor Debra Best of Duke’s Department of Pediatrics, have created a novel program of family primary care. This comprehensive initiative works with families across the lifespan of pregnancy through kindergarten matriculation.

Through previous research, Dodge has found that life success is better predicted by early social and emotional competence than standard test scores. With that knowledge, Dodge has created and tested classroom curricula in social-emotional learning (SEL) and intensive early-intervention programs.

His groundbreaking research spotlights a consistent point: learning starts at birth, and waiting until public education starts puts children at a disadvantage.

Further supporting families through his work, Dodge created Out of Durham Connects in 2008 and a larger program that grew out of it called Family Connects International. The research-based, universal nurse home visiting program for newborns aims to prevent child abuse. The program has been shown to reduce community-level child abuse rates by one-third. It is now being disseminated nationwide through an independent nonprofit organization. The state of Oregon established a Universal Home Visiting program modeled on Family Connects.

Dodge’s work for children and families showcases Sanford’s strength in social policy, as does another major award received by another faculty member for his research on one of the most urgent issues of our time.

More than 251,000 people worldwide died from gun injuries in 2016, up 20 percent since 1990. Economist Philip J. Cook is working to solve this crisis.

More than 251,000 people worldwide died from gun injuries in 2016, up 20 percent since 1990. Economist Philip J. Cook is working to solve this crisis.

In 2020, Cook was awarded the Stockholm Prize in Criminology for his decades of research on gun violence and its wide-ranging effects on society.

The Stockholm Prize is awarded annually by the Stockholm Prize in Criminology Foundation, a permanently endowed charity funded by The Torsten Soderberg Foundation, the Government of Sweden and other donors. It is administered by the University of Stockholm. Cook and a fellow winner Franklin Zimring, the William G. Simon Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, shared the prize of about $150,000, which was awarded in Stockholm in June 2021. Cook was the second Duke faculty member to receive this high honor.

In its announcement, the Stockholm Prize in Criminology Foundation said the laureates’ influence has “guided an entire generation of gun injury scholarship, strengthening the evidence for governments to take more effective action against the massive suffering caused by guns.”

In their book Gun Violence: The Real Costs (2000), Cook and Ludwig developed a new way to calculate the toll of shootings in the United States each year, arriving at an estimate of $80 billion in 1998. The book provided a new perspective on the burden of gun violence that focused not on actual injuries but on apprehension, avoidance, and trauma by which gun violence impacts communities and beyond.  A revised edition of his book, The Gun Debate: What Everyone Needs to Know, co-authored with Kristin A. Goss, Sanford professor of public policy, was released in 2020.


Race-based income inequality is one of the critical policy issues today.


Professor William Darity, Jr. has been at the forefront of economic solutions for the racial wealth gap for decades. 

These ideas include “baby bonds” (taken up by Senator Cory Booker), a federal jobs guarantee (endorsed by the Center for American Progress, among others), and reparations for descendants of enslaved people (his work has been cited in several state conversations about enacting reparations). 

Darity was invited to testify to a House Judiciary subcommittee on June 19, 2019, and submitted his written testimony about reparations. Darity also has testified in Congress on discrimination and economic impacts. His research resulted in an award-winning book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, written with folklorist and arts consultant A. Kirsten Mullen.

In 2021, Sanford launched a six-part podcast series called the ARC of Justice: From Here to Equality based on the book. The series aired on North Carolina Public Radio/WUNC in September 2021, and was offered nationally to NPR stations by American Public Media. The series aired in several major markets including Washington, D.C. and has won three major accolades: an award from the National Association of Black Journalists; a Gracie for projects produced and hosted by women; and a 2022 CASE Bronze Circle of Excellence Award for podcasts produced by higher education institutions.

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Examples of impact in social policy.


Social entrepreneurship

Tony Brown received one of the highest honors at Duke for his “learn by doing” approach to teaching social entrepreneurship, students pursue solutions to university, community and global problems: the Duke Presidential Award in 2020. His classes have sparked ventures that lived on for many years or are still thriving, including Student U, Camp Kesem and Crayons to Calculators (C2C) in Durham and Small Town Records, Common Ground and the Girls Club at Duke. Students in his enterprising leadership class have completed more than 350 small projects for Durham clients in the past 20 years.

