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Spencer Foundation Announces Inaugural Vision Grant Awards

Posted on 04.23.2024
Na'ilah Suad Nasir

One year ago, we launched an ambitious new grant program to support research to transform education systems in these critical and contentious times. Our Vision Grants Program aims to support the field to step out of silos and partner with scholars from other disciplines and methods; to engage meaningfully with policymakers, educators, families and communities; to foreground equity as both a goal and a critical component of the research process; and to create plans for how to drive equitable change in our education systems.  

Hundreds of teams responded—brilliantly and creatively—with applications to our Vision Grants Program, $75,000 research planning grants to bring together a team to develop ambitious, large-scale research projects focused on transforming educational systems toward greater equity.  Scholars forged new partnerships; grappled with disciplinary and methodological divides; identified partners outside of the academy to complement and strengthen the teams’ scholarly expertise; and imagined myriad ways that research could impact systems and contribute to more equitable, enriching, and humane learning spaces.  

Our awarded Vision Grant teams exhibit an exciting range of expertise, methodological approaches, and topical foci. Each includes partnerships that push methodological and disciplinary boundaries and extend beyond the academy—from national non-profits to community-based organizations; from early childhood programs to Tribal Colleges and Universities; from local politicians to state-level agencies.  

Each team put forth compelling visions for the change they hope to see in the world: Robust mental health supports in schools, humane housing policies to improve educational equity for families and children; community-led, equitable AI (Artificial Intelligence) practices in schools; and climate education rooted in justice and informed by Black and Indigenous ecological knowledge, to name a few. Each of the awarded teams can apply for a $3.5 million Transformative Research Grant.  

We learned a tremendous amount from this first round of Vision Grant funding.  We learned that scholars want their work to matter and are eager to push against the institutional constraints and traditional incentive structures of the academy. From the multitude of topics scholars proposed, we gained a new appreciation for the sheer breadth of possibilities for systems change in the service of equity.   We learned that scholars want to do this work collectively, learning from one another about how to marshal evidence to effect systems change. Finally, we learned that transformative work takes time, resources, and support—and the process to develop it isn’t linear or straightforward. 

This work is, in a word, challenging—Many applicants struggled especially to step out of their disciplinary silos. Our social networks tend to reproduce themselves, and partnering in new ways requires a leap of faith, as well as putting in place systems and structures to facilitate functional, equitable partnerships.  

Similarly, many teams found it challenging to articulate how future research might lead to systems change. To be sure, it’s a tricky balance between over- and under-specifying the change you hope to see in the world, especially when meaningful change feels so far from where our systems are now. Still, successful teams somehow were able to dream in ways that allow for visionary ambitions, while also leaving space to follow where the research eventually takes them. 

When you peruse the full list of awards from our first round of Vision Grants, you will get a full picture of the breadth and depth of the projects this program supported this year. We hope you will be inspired to apply to our next round of Vision Grant funding; but even more, we hope these projects will inspire you to think about the kinds of collective new visions research can spark and the power we all have together to create change, build new systems that value the full humanity of all students and families, and to make a new world.  


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