Iheoma Iruka has lived comfortably in Nigeria and experienced poverty in Massachusetts. She has seen the remnants of colonialism in African life and the vestiges of slavery in the United States. She embodies an ongoing, interactive dialogue between very different reaches of the globe—parts of the world that nonetheless have their commonalities, too. Through her seminal research and a biography that sprawls between two continents, she also has discovered the cultural strengths of many peoples in poverty, dedicating much of her work to exploring the qualities and parenting styles of groups often stereotyped, marginalized, and misunderstood only as “the poor.”
Iruka’s own family is a tale of two worlds. The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute’s new associate director for research was born in Texas to U.S.-educated parents from Nigeria. She moved across the Atlantic and received her preschool care in Nigeria, where she was taught until second grade, after which she re-crossed the ocean for a childhood in Boston. Years later, her research and post-secondary schooling would land her in a city at another international crossroads; she received her Ph.D. from the University of Miami in 2005. Since, then, she has developed expertise in several fields but particularly focuses on determining the interplay between race and ethnicity, poverty, parenting and early education environments—all of which effect early development and later outcomes for children.
Four of Iruka’s sisters were born abroad, and having a foot on each side of the Atlantic has informed her work throughout her career. “People see me as African American,” she said. “Black people are not monolithic, though. I’m a dual-language learner and a first-generation immigrant. But this raises the question: when we look at people, do we really know who we are researching?”
According to Iruka, the American approach to understanding and serving people in poverty often focuses on deficits and may miss the full richness of experiences in poor communities. “We need to understand the complexities,” she said. “We need to understand who these kids and families are. We need to get the inner perspectives of kids belonging to many different groups. These are unique kids. What are their strengths?”
Research has begun to answer some of these questions and to reveal realities that contradict stereotypes about poverty, although Iruka noted the impossibility of a composite profile that fully encompasses peoples of all races, ethnicities, and experiences. Nonetheless, she believes that people in poverty adapt to their economic situations. “They can enjoy life,” she said. “Their sense of community is essential. They take care of one another’s kids. They share, they connect. In poor communities especially, people see other families as important. They’re open to learning. And the children don’t think of themselves as poor.”
As in the U.S., disparity in resources separates rich and poor in Nigeria, where the residue of colonialism keeps that country’s oil money from a large majority of the population. Despite widespread poverty, though, Iruka has seen “a lot of good learning” in Africa. As a result, she believes that side of the Atlantic has lessons to offer this one. “Africans capitalize on resources like grandparents and families and community skills,” she said. “Considering that sort of ‘educational wealth’ can help us with innovation here, starting with our approaches to what learning looks like.”
Iruka’s appointment as Associate Director for Research comes as the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute actively expands its international reach. Over the past two years, people in 185 countries have used institute resources and read about the institute’s projects, and as a globally-known institute for child development, the institute engages in many international collaborations. Earlier this month, Director Samuel L. Odom and scientist Kathleen Cranley Gallagher traveled to Hangzhou, China, to sign a memorandum of agreement to exchange scholars, provide opportunities for training teachers, and collaborate on research projects with Zhejiang Normal University. Over the past few weeks alone, institute researchers also have conducted webinars in Ireland, held workshops in India and made presentations in Scotland, Singapore and Australia. In addition, the institute has active projects in Saudi Arabia and Canada, as well as hosting visiting scholars from universities around the globe.
As institute scientists collaborate with numerous peoples worldwide, Iruka believes these cultures have much to teach and much to reveal. One of her main research emphases is parenting, and while she believes there are some common cross-cultural elements to effective and successful parenting, more research is essential. “We know good parenting is nurturing and engaged and aware of kids’ needs,” she said. “But what about Asian ‘Tiger Moms’ or African American ‘Tough Love’? We don’t really know everything about those cultural styles of parenting.”
According to Iruka, understanding parenting remains essential to understanding outcomes for children and families in poverty. “Parents are forever,” she said. “They’re the child’s first teachers, and without the parents, you can only do so much.”
For the longtime institute scientist, families embody the kind of educational wealth on which African communities capitalize, and Iruka believes that in the U.S., schools are the means to connect with parents. “We want families to be a key part of education,” she said. “The schools’ relationships with families are vital. Families need to know they are valuable and will have an impact on the classroom, on the curriculum. When they understand this, they’ll make time to become involved.”
Iruka also believes the institute’s research must continue to impact policies and practices. “We need science to move forward and address important issues,” she said. “How do we do better for dual-language learners? How do we do better for immigrants? How do we do better for all subgroups in poverty? How should we address downward economic mobility?”
And who better to help answer such questions than a scientist whose experiences straddle the Atlantic?