Dr. Melissa Abad conducts racial and gendered research through the lens of organizational behavior at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the oldest feminist research center in the country. As her dissertation project, Dr. Abad examined the relationships within non-profit organizations (NPO’s) that are geared towards serving immigrant populations, as well as the local communities’ attitudes towards immigrants. Dr. Abad found that it was the people at small, local agencies that had the most knowledge about what immigrants needed. She found that white women had more professional leverage in the field than Hispanic women.

At the Clayman Institute, Melissa combines her background in organizational behavior of NPO’s with the center’s focus on the career trajectories of women. Her research with immigrant-serving NPO’s in Lake County, a suburban community in Chicago, found that the career trajectories of women is sometimes linked to political processes, and that certain forms of knowledge were considered more valuable. For instance, the experiences of staff members who worked on the “frontlines” and who were engaged in personal interactions with the clients tend to be overlooked in lieu of executive directors with formal credentials. Abad argues that the on-the-ground experiences and knowledge of these front-line staff members should be considered just as valuable, if not moreso, than the organizational expertise of executive directors. The traditional model of organizational leadership tends to under-utilize the skills and knowledge of the workers engaged in “on-the-ground” work, which often yields contextualized insights that would advance the organization’s mission, as well as limiting the career trajectories of these workers.

Dr. Abad categorized the professional backgrounds of the non-profit employees into three distinct categories: adult immigrant women who are returning to the communities that were their first settlement sites, non-immigrants who grew up in these communities and are returning to serve with a college education and credentials, and white women who may not have had experience living within the local community but held professional experience in the non-profit sector.

Dr. Abad’s research findings showed that staff members who were Hispanic women felt limited in the extent to which they could advocate on behalf of their Hispanic clients, whereas white female employees had more leverage in advancing the “non-profit corporate ladder”. Hispanic female staff members felt more pressure to assume additional responsibilities for their clients due to an expectation of solidarity based on shared experiences and cultural backgrounds. The tensions between negotiating on behalf of the clients and meeting their own professional goals presented an additional barrier in the career trajectories of Hispanic female staff.

It was really interesting to see how [the staff’s] personal biographies influenced their relationships in immigrant services and the extent to which that was racialized.

Dr. Abad’s findings show the need for an reorganization of the traditional professional hierarchies in NPO’s that would grant on-the-ground staff workers more upward mobility, and enable these workers to bring more of their expertise and perspectives to the conversation. 

As a native of Chicago, Dr. Abad’s research interest in immigrant populations stem from her awareness of the contributions that immigrants have made in Chicago. While working as a paralegal in a Chicago suburban community, she became interested in analyzing the career trajectories of these immigrants, which differed from the typical trajectories of immigrants in urban communities. Upon completing her graduate studies, Dr. Abad later returned to this community, which became the site of her research on immigrant-serving NPO’s. Dr. Abad drew upon her personal experiences within the community coupled with a grounded theory methodology to design a research project that would strengthen the collaborations between the NPO’s and the immigrant populations.

I was able to be intentional about how I brought my work into the community, and to help open up the conversation around how to support these small, non-profit agencies and the staff workers within them. 

Are you interested in Dr. Abad's work? Visit her profile here, and check out this piece of literature on immigration that she shared with us.