More about Tony Brown's work

Poverty and Child Development

Lisa Gennetian is a co-PI on the first multi-site multi-year randomized control study of a monthly unconditional cash transfer to low-income mothers of infants in the U.S. called Baby’s First Years. The Baby’s First Years study is one of the first to examining how poverty reduction affects cognitive, emotional, and brain development in young children. The first release of findings on infant brain activity from the Baby’s First Years (poverty reduction/cash transfer) study was featured in the New York Times and nationwide.

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American Psychological Association Awards

Jennifer Lansford and Anna Gassman-Pines received awards in 2023 from the American Psychological Association's Division 7 for their outstanding contributions to the field of developmental science.

Read about the awards

Influential Education Scholarship

For the past 11 years in a row, Helen Ladd and Charles Clotfelter were included in the list of most influential scholars in education on rankings by Education Week. The 2024 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings recognize the public influence of U.S. education scholars based on a combination of their academic work and contributions to the public discussion in 2023. As one of the first directors of Sanford’s MPP program, Ladd helped build it into a top-ranked professional program. Today, she is continuing to build the program through her gift creating the Helen F. Ladd Fellowship Fund.

Read about the MPP fund

Workplace Safety

Matt Johnson’s research on workplace practices was featured in the 2022 Economic Report of the President from the White House. Johnson's research was heavily featured in a proposed rule by the FTC to ban noncompete agreements. 

Consumer Financial Protection

Mallory SoRelle studies the politics of federal policies related to consumer financial protection, and options for how policies might be changed to benefit Americans and our economy. She wrote a book Democracy Declined – the Failed Politics of Consumer Financial Protection. 

More about Democracy Declined

Families and Wealth

Christina Gibson-Davis studies the consequences of wealth inequality and wealth deprivation for families and children.

Trauma-Informed care

The Infant-Toddler Trauma-Informed Care project led by Katie Rosanbalm and team has worked for many years with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services to address early childhood workforce wellness and promote trauma-informed childcare. The team’s professional development framework for the infant/toddler childcare workforce is being used in centers across the state of North Carolina to promote trauma-informed childcare.

More about the project

HBCU Impact

Michael Sorrell MPP’90 JD’94 is president of Paul Quinn College, and he has turned the historically black institution in Dallas into what he calls “an engine of social mobility.” He became president of Paul Quinn in 2007. At the time, there were more than a dozen abandoned buildings on campus. Michael Sorrell has since been named HBCU President of the Year three times for his contributions to higher education, and in 2021 he was named to Fortune’s List of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

Listen to podcast with Sorrell

Black Americans and Economic Success

Sekou Kaalund MPP’99 landed his “dream-come-true job” as head of JP Morgan Chase’s Advancing Black Pathways initiative. The new program aims to help black Americans achieve greater economic success. In 2021, Kaalund's team brought together influential black leaders including former U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell, NFL Quarterback Cam Newton, and U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) to engage community members, partners and college students in the Washington, D.C. area.

Read alumni profile

Immigrant Narratives

Andrew Leon Hanna PPS’14 was selected for the 2020 Forbes 30 under 30 list in Law & Policy for his work in co-founding DreamxAmerica, a movement combining filmmaking and impact investment to support the stories of immigrant entrepreneurs across America with fellow Duke graduate David Delaney Mayer. 

More About DreamxAmerica

COVID-19 relief Navajo Nation

Shandiin Herrera PPS’19 helped lead COVID-19 relief efforts for the Navajo Nation. Herrera is from Monument Valley, Utah and is a proud member of the Navajo Nation. She graduated as Duke’s first Native American Udall Scholar, the American Indian Graduate Center’s Student of The Year, the 2019 Terry Sanford Leadership Award winner, the Duke Alumni Association’s Forever Duke Leadership Award winner, and a 2019 Champion for Change for the Center for Native American Youth at The Aspen Institute. Herrera returned home as a Lead for America Hometown Fellow, working as a Policy Analyst and Project Consultant for the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation. In March 2020, she co-founded Yee Ha’ólníi Doo d.b.a. Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. In her role as a Distribution Lead, she helped lead COVID-19 relief efforts in her community, serving over 500,000 households on the Navajo Nation and Hopi reservation by delivering food, potable water, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

more about Shandiin's work

Faculty: Social Policy

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